Charred logs can be seen on an Amazon jungle that was recently burned by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho, Brazil, on August 23, 2019.
Ueslei Marcelino | Reuters
The current race to reduce CO2 emissions is driving companies to support tree planting and other nature-based solutions. That’s because other forms of carbon capture technology are currently too expensive to be attractive.
That has to change, argues Microsoft in an article published in the journal Nature On Wednesday.
“It is cheaper and easier to plant trees and enrich soils than it is to use emerging technologies that capture and geologically store carbon,” the Nature article reads.
In January 2020, Microsoft announced that it would be carbon negative by 2030. That means, as a company, it will remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits.
And by 2050, Microsoft wants to have eliminated all emissions released since it was founded in 1975.
These are bold, bold goals.
A year after that commitment, Microsoft announced that it had purchased 1.3 million tons of carbon removal from 26 projects around the world. Some of these projects include soil regeneration initiatives on US farms; Expansion of forests in Peru, Nicaragua, and the United States; and pay Zurich-based company Climeworks to use its technology and run a machine in Iceland that “sucks” carbon dioxide from the air and dumps it into the ground, where it mineralizes and turns to stone.
The Nature article summarizes what Microsoft has learned and calls on the market and policy makers to act. It was co-written by Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer, other members of Microsoft’s sustainability team, and experts from Columbia University and the Environmental Defense Fund. It also draws lessons from data released by the payment processing company Stripe.
Trees are great, but not enough
When Microsoft looked for proposals to remove carbon from the atmosphere, most were for nature-based storage projects that would sequester carbon for less than 100 years.
The parking spaces Stripe received for biosphere-based carbon storage projects – meaning carbon is stored in plants and soils – cost $ 16 per tonne of carbon dioxide.
Spaces for geosphere-based carbon storage projects – using technology to remove carbon dioxide and then store it in rocks and minerals – cost between $ 20 and $ 10,000 per ton, averaging $ 141, the article said.
These prices were “similar” to those Microsoft received, according to the article by Nature.
The problem with the cheaper methods is that they aren’t that reliable. For example, trees can be felled, burned or destroyed by pests. Natural solutions are also constrained by competing land uses for vital purposes such as agriculture and housing.
To be clear, Microsoft supports planting trees to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Microsoft has joined the US chapter of 1t.org, in an attempt to plant 1 trillion trees backed by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, when it launched in August 2020, a Microsoft spokesman told CNBC.
But even a spokesman for this effort admits that planting trees will not be enough.
“Key to the main thrust of the [Nature] is that it describes nature-based solutions as part of the toolbox of strategies to reduce carbon emissions – we fully agree with this aspect, ”Michael Becker, communications director of 1t.org, told CNBC.
“Lately there has been a lot of negative media about building initiatives, especially the straw man argument that ‘planting trees can solve the crisis’ – something we strongly disagree with,” said Becker. “Trees are one of our best nature-based solutions, but they cannot solve the climate crisis on their own.”
Becker also emphasized that 1t.org focuses on growing trees, not just planting.
“Tree-planting initiatives are an important part of reforestation commitments and are essential in areas that are too degraded to recover on their own,” Becker told CNBC. “We use ‘grow’ to emphasize that simply planting a seedling in the ground is not enough – that tree must be supported to maturity in order to achieve its full potential. It also has to be the right species, planted in the right conditions, based on solid science. “
Technology, tracking and standards need to be improved
In the Nature article, Microsoft and the other authors argue that the market for carbon removal is small and needs to get bigger and better.
Microsoft received 189 proposals to remove 154 megatons of carbon dioxide, but only 55 of those megatons were now available, and only two megatons was what Microsoft considers high quality carbon dioxide removal.
This market will grow, but more investment will be required to develop carbon capture technologies and more incentives will be required for companies to take advantage of the best carbon capture strategies.
“Nature-based mining and storage as well as technology-based mining and geosphere-based storage are not equivalent goods and should not be assessed as such,” the article says. “Today’s per-ton pricing encourages companies to buy the lowest quality carbon offsets.”
To improve these incentives, we need much more robust and standardized carbon accounting standards, says the Nature article.
These days there aren’t even reliable tools to track carbon on a large scale. This makes it difficult for companies to more fully monitor the risks associated with various strategies.
There are groups out there helping to develop better tracking, including the international non-profit Science-based Targets Initiative, the Oxford Offsetting Principles by University of Oxford researchers, and the Transform to Net Zero business initiative, all of which are mentioned in the article. The Nature article also recognizes the work of the non-profit organization Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which provides guidelines for assessing a company’s emissions internally and externally purchased energy.
But estimating emissions for an entire supply chain is still very difficult – and critical.
“Three-quarters of Microsoft’s emissions come from these, including building materials, business travel, product life cycles, and the electricity consumed by customers using Microsoft products,” the article said.