Carbon Removal vs Carbon Avoidance: What’s the Difference?

Carbon Removal vs Carbon Avoidance: What’s the Difference?

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Grace Smoot

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Carbon removal and carbon avoidance are two heavily debated methods of carbon emission reduction. Whether we remove the carbon that has already been emitted, avoid emitting more carbon than we already have, or do both, removal and avoidance are equally important in the fight against climate change. So, we had to ask: What’s the difference between carbon removal and carbon avoidance?

Carbon removal is the elimination of carbon emissions after they have entered our atmosphere. Carbon avoidance is the prevention of emitting carbon in the first place and can be divided into two categories, avoidance via carbon offsets and avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures.

In the fight against climate change, how can we tell the difference between carbon removal and carbon avoidance? Below we will define both terms, identify the key advantages and differences of each, explore how they operate and what impact they have on carbon emissions, and discuss why they are both important in the fight against climate change.

How Are Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Defined

Carbon removal and carbon avoidance are two sustainability tools that can help individuals and organizations lower their carbon footprints. But since they are different mechanisms, understanding their differences is important. 

What Does the Dictionary Say About Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance

Carbon removal, also referred to as negative emissions or carbon drawdown, is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. 

Carbon Removal: the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Carbon removal can be split into 2 categories, technological and natural carbon removal. 

  • Technological removal: This involves specialized technology which extracts carbon from the atmosphere. A prominent example of this is Climeworks, a direct air capture who’s specialized machines take CO2 from the air, mix it with water, and pump it deep underground, turning the captured carbon into stone.
  • Natural removal (carbon sequestration): Carbon is stored in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans. Forests absorb 2.6 billion tons of CO2 every year, soil absorbs approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, and phytoplankton in our oceans absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions. 

Overall, different carbon removal processes can include:

  • Afforestation/reforestation: Planting new forests 
  • Soil carbon sequestration: Storing captured carbon in the soil
  • Biochar: Creating charcoal and burying it or plowing it into fields
  • Bioenergy: Capturing and sequestering carbon from biofuels and bioenergy plants
  • Enhanced mineralization: Crushed rocks are spread over the land to absorb carbon
  • Direct Air Capture (DAC): Machines suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in 

geological formations underground

  • Ocean-based Methods: Ocean alkalization/fertilization, artificial upwelling/dwelling 

Carbon avoidance aims to prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere.

Avoidance: not doing something; preventing something from existing or happening”

Oxford Dictionary

 Carbon avoidance can occur either via carbon offsets or via direct carbon reduction measures.

  • Direct carbon reduction measures involve those that lower your carbon footprint. And a lower carbon footprint means less carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. Methods of direct carbon reduction include using less energy, switching to cleaner forms of energy other than fossil fuels, and reducing the waste you generate.

What Are the Differences Between and Advantages of Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance

Both carbon removal and carbon avoidance represent ways in which we can mitigate carbon emissions and global warming. But they are also different methods of climate action with different environmental impacts, making it important to understand their differences.

The main difference between carbon removal and carbon avoidance is that carbon removal removes the carbon that has already been emitted from our atmosphere. Carbon avoidance seeks to prevent carbon from being emitted in the first place. 

Carbon removal is easier to track, calculate, and record because you are physically removing a set amount of carbon from the atmosphere. But it is also harder to implement the technology. Carbon avoidance is more difficult to quantify because it involves not putting carbon into the atmosphere. But it is easier to put into practice because it is easier not to do things than it is to do them.

The following are key advantages of carbon removal:

  • Removes carbon from the atmosphere permanently
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels

The following are key advantages of carbon avoidance:

  • A proactive rather than reactive way of dealing with carbon emissions
  • Avoidance via carbon offsets promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • Avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures cuts carbon emissions at their source

How Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Impact Your Carbon Footprint

Knowing the similarities and differences between carbon removal and carbon avoidance is important when making a decision of which one to use. 

Carbon Removal Carbon Avoidance
How are carbon emissions reduced Carbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is eliminated after the emissions have already entered our atmosphere. Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets and direct carbon reduction measures prevents carbon from entering the atmosphere. 
Impact on own carbon emissions Carbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint.  Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your carbon footprint.
Impact on global carbon emissions Carbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall carbon emissions. Carbon avoidance via offsets does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
Environmental benefits Carbon removal improves air quality, protects ecosystems, and aids in climate change mitigation. Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets and direct carbon reduction measures improves air quality, protects ecosystems, and aids in climate change mitigation.
Overall effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions Cost and storage capacity limits affect carbon removal effectiveness on a global scale. The effectiveness of carbon avoidance via carbon offsets depends on the type of project and if the project is realized, additional, permanent, meets certain key criteria and project standards, and does not engage in greenwashing. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source.

How Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Reduce Carbon Emissions

The goal of both carbon removal and carbon avoidance is to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. 
  • Carbon avoidance: Carbon avoidance via offsets represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures represents direct emission reductions. 

Carbon removal still permits the combustion of fossil fuels at current rates, it just eliminates the carbon after it has entered our atmosphere. The carbon can then be stored permanently in land or ocean-based reservoirs.

For carbon avoidance via carbon offsets, the offsets represent the reduction, avoidance, destruction or sequestration of the equivalent of a ton of carbon in one place to “offset” an emission taking place somewhere else. Purchasing carbon offsets funds carbon emission reduction projects which prevent CO2 from entering the atmosphere.

For carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures, you prevent carbon from being emitted by switching to practices that emit less or even zero carbon. For example, biking to work and sourcing your energy from renewables.

What Impact Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Have on Your Own Carbon Emissions

One of the best ways we can aid in the fight against global climate change is to reduce our carbon footprint. And to do this we first have to reduce our carbon emissions. 

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
  • Carbon avoidance: Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. But carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your carbon footprint.

