Solve for C: Why carbon dioxide removal is an essential part of the climate change equation

By Steve Capanna and Katie Lebling

Climate change is a complex equation. To avert its worst impacts, we must find a way to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2° C, consistent with the Paris Agreement. This will require us to combine deep emissions reductions and robust carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The National AcademiesIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and experts around the world agree that meeting our climate goals means we must achieve net-zero emissions globally by shortly after mid-century. The U.S. can and should achieve net-zero emissions sooner, by no later than mid-century. At the White House Global Climate Summit this week, Climate Envoy John Kerry repeatedly noted that reducing emissions will not be enough to achieve this goal. “Even if we get to net-zero by 2050, even if we get there, we still have to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A lot of people don’t focus on that,” he said. “And that means we need the innovative technologies to do that.” But these CDR solutions will only be possible if we accelerate their research, development, and deployment today. Fortunately, there is strong bipartisan support behind CDR solutions in Congress and the White House. But substantially more federal investment is needed.

What do these carbon removal solutions look like? Managing and restoring forests for additional carbon dioxide removal is a well-known natural climate solution that can have enormous co-benefits, including community health, economic vitality, and biodiversity to stabilize ecosystems. Policies to advance and accelerate this solution are needed. But research shows there’s not enough available land to achieve the level of carbon removal needed through reforestation and forest management alone that will require federal support for a larger suite of strategies.

Luckily, there are multiple other carbon removal approaches we can develop and deploy. Direct air capture (DAC) is a technological solution that pulls carbon dioxide out of ambient air. Carbon mineralization accelerates the reactions that permanently store carbon dioxide in reactive rocks. We can also store more carbon in soil through certain agricultural practices. These and other CDR strategies are at varying stages of technological development and scientific understanding. For some, like DAC, we need to significantly improve efficiency and lower costs by building more demonstration projects and jumpstarting deployment. With others, like mineralization, we need more research and development to understand what, if any, approaches will be effective.

The unforgiving math of net-zero requires a diverse portfolio of approaches. We need to invest in technological carbon removal now so the solutions are ready and scaled up when we really need them, while immediately deploying shovel-ready natural CDR methods. Researching and developing multiple CDR approaches also has the lowest average cost, lowest risk, and maximizes economic and climate-saving potential across sectors. For example, U.S. forests and forest products already sequester almost 15% of U.S. carbon emissions annually. We could increase this natural carbon storage and add to the roughly 50,000 jobs in America’s forest sector with the right actions. Meanwhile, a recent analysis found that each DAC plant is expected to create hundreds of jobs and hundreds more producing the materials needed to construct those plants, in addition to their carbon removal benefits.

The private sector is also beginning to recognize CDR’s potential. Many corporations are pledging to invest in carbon dioxide removal, including MicrosoftUnited Airlines, and StripeShopify has made the largest publicly-announced corporate purchase of DAC-based carbon removal to date, reserving 10,000 tonnes of removal capacity. All of these private sector investments will help develop and expand CDR markets, but it’s critically important that companies also commit to ambitiously reducing their emissions (like through the Science Based Targets Initiative), and not use carbon removal as a substitute for reductions.

These corporate pledges are exciting, but a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to scale up carbon removal. Corporate momentum can be multiplied many-fold with the right federal policy support – and right now, policy is moving. Congress’ bipartisan 2020 Energy Act authorized $447 million for the first-ever dedicated CDR R&D program, and in the current Congress, Democrats and Republicans have joined together to introduce additional legislation to boost CDR innovation and infrastructure. We also need additional incentives to remove carbon dioxide and inject it in dedicated storage deep underground and to support enhanced forest and agricultural carbon storage supported by sound science that, in turn, supports landowners and boosts rural economies. And President Biden’s call for a $35 billion investment in the technologies needed to address the climate crisis should be a jumping-off point for more legislative action to fund CDR.

You can’t argue with math. Any serious climate plan – and federal policy to advance it – must include a suite of robust natural and technological CDR strategies. The time is ripe to invest in effective carbon removal from trees, tech, rocks, soil, and more.

There is no single solution to the climate problem, but if we pursue diverse CDR approaches in tandem with the rapid emissions reductions needed to reach net-zero, we will benefit people, the economy, and our planet, now and for future generations.

Steve Capanna is Director of U.S. Climate Policy and Analysis at the Environmental Defense Fund. Katie Lebling is a Climate Program Associate at the World Resources Institute.

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