This post is by Pauline Latham OBE, the Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire.
To reach a net zero carbon economy by 2050, the UK needs to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gas removals (GGR) are the ‘net’ in net zero. They are either nature-based, like tree planting and peat restoration, or engineered like Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS), or Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).
The issue of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is not everyone’s cup of tea, but decisions taken now will have real impacts on the future of UK businesses and our use of land.
High carbon industries need to offset
Since some sectors, such as aviation and agriculture, will struggle to cut their emissions to zero, they will need to buy carbon offsets down the line. The real danger is that tree planting, which is cheap and readily available but limited in scale, will be swamped by big business, buying up land, driving up prices and leaving small businesses behind.
It’s easy to foresee a future in which all the available land for nature-based carbon removals has been bought up, leaving small businesses, like farms in my constituency, to pick up the tab for more expensive engineered offsetting methods, like DACCS or BECCS, so they can hit net zero.
It’s a key reason why I believe we need an Office for Carbon Removal to regulate the market for carbon offsetting, and why I am backing it as part of the Ten point plan for climate and nature, published by the Environment All-Party Parliamentary Group today.
An unregulated offset market will lead to unfairness
The government may want to deregulate in certain areas of the economy to speed up infrastructure, boost investment and increase supply. But on greenhouse gas removals, an unregulated market is likely to create unfairness in the net zero transition, as well as huge opportunities for greenwashing: many GGR schemes have a lack of transparency and scrutiny over the actual carbon removals they achieve. And, for developing technologies, there remains significant uncertainty over their impacts, scale and timeline.
In particular, BECCS could actually cause deforestation because of its large land footprint needed, which would result in net emissions, not removals. Using biomass from existing forests will not achieve net zero because removal occurs not when the biomass is burnt, but when the forest has regrown, which may take decades or even centuries, and which is too late to meet the 2050 net zero goal.
The government needs to be wise to greenwash, and ensure it’s on the side of the taxpayer, as well as small businesses like farmers in my constituency.
A new Office for Carbon Removal would ensure carbon credits are created to high standards and are trustworthy, oversee the net zero claims being made by businesses and design markets so the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas removals are shared fairly.