Carbon removal does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. It is an indirect method of emission reduction, and knowing there is an option to essentially erase our emissions after we cause them negates any incentive of reducing emissions of our own accord. 

Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. Offsets only make others reduce their carbon emissions to compensate for your emissions.

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does directly reduce your own carbon emissions. Choosing to directly reduce your carbon output reduces your carbon footprint. And this means less carbon is emitted into the atmosphere.

What Impact Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Have on Global Carbon Emissions

Every year we pump over 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. This causes temperature and sea-level rise, melting of sea ice, changing precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification. Carbon removal and carbon avoidance aim to reduce global emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
  • Carbon avoidance: Carbon avoidance via offsets does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. But carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.

Carbon removal does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. To contribute substantially to the fight against climate change, global carbon removal capacity would need to reach 10 gigatons (Gt) of carbon by 2050 and 20 Gt of carbon for each year from 2050 to 2100. Currently, carbon removal processes contribute negligibly to this amount. Thus there remains a substantial gap between what we currently have and what is needed to reduce our emissions to the Paris Climate Agreement target levels for carbon removal.

Carbon avoidance via carbon offsets does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. This is because, in comparison to our 36 billion tons of CO2 emissions, carbon offsets for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. Meaning that only about 0.8-1% of our annual CO2 emissions are offset.

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures does have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. For example, if we stopped burning fossil fuels today we would be preventing the emission of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. But even on a smaller scale, using cold water when washing clothes and switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs decreases carbon emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tonnes. However, emissions rebounded quickly and rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and still not enough is being done to implement direct carbon reduction measures.

Illustration of annual CO2 emissions globally
Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance

Using carbon removal and carbon avoidance can reduce our consumption of and reliance on fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas) which can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. But they also come with various environmental benefits.

Carbon removal and carbon avoidance aid in climate change mitigation because they both aim to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Levels of carbon emissions increased exponentially to more than 35 billion tons per year at the end of the 20th century. And the global average amount of carbon in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. The more carbon there is in our atmosphere, the more the global temperature rises, and the more serious climate change becomes. Rising global temperatures can wreak havoc on our environment, so the more we remove or avoid emitting carbon, the more we slow the rates of sea-level rise, ice melting, extreme weather occurrences, and ocean acidification. 

Both also generate environmental benefits because they can help reduce overall CO2 emissions, leading to improved public health and healthier ecosystems. Offsets can reduce the instances of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer caused by carbon emissions. And healthy ecosystems have been linked with cleaner air, water, and food

How Effective Are Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance in Reducing Carbon Emissions

Carbon removal and carbon avoidance can be effective at reducing carbon emissions under certain conditions.

  • Carbon avoidance: The effectiveness of carbon avoidance via carbon offsets depends on the type of project and if the project is realized, additional, permanent, meets certain key criteria and project standards, and does not engage in greenwashing. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source.

The main factors affecting carbon removal effectiveness are the cost and storage capacity limits, which depend on the removal method. For example, planting trees is one of the cheapest and most natural ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but storage capacity is limited by available land and can be negatively impacted by deforestation. On the other hand, direct air capture is more expensive than planting trees ($250-$650 per 1,000kg compared to $50 per 1,000kg), but the storage capacity is vastly greater.

Carbon removal is also a reactive, rather than proactive, way of dealing with emissions. In this manner, we can continue to use fossil fuels at an accelerated rate. Removal technologies are expensive to implement, and there will be little economic incentive to use them until the cost of emitting carbon rises enough to prompt behavioral changes. 

The overall effectiveness of carbon avoidance via carbon offsets depends on various factors. Renewable energy offsets are generally more effective than energy efficiency offsets. But most importantly, carbon offsets must be realized to be effective. When offsets do not get realized they do not offset any carbon, and we don’t reduce any emissions. The main problem with carbon offsets is that the number of sellers on the voluntary carbon market exceeds the buyers by about 600-700 million tons. Meaning that only about 300-400 million tons of CO2 offsets actually get realized. 

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is effective because it cuts emissions at their source. And cutting emissions at the source is the fastest way to decrease global emissions, thereby mitigating the effects of global warming.

Why Are Both Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance Important to Fight Climate Change

Carbon removal and carbon avoidance via carbon offsets are important to fight climate change because they are both ways to reduce carbon emissions. They mitigate the effects of climate change, which has a positive cascade effect on public health and plant and animal diversity. In addition, it boosts the global economy and leads to innovative, more environmentally-friendly solutions.

However, neither should be seen as a panacea for climate change. Relying on either one exclusively is impractical because they are reactive (indirect) rather than proactive (direct) ways of dealing with emissions.

Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures, on the other hand, is a direct way of dealing with carbon emissions. And in the long term, direct methods are much more effective. 

What are Better Alternatives to Carbon Removal and Carbon Avoidance

If used correctly, carbon removal and carbon avoidance via carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits that go beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let these methods become a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon removal and carbon avoidance via carbon offsets must be used in conjunction with carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures until the industry has time to invest, develop, and refine more sustainable innovations. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household footprint:

Reduce your travel footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle footprint:

  • Switch to Renewable Energy Sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Final Thoughts

In short, carbon removal is not the same thing as carbon avoidance. Carbon removal occurs after the emitted carbon has already entered our atmosphere. Carbon avoidance, divided into avoidance via carbon offsets and avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures, seeks to prevent carbon from being emitted in the first place. Carbon removal is reactive, whereas carbon avoidance is proactive, in terms of dealing with carbon emissions. 

Both are tools in our sustainability toolbox that can be used to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. We should not rely on carbon removal or carbon avoidance via carbon offsets to be a cure-all for our environmental problems. Carbon avoidance via direct carbon reduction measures is much more effective in reducing emissions both in the short and long term.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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