Cepi 11.04.24

The EU Parliament has approved the European Union’s carbon removal certification framework, but Cepi is calling for a definition of renewable carbon, which it says is the missing link to a circular, climate-friendly economic model.

Still in development, the regulation will provide guiding principles for a set of methodologies to certify processes to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Much still needs to be defined through a dedicated expert group.

According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), all realistic pathways to limit global warming to 1.5°C will involve the use of carbon removals. Cepi says that although technological carbon removals are possible and will be needed in the long term, removing carbon from the atmosphere is a natural function of forests, where they can be enhanced via sustainable forest management.

The organization states that sustainable forestry is a ‘formidable tool’ for climate action and the protection of biodiversity. Still, it is broadly agreed that it is reducing CO2 emissions in the first place, that should be the focus of climate policy. This means that the forest carbon sink, which provides the bulk of the cheapest carbon removals currently certified outside of the new regulatory framework should not be used to compensate for other sectors’ insufficient emissions reductions. 

Integrated into the sustainability-minded management of biomass resources, the manufacturing of forest products as well as bioenergy with carbon capture, use, and storage or the production of biochar, are other ways of capitalising on carbon removals from forests by trapping this ‘biogenic carbon’ underground or in products. This is different, however, from capturing fossil-based CO2 from industrial activities, which is also important but does not remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, only avoiding potential emissions. 

Appropriate criteria now need to be applied through the delegated acts describing certification methodologies for different removal methods, Cepi says, to ensure that the specific benefits of biogenic carbon are recognized and avoid any risk of ‘greenwashing’. A solution is to use a concept already delineated in international standards, that of ‘renewable carbon’, where renewability is defined as the ability of a resource to replenish naturally at source at a rate at least the same as consumption. 

The principle could be the basis, for example, for the certification of long-lasting wood and bio-based products and materials. While this type of removal will trap carbon for a shorter time than others, the scale of their contribution to climate mitigation is already hard to ignore. A study commissioned by Cepi shows that forests and forest-based products had a net impact of -806 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020, corresponding to 20% of all fossil emissions in the European Union. About half of the effect can be attributed to forest products and, in an economy which needs to become less dependent on fossils, it could increase in the future. 

Jori Ringman, director general of Cepi, said: “Similarly to renewable energy displacing fossil energy, renewable materials displace at least some of the demand for fossil materials, an effect that could be increased within certain limits so that European forests continue expanding - but this will not happen without appropriate regulation.” 

In February this year, a preliminary report from Cepi revealed that European paper and board production declined in 2023, attributing it to a poor economic environment, destocking and energy costs remaining high. Consumption was said to have fallen by 15.3% as mid-term global economic trends lowered demand for paper and board and increased destocking, and production decreased by 12.8%.

In the same month, the Renewable Carbon Initiative said that new data sets suggested products derived from crude oil and natural gas have much higher carbon footprints than previously thought, with those for commodity plastics rising by around 30% and fossil naphtha’s footprint almost doubling. The initiative aims to drive the transition away from fossil carbon and into renewable carbon sourced from biomass, direct CO2 utilization, or recycling for all organic chemicals and materials.

If you liked this story, you might also enjoy:

Report: The ultimate guide to global plastic sustainability regulation

The Brief: Oxo-(bio)degradables: the who, what, and why of breaking down fossil-based plastics

Sustainable Packaging Summit: How Kraft-Heinz uses collaboration to drive innovation

The Brief: Using ocean-bound plastic in packaging – how, why and should we?