There can be no net zero without carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation states clearly that, “the deployment of CDR to counterbalance hard-to-abate residual emissions is unavoidable if net zero CO₂ is to be achieved." Lowering overall emissions in the near term and eventually reaching net negative emissions in the long term is CDR's north star.
But the scale of this challenge is colossal. While 80+ countries have net zero commitments, only a handful have dedicated CDR policies in place. The CDR sector – which spans from biological removals (e.g. reforestation) to geochemical (e.g. enhanced weathering) and chemical removals (e.g. direct air carbon capture and storage [DACCS]) – is still underdeveloped and faces many obstacles.
Creating an enabling environment and framework for upscaling durable removals is urgently needed. This should include a versatile toolbox comprising marketplaces, standards, regulatory frameworks and funding mechanisms. But how can it be designed to be fit-for-purpose?
There is no silver bullet for tackling climate change. A combination of tools and tactics need to be developed to address barriers and promote the widespread adoption of CDR.
We previously set out how four design mindsets can be applied to shape a global approach to CDR that promotes quality and scale. Here, we present how a CDR toolbox can integrate the mindsets to realise a CDR sector that: grows with increasing speed (exponential), is integrated into wider social and technical systems (systemic), widespread and variable in its application (ubiquitous), and treated as a public good (inclusive).
The lack of market mechanisms to scale CDR holds back the sector's growth. This is a major issue for project developers, as the absence of a stable revenue stream limits investment into the sector and slows innovation. The challenge is compounded by the absence of compliance markets or policy-based instruments for CDR.
A voluntary marketplace then provides a platform to connect demand and supply-sides by increasing project flow, facilitating trading and funnelling much-needed finance into CDR. A larger, more liquid market could generate interest in the ever-growing variety of removal methods and help accelerate the exponential growth needed.
But it will remain a pipe-dream without clear safeguards, standards and certification. These are needed to ensure that quality is maintained and that the CDR methods are integrated into technical systems such as energy infrastructure and social systems (like domestic and international policymaking forums that look at social welfare, industrial competitiveness, or even foreign policy).
Guidance is urgently needed on how to best use CDRs, how to ensure permanence and how to monitor, report and verify CDR activities. Currently, the lack of standards and definitions is one of the largest obstacles to CDR deployment.
Standards provide blueprints for best practices and ensure quality in the reporting, monitoring and verification of CDR projects. They can also frame the use cases within the larger climate action journey. These processes must be inclusive, transparent, equitable and scientifically sound. For CDR to be adopted widely, they must be translated into rules and regulations that establish compliance regimes and guarantee a democratic process for what is in essence a public good.
The development of CDR cannot be left solely to markets. As well as a 'push' to market, deploying CDR needs a 'pull' from end-use sectors – national and international policies can give certainty to investors and create demand.
Policy packages, including regulatory targets, have a proven track record of leading to successful roll-out of new technologies, leading to further regulatory action, technological progress and cost reductions. Targets for CDR must be specific and realistic to be functional, with clear intermediate milestones. While national and local targets are important, international mechanisms, such as under Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement which facilitates international carbon trading between states, are needed for CDR to be deployed where the right conditions are united.
Implementing transparent, flexible and innovative policies – such as sustained incentives for storage and government procurement of CDR – will send clear policy signals and ensure institutional support to CDR developers and buyers. However, to get global traction and public support, these technologies must be proven, reflecting the need for increased financing in research and development (R&D).
Innovation is critical for CDR to be a credible pillar of climate action. It remains a nascent sector, with many durable removal methods still at low technological readiness levels. Despite the long-term potential and need for CDR, technologies such as DACCS, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and enhanced weathering are not yet proven commercially or at-scale.
Innovative funding mechanisms, such as advance market commitments, encourage technological learning and innovation, and will usher a thriving CDR market. Innovation can lead to a myriad of benefits for CDR by providing proof-of-concept for technologies, improving technical efficiency, achieving breakthroughs and bringing down the cost of durable removal methods. These are all required for CDR to meet this immense challenge.
Promoting innovation will lead to scale and quality by encouraging the development of new methods and improving existing ones. A new generation of removal methods are expected to appear, unleashed by the urgency for action, corporate net zero targets, and competitions such as Xprize and The Earthshot Prize. But we need more and this is where governments and the private sector can play a key role.
Various tools need to be designed to upscale high-quality durable removals. These must reflect the fundamental intention of our global approach to CDR: to be systemic, exponential, ubiquitous and inclusive. We are not doing enough right now to avoid and reduce emissions, so unfortunately, our reliance on CDR will only increase. By assimilating the mindsets in the design of the CDR toolbox, they will be reflected in the implementation of removals, and ensure the sector is fit for the purpose it needs to fulfil.
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