5 Reasons to Get Excited about Carbon Removal
If you’re not familiar with carbon removal, it’s time to get acquainted.
When we talk about climate mitigation, reducing emissions by replacing the use of fossil fuels with solar, wind, and electric vehicles is usually top of mind. These approaches decrease the rate at which we’re adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. And as these clean technologies become cheaper and more popular, we certainly need to scale them up and accelerate the transition from dirty fuels to clean alternatives.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), on the other hand, is the process of removing existing carbon out of the air and storing it back in the ecosystem. Not to be confused with removing CO2 emissions directly from emitting coal or natural gas plants, I’m referring to the removal of CO2 from the ambient atmosphere.
So why is CDR so important, and why should we care about it as much as clean energy solutions like solar, wind, and electric vehicles?
1. We need carbon removal to keep global warming below 2 degrees by mid-century
Reducing emissions should be our primary focus in the fight against climate change, but it won’t be enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Although cutting our annual emissions from fossil fuels reduces the CO2 added to the atmosphere, we still need to remove existing CO2 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. But global warming occurs due to the concentration of CO2 that has accumulated and lasted in the atmosphere for centuries. So even if we stopped emitting tomorrow, we need to remove existing CO2 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. That’s why graphics like the one below show the need to get below zero emissions. CDR is needed to do the important work of removing past emissions in order to prevent global warming rising above the 2-degree threshold.
2. Carbon removal addresses the challenge of hard to decarbonize sectors
Reducing emissions is more difficult in some sectors than others. For example, the production of steel, cement, and other industrial goods depends on traditional fuels as an energy source and creates more CO2 emissions in the process. In fact, the industrial sector — responsible for 25% of global GDP and employment — contributes to roughly 28% of greenhouse gas emissions. Completely eliminating emissions in industry, as well as other sectors like aviation and shipping, could take decades.
Luckily, carbon removal offers two pathways to address this challenge. One, carbon removed and securely stored can offset emissions from hard to decarbonize sectors. Two, carbon can be recycled and used to create synthetic fuels to power those sectors. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, captures CO2 from the atmosphere and uses it to create synthetic, ultra-low carbon fuels that can be used in place of fossil-generated fuels.
3. It can create a new industry — and new jobs
CO2 removed from the atmosphere can be repurposed for use in plastics, concrete, synthetic fuels and other carbon-based materials. In fact, it’s an entirely new industry: carbontech. Carbon180, an organization working on carbon removal, determined that this new industry has a total addressable market in the US of over $1 trillion a year, and almost $6 trillion globally. The carbontech industry can create new businesses and new jobs while helping address climate change. In fact, there is an exciting ecosystem of businesses working in this sector now.
4. Some CDR solutions have important co-benefits
Beyond addressing climate change, many CDR solutions have other important benefits. For instance, adopting regenerative agriculture practices improves soil’s capacity to store atmospheric carbon, but it can also improve crop resilience and water holding capacity, ultimately increasing long-term crop yields and improving food security. Seaweed farming, absorbs atmospheric carbon while reducing ocean acidity. And reforestation, replanting previously destroyed forests, can restore habitats and create a natural buffer for storms and floods. CDR solutions not only benefit the climate, but can also have social, economic, and environmental benefits, too.
5. CDR creates the potential to go carbon negative
In the years and decades to come, companies that get their annual emissions to zero can go even further — they can go carbon negative. Microsoft recently announced that it would not only get to net-zero annual emissions, but that it would remove all of the CO2 it has emitted since its founding in 1975 (video here). Today, the vast majority of companies, let alone countries, are not in a position to do this. But it’s encouraging to know that as the cost of CDR solutions go down, companies — and even countries — are not limited by their annual emissions, and can remove more CO2 than they emit.
Make no mistake — CDR is in its infancy, and its large scale potential is years away. So why is CDR important now? Because we need scalable and affordable CDR solutions to achieve our climate targets, but we can’t flip a switch to get there. That’s why investing in research, development & deployment of CDR now and learning from large scale demonstration projects today can help move CDR solutions down the cost curve to reach the kind of scale we need in the years to come to win the climate fight.
The range of CDR solutions (sometimes referred to as negative emissions technologies, or NETs) are diverse and exciting — from tried and tested nature-based techniques to highly technological ones. You can find a great rundown of CDR solutions here, here, and here. While any one of these won’t solve climate change, each of them has an impactful use case in different contexts. However, CDR solutions are not without their flaws. Some have significant implications on land or water use, and critics point to a moral hazard — will we do as much to reduce emissions if we expect to depend on carbon removal?
At the end of the day, to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the IPCC has shown in almost every scenario that we need carbon removal to play an important role. But CDR offers both exciting benefits and potential challenges — which is all the more reason to include carbon removal as part of the larger climate discussion.