"We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them", is a renowned Albert Einstein quote that encapsulates the thinking needed to rapidly scale carbon dioxide removals (CDR). In order to bring these frontier climate technologies to scale in a credible manner, while avoiding a race to the bottom, we must think differently about how to design the frameworks that support CDR.
We previously introduced four interconnected mindsets to help elevate the thinking of public and private sector decision-makers around carbon removals. These four design mindsets – systemic, exponential, ubiquitous and inclusive – provide a lens through which to better identify both the challenges and viable opportunities in unlocking removals' full potential in our global race to net zero emissions. They can help stakeholders move away from approaches that do not promote the quality and scale of the CDR sector.
At the moment, siloed thinking is leading to a mismatch between planned removal capacity and resource needs. Linear conceptions lead to CDR deployment planning that does not accelerate scale-up. The spectre of scarcity of CO2 storage capacity puts a strain on early development, while the exclusion of key stakeholder groups in decision-making risks undermining CDR projects' social licence.
Despite the bleak warnings from leading climate scientists, we have yet to nail a coherent approach to developing and utilising CDR to meet the required pace and scale. Ramping up will be no easy feat: we must progress from just ~0.1 GtCO₂ of annual removals today to a global capacity of commercial-scale removals that can draw down carbon to the tune of 10 GtCO₂ – every year – between now and 2050.
Part of the problem is a lack of agreement on how to use CDR. This creates roadblocks for project developers, buyers and investors. South Pole's recent
net zero survey highlighted that most companies have a limited understanding of the role of removals in corporate climate action strategies. Yet the majority will need CDR to reach net zero.
Looking ahead, our ability to reach global climate goals will boil down to scale and quality. Whatever approach we take must promote quality. But perfection cannot become the enemy of progress. We must scale removal solutions to guarantee the level of supply needed to reach net zero.
Removals are systemic in nature. They are part of and dependent on a wider system of infrastructure – an infrastructure that does not yet exist and that must be developed and scaled alongside CDR.
For example, large volumes of renewable electricity, water and heat will be needed to support the operations and climate credentials of engineered removal projects. Removing 50 MtCO₂e through direct air capture and storage (DACS) in the UK in 2050 is estimated to require up to 25 TWh of electricity. For perspective, this amount of electricity is equivalent to nearly 8% of the country's power demand in 2019.
Thinking about systemic issues in silos will lead to disjointed outcomes. We must plan the scale-up of removals with entire systems in mind, working in close coordination with other key sectors of the economy. In other words, the systemic mindset reminds us that the infrastructure for CDR needs to be planned in sync with the economy-wide electrification of heat, transport and industry.
Moving from ~0.1 GtCO₂ to the annual removal capacity of 10 GtCO₂ by 2050 is a 9,000% increase in just 30 years. In short, CDR needs a leg up onto an exponential pathway, now.
Using interim targets will help attract investment, drive targeted research and development and enable 'solution-driven' policies to push CDR on this exponential pathway. Despite the long-term potential of and need for CDR, technologies such as DACS or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) are not yet proven on a commercial scale.
Natural carbon solutions with the potential to scale exponentially can help accelerate removals. Innovations in low-carbon agriculture, for example, will lead to transformations in the agriculture sector as more and more farmers become equipped with the tools and information to transition to low-carbon farming. This, in turn, accelerates the global capacity for CDR, alongside other benefits.
We are already falling behind. Meeting the IPCC's forecasted annual capacity by 2050 would require negative emissions of 1.2 GtCO₂ in 2025. To meet this target, we should have already quadrupled the pipeline of removal projects we had at the end of 2021. This shows how every type of CDR is needed.
Too much focus on scarcity will hinder our ability to get removals off the ground. To reach the necessary scale, we must tap into our ability to innovate and enhance all credible, potential forms of removal and storage solutions. It requires investments in financial, human, physical, and natural resources.
The ubiquitous mindset suggests an 'all-of-above' deployment strategy to counter the risk of not meeting net zero by 2050. It does not remove the sustainable limits on removals, but it does underline a way of working with them.
Any global approach to scaling removals should be inclusive. But as it stands, the CDR stakeholder community is working in geographic silos on a global problem, with the global north setting the tone. Climate, social, and environmental justice are central to realising the full potential of CDR with an approach that is ethical, sustainable, and resilient.
This makes it imperative to have an inclusive mindset, so that all parties – including activists, labour movements, youth groups, and the environmental justice movement – are involved in the CDR development process. Decentralising CDR could empower cities and local communities by, for example, integrating DACS in public spaces or housing for a community-centred approach.
As with decarbonisation, affected workforces and local communities must be included in decisions on the development, planning, and policies regarding CDRs, and how they may affect their future economic and social progress. Opposition is likely in the absence of an inclusive approach, regardless of the plan.
We must urgently scale removals – but we must do so without compromising quality and environmental integrity. The four proposed mindsets can be used to identify problems and opportunities as stakeholders design the necessary frameworks for developing these important climate technologies.
Our next article will explore how these same mindsets can be used for designing the necessary regulations and markets, but also for encouraging innovation and other tools that can help overcome the current barriers to the large-scale deployment of high-quality removals.
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