Carbon markets: Which role does biomass play?

Although compliance and voluntary carbon markets vary in scope, mechanisms and participants, biomass occupies a unique place. In compliance carbon markets such as the EU ETS, participants are obliged to monitor and report their emissions and ultimately pay for them. Using biomass in industrial facilities can allow for reduced financial burdens. Regulators set rules around biomass use and sustainability criteria to comply with. A large part of voluntary carbon market credits is generated by nature-based solutions, including forestry and other biomass-related projects. These projects are however under intense scrutiny due to issues regarding transparency and associated climate claims. Novel carbon removal solutions with biomass as feedstock show promising development and renewed regulatory oversight could restore trust.

Which CO2 and which carbon markets?

To assess the relevance of carbon markets for biomass and vice versa, requires an understanding of different types of emissions and how carbon markets account for them. The sources of CO2 emissions and their final sink can be categorized into four main pathways (Figure 1).

  • Unabated carbon emissions from fossil sources add emissions to the atmosphere (grey and black)
  • Abated emissions from fossil sources through carbon capture and storage (CCS) with long-term storage might not add additional GHG emissions to the atmosphere (purple)
  • Negative emissions through nature-based or technological carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it durably (green)
  • Utilisation of CO2 through carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) technologies, where the ultimate source of the CO2 (atmospheric or fossil) and the final product into which the CO2-molecules has been transformed determine the climate impact (blue)

Detailed analysis of the technological pathways, supply-chain emissions, and substitution effects is required to establish emission reduction potentials of these solutions.

Figure 1: Different pathways of CO2: fossil emission, CCS, CCU and carbon dioxide removal. Source: carboneer

Compliance and voluntary carbon markets both incentivise emission reduction or carbon removal, however each from a different angle. Compliance carbon markets aim to fulfill national or regional climate targets. By putting a price tag on emissions and they incentivise compliant actors to reduce their emissions in a cost-efficient way. The mechanics of voluntary carbon markets (VCM) aim at financially supporting projects that either reduce emissions or provide negative emissions through CDR. Private actors can purchase carbon credits from project developers to offset or neutralise their corporate emissions.

The EU ETS: zero rating for biomass

The EU ETS is one of the largest and most mature compliance carbon markets. Since its inception in 2005, the EU ETS has been a cornerstone of EU climate policy, covering 35-40% of the region’s emissions. Large industrial facilities, such as steel mills, chemical plants, cement kilns, and power plants as well as aviation and maritime transport operators need to monitor and report their annual emissions. For each ton of CO2-eq emitted, the compliant entity must surrender an emission allowance. The price of this allowance is determined at the market. Currently, many industrial facilities still receive free allowances. To prevent carbon-leakage while facing out this free allocation, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) requires importers of certain goods from non-EU countries to report the embedded carbon emissions in imports and from 2026 onwards also to pay the same carbon price as EU-based industry. Most emissions from buildings and road transport in the EU are not yet subject to a carbon price. This changes with the new EU ETS 2 covering another 35-40% of the EU’s GHG emissions. Since 2024, suppliers of liquid, gaseous or solid fuels are required to monitor and report emissions released by their fuels at the end-user. Pricing in the EU ETS 2 starts in 2027.

Carbon in biomass ultimately comes from the atmosphere. When combusted, only CO2 stored in the biomass is released back to the atmosphere. However, for a comprehensive life cycle assessment, factors such as land-use emissions due to biomass harvesting or emissions along the value chain need to be considered. According to current regulations, emissions from biomass and biofuels in the EU ETS 1, CBAM and EU ETS 2 can generally be counted as zero, thus reducing the number of allowances to be purchased by compliant entities and reducing their costs (Figure 2). Depending on the type of biomass and its utilisation, compliance with the Renewable Energy Directive for sustainability or GHG saving criteria needs to be achieved.

