Posted: March 22, 2024

Carbon Removal vs. Carbon Avoidance:

A Misguided Debate?

It’s human nature to organize, classify, and categorize — and carbon projects are not immune. One method of classification we see often, for better or worse, is to differentiate carbon removal projects and carbon avoidance projects.

In short, carbon removal projects aim to reduce the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, while the goal of carbon avoidance projects is to stop new carbon from entering the atmosphere.

What do they have in common? Both types of projects can ultimately generate carbon credits, and — most importantly — both are essential in mitigating climate change.

Carbon removal: cleaning up the mess

Projects that remove and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere include nature-based activities like afforestation (planting a forest where there was none before) and reforestation (re-planting a forest that disappeared), as well as technology-based activities like direct air capture.

Simply put, carbon removal projects are about cleaning up the mess we’ve already made — they’re essential to mitigating the effects of historical emissions, and help lower the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Carbon avoidance: making no mess

Carbon avoidance projects are all about not making a mess in the first place: they eliminate emissions that would otherwise have occurred. A forest conservation project, for instance, might result in millions of trees not being cut down — and therefore not releasing all the carbon they’ve sequestered back into the atmosphere.

Carbon avoidance also includes renewable energy projects, more efficient household devices, or better waste management — all projects capable of producing carbon avoidance credits. 

Naturally, carbon avoidance and removal work in tandem: the less of a mess we make to begin with, the less we’ll need to clean up later. 

That said, carbon avoidance projects tend to spark more debate than removal projects. There are two principal reasons to help explain why that is: 

  1. Avoidance projects generate carbon credits based on something that never happened —  a hypothetical scenario known as a ‘counterfactual,’ meant to illustrate what GHG emissions would have been released into the atmosphere if not for the project’s existence. The difference between these hypothetical ‘baseline’ emissions, and actual emissions (or lack thereof), dictate the number of carbon credits created. Trouble is,  these counterfactual baselines are impossible to ‘prove’ in the traditional sense — which makes it easier to criticize the methodology used to calculate them in the first place.
  2. In some cases, removals projects tell a more intuitive additionality story, like in the case of afforestation – now there are trees where there were no trees before that never would have been there without funding for the carbon project. But that is an oversimplification, as there can be many removals projects that are not additional, such as monoculture plantations for commercial timber harvests that still technically qualify as "nature based removals" despite being non-additional. Without nuance and a focus on the details that matter for carbon credit quality, these oversimplified categorizations can (and do) lead to unintended consequences like we see in the market today, where low quality, non-credible removals projects are prioritized over high quality, highly credible avoidance projects.

Despite these criticisms, the preservation of our planet’s natural and existing carbon sinks is critical in the fight against climate change. 

Assuaging concerns around avoidance boils back down to those baselines — ensuring they’re comprehensive, credible, and backed by the best science.  

At Catona, for instance, we’re constantly evaluating and updating our methodologies for counterfactual calculations, and we do our due diligence to help make sure projects we support are additional and don’t result in leakage elsewhere (such as when a nearby forest is cut down instead of the protected forest).

Double duty: projects that remove and avoid

Some carbon projects offer the best of both worlds: they help both remove and avoid carbon emissions.

Regenerative agriculture projects, for example, remove and sequester carbon by enhancing soil carbon storage through methods like no-till farming. At the same time, they reduce GHG emissions through the reduced use of synthetic fertilizers.

Grassland management projects also perform this double duty: they remove carbon by increasing plant productivity and root biomass through grazing management methods (like rotational grazing, multi-paddock grazing); and they can avoid carbon emissions by preventing the conversion of grasslands to croplands.

Why we need both avoidance and removal

It’s the truth that bears repeating, often: there is no single, silver-bullet solution to climate change. We need an all of the above, holistic approach to reaching net zero.

According to the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Offsetting, carbon removal projects — which often take several years to become significant carbon sinks — will be required in the long term, but carbon avoidance is urgent today. 

Reforestation projects, for example, can take a long time to reach maturity, so we also need to mind the current carbon sinks that are already taking carbon out of the atmosphere today. As we wait for new removal projects to become further carbon sinks, preserving existing sinks is critical.

The good news? Per the IPCC, we already have every tool we need to address climate change. All we need to do, collectively, is use them.

Is the removal vs. avoidance debate missing the point?  

While classifying project types is helpful, a traditional dichotomy such as ‘avoidance vs. removal’ doesn’t tell you much about where these projects fit into the larger push to net zero. For Rob Lee, our Chief Carbon Officer, there are more useful ways to look at project classification:

"More than ‘avoidance vs. removal’ or ‘nature vs. non-nature,’ it's about ‘mature versus emerging,’ and most importantly ‘credible versus non-credible.’ Those are the categories that matter to us."

Why is evaluating projects along these lines more helpful? Because credibility is at the heart of everything in the VCM. If a carbon project isn’t of high enough quality to credibly demonstrate real and permanent climate impact, any other way of classifying it is irrelevant.

The bottom line

Supporting both carbon removal and avoidance projects is essential on the path to net zero. As long as all carbon projects are being held to the highest quality standards, both types of projects can make an enormous difference.

If you’re ready to discuss partnering with Catona Climate to achieve your net zero goals through high-quality carbon assets, including removal and avoidance projects, get in touch with our carbon experts.

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