The science is clear: Ambitious climate action is needed now. In addition to emissions reduction, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the global community must remove 100 to 1,000 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—a hard limit that prevents severe, difficult-to-reverse impacts of climate change, including food and water insecurity, mass migration due to extreme weather and temperature, economic disruption, and ecological destruction. Achieving this goal will require the rapid deployment of all carbon dioxide removal solutions—but for these solutions to deliver real impact, they must be built according to science-based criteria that make them both effective and equitable.
Unfortunately, the voluntary carbon market has a quality and quantity problem that has weakened credibility and limited much-needed growth of carbon removal. While over 1 billion carbon credits have been registered to date, only 3% of those credits are from pure carbon removal projects. And only a fraction of that 3% meet our criteria for high quality. One of the biggest contributors to low-quality projects is a lack of common framework for determining best-in-class removal. Without it, developers and buyers continue to proliferate ineffective projects, or abandon carbon removal altogether.
Microsoft and Carbon Direct have been committed to the development of this critical market since the release of our inaugural Criteria for High-Quality Carbon Dioxide Removal in 2021. We are working together to address the quality challenges in the voluntary carbon market by developing a set of science-based benchmarks that can be used by stakeholders across the industry to drive just, effective climate action at scale.
Advancing carbon removal with the latest science
The science of carbon removal is a multifaceted and constantly evolving field, with effective action hinging on the latest available science and technology. To keep pace, benchmarks like the Criteria for High-Quality Carbon Removal must also continually evolve to use current research to improve how project baselines are established, refine tracking and monitoring methods for existing and emerging carbon removal methods, and incorporate the most recent environmental justice best practices.
The 2023 edition advances benchmarks in all of these areas to match rapid changes in the voluntary carbon market to ensure that the science and math align. For example, criteria updates for well-established methods such as forestry and agroforestry reflect ongoing advancements in setting robust baselines, and updated measuring and reporting guidelines reflect ongoing research for promising (but still emerging) carbon removal methods such as enhanced rock weathering and soil-based carbon sequestration.
Accelerating adoption by centering environmental justice
The most severe impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on low-income and marginalized communities—the communities least able to prepare for or recover from climate shocks and stresses. When community needs and priorities inform project design and implementation, carbon removal projects can have a positive impact on disinvested communities and vulnerable populations. Without addressing community concerns, meaningfully engaging local stakeholders, or properly assessing the impacts and benefits of projects, developers risk slowing or limiting the execution of removal projects.
This means that to accelerate carbon removal successfully, project developers must also follow environmental justice best practices. The 2023 edition expands on the principles of environmental justice in carbon project development to help suppliers foster meaningful community engagement, and better deliver the climate and social benefits needed for a just transition to a low-carbon future.
The science of carbon removal requires an immense breadth of scientific disciplines, dedicating decades of research to developing proven solutions that reduce the impact of climate change. While new discoveries and trends shape the way we measure and track well-established pathways, emerging research has us exploring new removal methods such as macroalgae cultivation, peatland and freshwater wetland restoration, and carbon dioxide utilization with negative full life cycle emissions.
As we plan for future guidance, we stress that staying open to new information, change, and refinement is imperative for anyone who is a part of the climate solution: project developers and supporting communities, purchasers of carbon credits, and policymakers. As clear, actionable carbon removal standards that are based on current understanding are the lynchpin of success, we invite the wider carbon dioxide removal community to work together to continue to help refine and streamline these recommendations to build a strong foundation for positive climate outcomes.