Sunlight shining through a forest

The European Commission recently announced it would aim to cut emissions by the bloc by as much as 55% against 1990 levels until the year 2030. The plans have come under fire because they include not only emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production, but also CO₂ removal by “carbon sinks” like forests or the soil.

Even though the planned legislation does not specify what is meant by “removal”, the possible inclusion of natural carbon sinks has been termed “cheating” by Greenpeace and “games” by the WWF. Are these accusations justified?

To understand this, we need to remember that to meet the Paris Agreement target to keep global warming “well below 2°C”, the world has less than 12 years of current CO₂ emissions until it exhausts its remaining budget. It is now becoming clear that the only way to stay within this budget is to capture and store massive amounts of CO₂.

What is usually overlooked though is that since the beginning of industrialization, most of the CO₂ emitted (57%) has been taken up by natural processes. In fact, while emissions from fossil fuels, cement production and deforestation have been growing exponentially (at 1.65% per year since 1850), my own research has found that natural sinks on land and in the ocean have been almost exactly keeping up with the growth.