Figure 2: Criteria for biomass utilisation in the EU ETS 1. Source: carboneer

VCM: Carbon removal with biomass

Forests, mangroves, biochar kilns and waste-to-energy plants with CCS all have in common that they are examples of biomass-based project on the VCM. Private entities purchase carbon credits from project developers to offset or neutralise their (hard-to-abate) emissions. These projects either reduce emissions or remove CO2 from the atmosphere and must follow certain standards and methodologies for project set-up and emission calculation. Third-party verification of the projects’ climate effects is needed to create trust and transparency in voluntary carbon markets where regulatory oversight is only rudimentary.

While a wide range of VCM methodologies and projects exist, biomass-based projects are ubiquitous and particularly divers. Many biomass VCM projects potentially create negative emissions (to stay within the targets of the Paris Agreement, estimates for the required global carbon removal capacity range from 5-10 Gt/year or 5-20% of today’s total emissions). While trees might store atmospheric carbon for decades, technological solutions, such as pyrolysis with biochar or bioenergy with CCS remove carbon for hundreds or thousands of years. Project developers and buyers of credits on the VCM need to navigate complexities arising from cost considerations, project types and quality, and applicable methodologies and standards (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Carbon removal solutions and considerations for VCM projects. Source: carboneer

To reduce the lack of credibility that has plagued the VCM and associated climate claims of credit buyers, the EU currently develops its own methodologies under the Carbon Removal Certification Framework. As corporates are increasingly under pressure to develop credible climate strategies, carbon removal solutions utilising biomass have their role to play. Several announcements of large-scale credit purchases by corporates from biochar and bioenergy with CCS project developers underscores that point.

Biomass and carbon markets: the take-aways

CO2 is not CO2: The ultimate origin of the molecule matters. Compliance and voluntary carbon markets assess emissions from different perspectives and objectives. Due to the wide array of biomass applications, rules on eligibility as well as on emission accounting in compliance and voluntary carbon market differ. Biomass use in the ETS can reduce costs for industrials and allow for decarbonisation at the same time. Biomass enables carbon removal solutions, but stakeholders need to navigate the murky waters of voluntary carbon markets. Finally, interactions between the EU ETS and the VCM might be restored against the backdrop of industrial carbon management policies, the need to scale carbon removal and to provide market stability in the ETS. Complexities abound when biomass meets carbon markets.

This article appeared first in Bioenergy International No 1-2024

Implications of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism for the Iron & Steel sector

On October 1st 2023, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) became effective. As a measure to limit carbon leakage, the instrument complements the European Emission Trading System (EU ETS) by establishing a carbon price on imported goods that is equivalent to the carbon price on domestically produced goods. CBAM introduces a set of reporting and compliance obligations for importers of goods into the European Union.

Why is CBAM needed?

In a nutshell, CBAM is a policy instrument aiming to reduce the risk of carbon leakage under the EU ETS, the largest carbon pricing scheme worldwide that covers approximately 40% of the EU’s emissions. Carbon leakage refers to the phenomenon where climate policy restricts the competitiveness of domestic manufacturers compared to foreign producers that underly less stringent policies and can produce in a less expensive but environmentally more harmful way. The risk then arises that industry moves from the regulated jurisdiction to countries with lower environmental standards. Climate policy that does not manage carbon leakage could lead to the relocation of emission-intensive manufacturers abroad. Emissions would be exported instead of mitigated, and the domestic economy remains weakened.

Under the EU ETS, regulated entities, that are subject to the risk of carbon leakage, receive emission allowances free of charge conditional on their emission intensity in relation to a sectoral benchmark. This way, the competitive disadvantage of European climate policy is mitigated. The distribution of free allowances is phased out until 2034 and CBAM serves as a substitute to reduce the risk of carbon leakage for EU’s industry from there on.

What is the mechanism & scope of CBAM?

CBAM starts with a transitional period from October 2023 until end of 2025 with only reporting obligations for importers of certain goods. Importers or indirect customs representatives that transfer any CBAM goods into the EU, are obliged to calculate and report the embedded emissions that occur during the production process of CBAM goods and their precursors according to detailed rules.

