What goes up must now come down – especially when it comes to humanity's carbon emissions. But bridging the yawning gap we still have to reach net zero emissions will require a whole new climate infrastructure. This infrastructure has to be built now to avoid the worst impacts of a changing climate in the future.
Next to behavioral change and an urgent redesign of our existing systems – from energy networks to corporate supply chains – we need robust solutions and methodologies for removing and storing carbon at a pace and scale never seen before. Finding the right approach to designing systems and policies that effectively cater to emission reductions and removals has been a challenge.
The world has a plan for emission reductions, but is lacking one for removals. Both reductions and removals deal with mitigating climate change, but differ in their aims, as the source of carbon is different. In simple terms, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) means, paraphrasing the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere through human interventions, storing the CO2, and preventing it from returning.
The promise of this is significant, but the quality requirements for removals are steep – and heavily debated. Will removals distract us or delay efforts to reduce emissions? What is the best approach when it comes to facilitating, regulating and using CDR as part of climate action, and how can we ensure the environmental integrity of all these new technologies? Where do nature-based climate solutions sit alongside technological ones?
To avoid rushed, uncoordinated plans for developing CDRs that risk causing negative externalities, we need to rethink the way in which we evaluate the role and deployment of CDRs in climate action. This approach should strike a balance between radical positions of removal critics, and those who see removals as a silver bullet.
The use of CDR to address residual emissions on the road to net zero, and historical emissions to progress to net negative after this point, are scientifically sound. The IPCC estimates that up to 10 billion tonnes of removals are needed every year, by 2050, to meet the Paris Agreement targets. Taking on this colossal task calls for new ways of contextualizing CDRs and evaluating their role in addressing the climate crisis.
The framework we propose encourages design thinking, and puts forth four interconnected perspectives from which to explore CDRs: the systemic, exponential, ubiquitous, and inclusive mindsets. They challenge existing assumptions and roadblocks to scaling high-quality CDRs.
The 'systemic mindset' suggests looking at engineered and nature-based removals as part of a wider system, rather than just standalone solutions. Engineered removals, for example, rely heavily on physical foundations, beyond just CO₂ capture. Interconnected services – from capture and processing to transportation and storage – are also needed to deliver removals. Similarly, nature-based removals rely on numerous variables to succeed, notably the long-term management of the land on which the solutions are implemented.
Fundamentally, the quality of a removal depends on whether the CO2 removed from the atmosphere and durably stored is greater than the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere during the whole removal process. This means that all emissions – from upstream to downstream – must be included in the accounting of carbon removals. To technologically remove carbon, for example, significant volumes of electricity, water and heat – all with their own carbon footprints – are required, and these need to be accounted for in order to speak of a net carbon removal.
The bottom line is that removals, regardless of whether they are engineered or nature-based, need all relevant components to create a connected, end-to-end system that can lead to a net removal of carbon from the atmosphere.
Viewing removals from a systemic perspective fundamentally affects how its growth potential is evaluated. A systemic approach to scaling removals will need to consider everything from the physical resources required to operate the capture and storage facilities, to the capital requirements and geographical and societal footprint of a specific end-to-end carbon removal project. Scaling the world's carbon removal capacity, while maintaining high quality and environmental integrity, implies developing the individual elements of this interconnected infrastructure simultaneously.
Scaling carbon removals as part of an interconnected system, as described above, becomes even more challenging when it needs to happen in an exponential way. The world needs to remove at least 10 Gt of CO₂ every year, by 2050, to keep global warming to 1.5C. Today, only ~0.1 Gt of CO₂ are removed each year through negative emissions technologies. In other words, a linear trajectory for growing carbon removal and storage capacity will not be enough – it needs to scale exponentially. This calls for an exponential mindset when it comes to planning longer term goals. In practice, countries and companies should set interim targets that continually track progress and provide clearer signals to the market around necessary investments in CDR.
Taking an exponential approach to developing removals will only work if there are clear policies in place to ensure that progress isn't hampered by technological 'lock-ins', for example, whereby the market gets stuck with one specific solution despite there being better alternatives.
Clear policies, which should also outline a series of short-term targets, can provide better signals and forecasts to the market on what the CDR sector could potentially look like in the next decade. Short-term targets – required to put removals on an exponential curve – need to be defined in a realistic manner, in a way that considers the nature of CDR development. The targets must account for key external factors such as investment and regulatory cycles, and infrastructure development and policy timelines. This will ensure investment and development are not disconnected from policy.
Carbon removals are by definition a finite resource. The resources required to deliver removals, from capital to energy to available storage capacity, are all limited, and their use comes at the expense of other applications; capital that could be spent on decarbonization or adaptation, for example. A high-quality approach to evaluating and developing removals must take such limitations into account.
Promoting a ubiquitous mindset on removal and storage capacity does not remove the issue of scarcity or allow for unrestricted expansion of the sector. What it can encourage, however, is the upscaling of CDR to its highest sustainable limit by unlocking an innovative mentality that seeks out and enhances all forms of carbon removal and storage solutions. Not too long ago, the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere was solely associated with reforestation efforts. Today, innovation in soil sequestration approaches such as carbon farming or storage solutions that convert CO2 into solid form to produce additives for construction, to name a few, have changed society's perspective on the sustainable limits of CDR.
Only through innovation and new scientific realizations can society stretch the limits of CDRs. The scale of the challenge requires an 'all of the above' approach to the deployment of different carbon removal and storage approaches, without compromising aggressive carbon reductions.
Climate change and energy related inequality, such as the cost of energy and pollution, disproportionately affect economically poorer countries and communities. It is crucial to ensure that these inequalities are not exacerbated by CDR.
Decision-making agency and technical capabilities to realize CDRs cannot be solely concentrated in the global North, the global expert elite, or in the current generation. Local, global, and intergenerational environmental justice are critical building blocks for high-quality removals, and will likely be linked to the necessary 'social license to operate'. This social license is central in getting buy-in for removals from investors,policy makers, civil society, and communities.
A fair, inclusive and equitable distribution of power, capital, and physical resources over time must be at the heart of a high-quality design approach to scaling removals globally. Centers of excellence – carbon removal industry hubs or valleys – could, for example, be developed wherever the natural conditions are most promising.
Solutions to avoid and reduce emissions can limit the amount of 'new' CO₂ entering the atmosphere, but only removals can neutralize emissions and lower the concentrations of atmospheric CO₂ – provided they are done right. The four proposed mindset shifts provide a lens through which the leaders and shapers of public policies and corporate strategies can rethink their approach to scaling high-quality carbon removals. Using the mindsets will help develop an approach to removals that is resilient, fit for purpose, and safeguards social and environmental integrity.
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