Balancing the Scales: The Critical Role of Differentiating Biogenic and Non-Biogenic Emissions in Climate Change Mitigation

By Dr. Megan McKerchar

In the world of carbon accounting and emissions reporting, the distinction between biogenic and non-biogenic emissions is a crucial one. Why? Well, because this differentiation not only enhances the accuracy of our environmental assessments but also guides the development of more effective climate change mitigation strategies. Here, we delve into:

  • The challenges associated with compensating non-biogenic emissions with biogenic removals
  • Why it’s important to report these emissions separately.

Understanding Biogenic vs. Non-Biogenic Emissions

Biogenic emissions are those that originate from biological sources, including forests, agricultural lands, and oceans. They are part of the natural carbon cycle, where carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed by plants during photosynthesis and released upon respiration or decomposition. On the other hand, non-biogenic emissions come from non-living sources, primarily the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and industrial processes. These emissions introduce carbon into the atmosphere that has been locked away for millions of years, significantly altering the natural carbon balance.

Challenges in Compensating Biogenic Removals with Non-Biogenic Emissions

The concept of compensating biogenic carbon removals with non-biogenic emissions, often discussed in the context of carbon offsetting or net-zero targets, presents several challenges:

  • Temporal Mismatch: Biogenic carbon sequestration processes, such as tree growth, can take decades or centuries, whereas non-biogenic emissions have an immediate impact on the atmosphere. This temporal mismatch makes it difficult to directly offset one with the other, as the benefits of sequestration may not align with the urgent need to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.
  • Permanence and Risk: Biogenic carbon stocks are subject to risks from wildfires, pests, diseases, and land-use changes, which can release stored carbon back into the atmosphere. In contrast, non-biogenic emissions, once released, are permanently added to cycles This difference in permanence complicates the idea of using biogenic removals as a straightforward compensation for fossil fuel emissions.
  • Measurement and Verification: Accurately measuring and verifying biogenic carbon removals is complex and subject to uncertainties, including estimating the amount of carbon stored in biomass and soils, and predicting future changes. These difficulties contrast with the relatively straightforward measurement of non-biogenic emissions from fossil fuel combustion, making it challenging to ensure that offsets are real, additional, and verifiable.

The Importance of Reporting Separately

Why does distinguishing between biogenic and non-biogenic emissions matter? Because it is vital for accurate carbon accounting. The distinction helps in understanding the net impact of human activities on the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs). For example, the carbon sequestered by a forest (a biogenic process) can offset some of the carbon released by burning fossil fuels (a non-biogenic process), but only if these two processes are accurately measured, monitored, and reported. .

Separate reporting informs policymakers about the sources of emissions and the potential for natural carbon sinks to absorb CO2. This information is critical for developing targeted climate policies, such as reforestation initiatives or regulations on fossil fuel use. Without clear differentiation, allocating resources effectively or setting realistic and impactful climate goals is challenging.

Moreover, clear reporting promotes transparency and accountability in climate action efforts. It allows stakeholders, including governments, businesses, and the public, to understand the origin of emissions and the effectiveness of mitigation strategies. This transparency is crucial for building trust and ensuring that all parties are working towards the common goal of reducing atmospheric GHGs.


The distinction between biogenic and non-biogenic emissions is fundamental to our understanding and management of global GHG emissions. The challenges associated with compensating biogenic removals with non-biogenic emissions highlight the need for cautious, well-informed strategies to balance or offset our carbon footprint. Reporting these emissions separately includes nuance, ensures accuracy, informs policy, and enhances transparency in our collective efforts to combat climate change; key to achieving meaningful and sustainable reductions in global GHG levels.

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