The definitive period of CBAM starts in 2026. From then onwards, importers must purchase a proportional amount of CBAM certificates. The price of CBAM certificates is closely linked to the price of emission allowances in the EU ETS, momentarily around 85 Euro per ton of CO2e and expected to range between 100 and 150 Euro by 2030. Any carbon price due for the embedded emissions in countries of origin reduces the number of CBAM certificates to be surrendered (cf. figure 1). This mechanism assimilates the carbon price due for foreign and domestic goods that are sold on the EU market. Compared to the system of free allocations, CBAM not only increases the EU ETS revenues (free allocations of emission allowances are phased out), but also incentivizes ambitious carbon prices and industrial decarbonization abroad.

Figure 1 CBAM – basic principle. Source: carboneer.

CBAM currently covers six EU ETS sectors accounting for roughly 50% of emissions in the EU ETS: aluminium, cement, electricity, fertilisers, hydrogen, and iron & steel. For now, in the iron & steel sector, 478 CN goods are combined into 8 aggregated goods categories that share similar production routes, system boundaries and precursors. The CBAM covers mostly emissions of CO2 but includes perfluorocarbons for aluminium products and nitrous oxide for some fertilisers. For the iron & steel sector, only CO2 emissions are relevant.

The European Commission will designate additional products further along the value chain of CBAM goods for potential inclusion in the regulation no later than by the end of 2024. Starting in January 2028 and subsequently every two years, the Commission will evaluate the overall effectiveness of CBAM and deliberate on the potential inclusion of additional sectors within CBAM.

What are the CBAM obligations for importers?

To fulfil their CBAM obligations, importers or indirect customs representatives must register as authorised CBAM declarants prior to the import of CBAM goods into the EU. For each calendar year, regulated companies must calculate the emissions embedded in imports following the methodology set out below and report the results through the CBAM declaration by May 31st in the following year. Within these declarations, the importers may also claim a reduction of CBAM certificates to be surrendered when a carbon price has been effectively paid in the country of origin. The information contained in the CBAM declarations must be validated by third party verifiers that are accredited under the EU ETS regulation. Importers must get access to the CBAM registry, the platform where data on embedded emissions is communicated to authorities and where CBAM certificates are bought, surrendered, and excess certificates are sold back to the authorities.

The obligation to surrender CBAM certificates is phased in until 2034. For the transitional period, no CBAM certificates need to be purchased. Starting with the definitive period in 2026, importers need to surrender CBAM certificates. The number of CBAM certificates to be surrendered, increases proportionally to the phase-out of free allocations in the EU ETS: in 2026 regulated companies have to surrender CBAM certificates for 2.5% of their embedded emissions. This share gradually increases until it reaches 100% in 2034.

How to calculate embedded emissions

The EU defined detailed rules for the calculation of embedded emissions. Generally, CBAM declarants must consider direct emissions from the production process as well as indirect emissions from the generation of energy used in the production process. The CBAM Directive lists some goods (also from the iron & steel sector) for which only direct emissions are to be considered as the production facilities benefit from EU compensation for higher electricity prices due to carbon pricing. For the actual calculation of direct emissions, obliged entities can follow either of the methodologies:

  1. The calculation-based approach where raw materials and inputs used in production are combined with calculation factors such as net calorific values or emission factors.
  2. The measurement-based approach where emissions are determined through continuous measurement of flue gas flow and greenhouse gas concentrations in flue gases.

When CBAM declarants lack the required data to perform the calculations they can revert to default values to be used as emissions factors. Default values are to be published by the end of 2023, the EU has however published a first study indicating the differences in emission intensities among the EU and its trading partners for CBAM goods (cf. figure 2).

Figure 2 GHG emission intensity for CN code 7217 10 – Wires of non-alloy steel. Value for Belarus is based on the secondary production route. Source: Vidovic et al. (2023).

CBAM declarants can also ask their suppliers to register themselves as an operator located in a third country within the CBAM registry. They may apply above calculation methodology to their output and obtain verification according to EU ETS standards. Suppliers can then disclose the information on embedded emissions to CBAM declarants who in turn may use this information within their CBAM declarations.

Which rules apply in the transitional period?

Acknowledging the challenges posed by the CBAM for declarants, the EU gradually implements the mechanism with a transitional period which started October 1st 2023 and ends December 31st 2025. The transitional period aims to function as a trial and educational phase for all involved parties, including importers, producers, and authorities. Its purpose is to gather valuable data on embedded emissions in order to improve the methodology for the definitive period starting January 1st 2026. CBAM obligations are reduced to reporting during the transitional period (cf. figure 3).

