The key to scaling up greenhouse gas removals? Robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV)

Posted on 31 Mar 2023 in

As reports of low-quality carbon credits abound, Leo Mercer argues that monitoring, reporting and verification frameworks for greenhouse gas removals must be carefully developed and judiciously implemented.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) earlier this month released its Sixth Assessment synthesis report, which makes another urgent call for nations to implement rapid and deep cross-sectoral emissions cuts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Alongside emission cuts, the IPCC has affirmed the need for greenhouse gas removal (GGR) – also commonly referred to as carbon dioxide removal – to support near-term decarbonisation goals and to ‘neutralise’ residual emissions from aviation, agriculture, long-distance transportation, heavy industry and baseload electricity after 2050.

The extent to which GGR will play a part in global climate change mitigation efforts was made clear in a 2022 IPCC report which called for 100 to 1000 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere by 2100, a significant increase on the 2022 levels of 2GtCO2 per year. This includes biological methods of GGR such as afforestation or bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), chemical methods such as direct air capture (DAC), and geochemical methods such as enhanced rock weathering.

The scientific consensus is clear that carbon removals must not come at the expense of deep, economy-wide decarbonisation. Unfortunately, the multi-decadal delays in implementing emission cuts leave no alternative but to pursue emissions reductions and removals in parallel.

In the UK, for example, the Government’s 2021 Net Zero Strategy included a target of removing at least five MtCO2 through GGR techniques per year by 2030. Meanwhile, the Climate Change Committee estimates that removals will need to be operating at between 75 and 145 MtCO2 per year by 2050 to achieve the UK’s net zero target.

Momentum is gathering for GGR

It is estimated that between 2020 and 2022, governments worldwide contributed S$4bn towards GGR research, development and demonstration, and private capital contributed a further $200m over this period.

But it is important that this political and financial support for GGR does not blind policymakers to the risks inherent to individual GGR techniques – for instance, the high reversibility risks associated with forest plantations, or promising but under-researched approaches such as ocean alkalinity enhancement. There is evidence that greenhouse gas removal techniques such as DAC and BECCS can permanently remove emissions for periods of 10,000 years or longer, but these techniques remain controversial.

While interest in carbon removal increases, challenges remain – and these go beyond technical and financial considerations. Here I explore how enhancing integrity can support the scaling of GGR to the levels required for net zero targets and wider climate change mitigation.

The role of monitoring, reporting and verification

Monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) frameworks are increasingly seen as a GGR ‘market shaper’; in other words, a targeted intervention that addresses a market failure, thus removing a scaling obstacle. They are also important for gaining widespread public acceptance of, and trust in, GGR as a valid climate mitigation option. MRV involves a multi-step process to measure the emissions removed – whether from biochar, mangrove restoration, or DAC – and certify that these removals are indeed real, additional, verifiable and permanent. These findings are then reported to an accredited third party who certifies that the removal methodology has been completed according to the relevant MRV protocol.

However, poor MRV can also result in the certification of non-additional, non-permanent, high-leakage carbon credits, for instance credits that displace polluting activities, subsidise an activity that was going to happen irrespective of carbon finance, or do not result in real or permanent emission reductions. Recent reporting by The Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial indicated that MRV for certain REDD+ projects has substantive flaws and resulted in systematic over-crediting of rainforest conservation projects. Experience from the Kyoto Protocol’s Joint Implementation Initiative, and the estimated 75% of ‘hot air’ carbon credits arising from this mechanism, provides another cautionary tale for what can occur if MRV is not carefully developed and judiciously implemented.

It is in the interest of the whole GGR industry to ensure that where claims of ‘permanent’ CO2 removal are made, they are indeed permanent – and that MRV frameworks can provide assurance of this permanence over a minimum period of 100 to 1000 years. The risk of inaccurate or poorly designed MRV frameworks undermines confidence in the market, halts capital flows, and stymies innovation and policy development which will ultimately slow global mitigation efforts.

Although the importance of MRV has been recognised, the ecosystem is crowdedcomplex and evolving rapidly. This not only raises questions about oversight and quality, but navigating this landscape also becomes more challenging for regulators, policymakers and developers.

To support MRV development, there is a need for coordination between GGR project developers, researchers and policymakers to identify gaps in coverage and risks in existing MRV methods, and to promote better knowledge circulation. Beyond this, policymakers need to continue to clearly signal their priorities, both through the provision of R&D funding and publishing of policy statements, so that GGR and MRV innovators can better respond to the challenge of scaling.

Towards trustworthy greenhouse gas removals

Efforts to improve the integrity of carbon removals have begun at the national and supranational level with the European Union convening an expert group to develop a Carbon Removal Certification Framework to certify high quality GGR.

The GGR industry itself is showing maturity as various start-ups and intermediaries have recently coalesced to form the Carbon Removal Alliance, which seeks to “promote technology inclusive policies that will foster and support GGR growth”.

These developments are timely, as without well-developed MRV, project developers will not be able to deliver the billions of tonnes of CO2 removals needed by 2050. As the IPCC has made clear, we cannot focus climate mitigation efforts entirely on removals, but without GGR – and certainly without strong MRV – the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 will be dangerously out of reach.

This commentary was first published in Business Green on 31 March 2023.