Understanding Carbon Removal vs. Carbon Avoidance Projects

According to the World Resource Institute, “To keep temperature rise within 1.5°C as outlined in the Paris Agreement and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, the world will need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by around midcentury, removing and storing as much carbon dioxide from the air as we put into the atmosphere.” (Institute, 2023)

The path to these emission reductions can be organized into two categories of emission reduction initiatives: removal or avoidance projects, which benefit the climate significantly. While there has been debate over whether removing or avoiding carbon emissions is better, the consensus is that both methods are critical to a comprehensive net zero emissions strategy. Hence, let’s explore the difference between these approaches, starting with carbon removal projects. 

Carbon Removal Projects

A carbon removal project “removes” carbon emissions from the atmosphere. For example, in nature, a forest pulls carbon out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis. Planting more trees via reforestation efforts would constitute a carbon removal project. For example, coastal mangrove restoration projects are an effective nature-based removal project type because of their high CO2 absorption capacity. (Seed, 2023)

Another example of a carbon removal project is using advanced technologies to pull carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) projects store carbon permanently deep in underground geological formations. (Seed, 2023) In the global carbon markets, CCUS credits are the most expensive based on the high costs of carbon capture and storage operations and facilities. 

Carbon Avoidance Projects

Alternatively, and equally as important, are carbon avoidance projects where carbon emissions are prevented or “avoided” from entering the atmosphere. Environment Next has helped to fund the development of avoided deforestation projects in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, protecting over 700,000 acres of pristine rainforest containing some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. These projects are categorized as REDD+ projects, (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) where carbon emissions are “avoided” from entering the atmosphere. This avoidance is based on protecting these forests from future clearing for cattle ranches along with providing local forest communities with sustainable alternatives to slash and burn agriculture. Each of these large-scale rainforests avoided deforestation projects can prevent tens of millions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Other types of carbon avoidance projects include the development of clean cookstove projects in the developing world, where replacement of basic cookstove designs with cleaner and more efficient alternatives provide less wood-intensive practices for daily cooking.  This leads to less deforestation and reduced emissions. (Seed, 2023)

Renewable energy projects, such as wind or solar farms, can also serve as carbon avoidance projects. These projects can contribute to decarbonizing the local power grid through the renewable power infrastructure and thus avoiding GHG emissions. Fuel switch projects, such as converting from coal to biomass energy can also reduce emissions and fit into this “avoided emissions” project category.

As demonstrated, both carbon removal and avoidance projects play a crucial role in emission reductions and are both essential to achieving a net-zero future.