To increase the learnings during the transitional phase, instead of annual CBAM declarations, declarants must submit CBAM reports on a quarterly basis. The first report, covering the embedded emissions from the fourth quarter 2023 is to be submitted by January 31st 2024. The calculation and general reporting requirements are however somewhat eased for the transitional phase: In addition to the calculation methodology described above (EU Method), for the transitional period, two additional methodologies are available:

  1. Until December 31st 2024, embedded emissions can be determined through third country national systems such as carbon pricing schemes or monitoring systems whose accuracy and coverage is similar to the EU ETS.
  2. Until July 31st 2024, embedded emissions can be determined using only default values from the EU or elsewhere if calculation methodologies align.

For the transitional phase, all entities must report on both direct and indirect emissions. The exemptions for indirect emissions in the iron & steel sector mentioned above are only valid for the definitive period. Penalties can be imposed in cases where the reporting declarant fails to submit a correct or complete CBAM report or doesn’t rectify errors when initiated, with penalties ranging from EUR 10 to EUR 50 per tonne of unreported emissions.

Figure 3 CBAM time schedule. Source: carboneer.

What are the immediate tasks for companies?

The definitive period is two years away, however, here are the preparations companies should conclude at once to comply with the legal obligations of the transitional period and to get a head start for the definitive period:

  • Identify which of your imports are subject to CBAM regulations. Engage with suppliers and manufacturers to gather emissions data for imported goods. Collect information on carbon pricing schemes in countries of origin for your CBAM goods.
  • Get registered as CBAM declarant or have your indirect customs representative getting registered.
  • Get access to the transitional CBAM registry. This is the interface for regulators and regulated entities for the transitional period.
  • Learn how to handle the CBAM reporting template published by the EU.
  • Establish processes to collect emissions data and set aside personnel capacities to handle CBAM duties.
  • Make use of EU ETS allowance price forecast and embedded carbon projections to assess the medium-term economic implications of CBAM regulations on your supply chain and business.
  • Understand the implications of CBAM on your supply chain and assess your price and regulatory risk in different countries.

With the introduction of CBAM, emission monitoring and reporting along with carbon pricing plays an ever more important role for non-EU producers and importers. While the emission reporting obligations during the transitional period of CBAM are new to many companies and require comprehensive preparation, regulations on CBAM will evolve during the coming years and should be closely monitored by third country and EU producers as well as traders and importers alike. Details on CBAM implementation rules will for example still be required on the treatment of green electricity procurement through power purchase agreements in third-countries or on updated product lists subject to CBAM obligations. Ultimately, companies require a strategic approach towards these new realities of global trade and decarbonization.  

Vidovic, D., Marmier, A., Zore, L. and Moya, J., Greenhouse gas emission intensities of the steel, fertilisers, aluminium and cement industries in the EU and its main trading partners, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2023, doi:10.2760/359533, JRC134682.

Carbon Removal going mainstream? The EU carbon removal certification framework

What is it and why is it needed?

In December 2021, the EU Commission published its Sustainable Carbon Cycles Communication in which it outlined the EU’s plan to capture and store carbon dioxide from different sources in order to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Core elements are:

  • Developing an industrial carbon usage registry;
  • Setting a carbon removal target through technological solutions;
  • Strengthening carbon farming to sequester CO2 in soils to contribute to the net removal target in the land sector of 310 million tonnes of CO2-eq by 2030.

To expand the implementation of carbon removal solutions, it is essential to establish a regulatory framework for the certification of carbon removals. Therefore, the European Commission has released additional information on the proposed voluntary and EU-wide framework in the end of 2022. It is known as the EU Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF) and includes several outstanding issues to be addressed. The CRCF aims to promote carbon removal solutions, encourage carbon farming approaches, and to prevent greenwashing by establishing trust through the implementation of standards and certification procedures. Therefore the EU’s ability to measure, monitor and verify carbon removals needs to be ensured, while stimulating financing options from public and private sources.

Under the proposed framework, carbon removal projects may take a nature-based or technological approach. The certification of carbon storage in long-lasting products or materials is also possible. Figure 1 provides an overview of different carbon removal methods, their concrete implementation, and the final storage medium.

Figure 1: Taxonomy for carbon removal (source: IPCC)

Importantly, carbon removal projects under EU certification have to comply with the QU.A.L.ITY criteria and need to:

  • be QUantifiable and QUantified;
  • Additional to existing climate benefits;
  • strive for Long-term storage;
  • contribute to sustainabilITY.

Given the frequent criticisms leveled at the methodologies and practices of the voluntary carbon market, establishing a regulatory framework for carbon removal activities is crucial. The criticism relates to the lack of oversight, transparency, trustworthiness, and climate impact (additionality) of the projects and certificates on this market. All of these can create significant problems for entities relying on voluntary carbon credits to offset or neutralise their emissions as part of their climate strategy, as highlighted in a recent investigation. A regulated market can restore confidence and ensure that all projects conform to the same rules regarding accounting, monitoring, reporting, and verification.

How would the EU certification framework work?

The certification framework will be based on criteria and certification methodologies to be developed by the EU Commission with the support of an expert group. The Commission then recognises private or public certification schemes that register carbon removal activities, control audits and certificates, maintain public registries, and also issue the carbon removal units. The operators of carbon removal activities, such as farmers, biochar producers or BECCS power plant operators need to be audited against the certification methodologies by accredited private certification bodies. Only after a successful audit and recognition by the certification scheme, would the operator’s carbon removal activities be certified by the certification scheme (compare Figure 2).

Figure 2: Working principle of the certification system (adopted by author from EU Commission)

The current proposal allows the EU Commission to adopt secondary regulations, such as delegated acts, to establish the different technical certification methodologies and to harmonise rules for certification and recognition of certification schemes. Given that carbon removal is a new and evolving field, new certification methodologies certainly need to be developed over time.

Next steps for developing the methodologies

As mentioned above, the EU Commission has not developed detailed carbon removal methodologies or criteria yet. During the coming months the external expert group will develop tailored certification methodologies for different carbon removal activities. For reasons of transparency, related documents are being published and the first meeting took place on 7 March 2023, while carbon farming methodologies will be the topic of the next meeting on 21 and 22 June 2023. The timeline for the upcoming meetings of the expert group is depicted in Figure 3 (source: EU Commission).

Figure 3: Upcoming meetings of the expert group on carbon removal (source: EU Commission)

The Commission’s proposal also needs to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in a normal legislative procedure. At the end of April 2023, the responsible committee of the European Parliament published their first response with proposed changes to the Commission’s CRFC. Improving monitoring, liability and transparency mechanisms and a focus on long-term carbon removal are a priority for the Parliament to prevent low-quality removals. The report also calls for allowing permanent carbon storage outside of the EU Member states, if the carbon is captured in the EU and stored under similar rules to the EU. This would open the way to account for geological storage in countries such as Norway or Iceland.

Our assessment and issues to be solved

The proposal for the EU CRCF is commendable for being among the first globally to address the need for removals in climate policy and for stringent, transparent regulatory oversight on certification of removal activities. However, several issues still need to be resolved to ensure that the climate effect of the removal activities under the CRCF can become a reality: Removal activities through nature-based solutions could be short-lived and thus the climate impact could be reversed quickly. Furthermore, it is unclear how differing risks for reversals depending on the removal solutions will be dealt with and which actor will ultimately be (financially) responsible.

As there is currently a lack of details on the methodologies for the different removal activities and the certification schemes, the EU Commission, together with the expert group, needs to develop tailored rules for different removal activities. Especially the issues of reversal and liability mechanisms have to be addressed as well. It is essential that these rules are developed in a transparent and collaborative manner with input from stakeholders across the carbon removal industry to ensure that they are effective in promoting long-lasting carbon removal solutions while also providing clear guidelines on liability and risk management.

Reach out if you would like to learn more about the proposed regulation and understand how it impacts your business model or offsetting strategy.