Carbon removal techniques, while important for fighting climate change, have faced some resistance the environmental community due to their perception as a threat to the deployment of other climate change mitigation techniques. Recently, however, the view that carbon removal is a complement, not a substitute, for other mitigation approaches has gained mainstream acceptance -- a positive development that will hopefully help carbon removal solutions emerge in sustainable and appropriate manner for fighting climate change.
An article from The Guardian recently criticized the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for advocating for carbon dioxide removal technologies as a vital component in keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius. Calling these “negative emissions technologies” -- which include: bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), land management techniques, direct air capture, reforestation, and carbon negative materials -- a “dangerous distraction from the task of deeply altering our entire relationship to energy consumption,” the Guardian is not alone its criticism of carbon removal solutions.
While the critics of negative emissions have many valid concerns about the sustainability, scalability, and cost-effectiveness of various removal approaches, leading climate scientists are increasingly convinced that carbon removal is a critical component of mitigating climate change. The climate experts that are warning we will need carbon removal are also acutely aware of the critics' concerns, and have started to address some of these concerns head on. Here are some of the things these experts are saying about the appropriate role of carbon removal solutions alongside other mitigation approaches:
1. Carbon removal technologies are NOT an excuse to continue business as usual.
The vast majority of leading academics believe that negative emission technologies work alongside, not as a replacement, for traditional mitigation.
Most carbon removal technologies are less developed and more costly than the more traditional carbon abatement approaches (such as energy efficiency and renewable energy), making it unlikely that the economically efficient decision will be to forgo these investments in favor of investments in carbon removal systems.
However, stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations requires swift action and cooperation from all countries, something especially difficult and contentious in developing countries. In the event we do not decarbonize our economy quickly enough, carbon removal techniques will prove all the more integral in preventing climate change.
2. Carbon removal technologies will NOT allow us to delay action on fighting climate change.
Experts are telling us it is highly risky to delay action and bet on technologies that we do not know will provide verifiable carbon sequestration in the future. That same NRC study sited earlier concludes that the carbon removal field must overcome “slow implementation, limited capacity, and high costs of presently available technologies.” While feasible to overcome, these barriers won’t be broken down overnight. Traditional technology learning curves, like the one shown below for solar, demonstrate that technologies take decades to develop to a scale and cost at which they are commercially viable. Delaying action only to wait for carbon removal to be “market ready” will not be an optimal strategy. What's more, if we delay emissions reductions, we may leave ourselves with too much carbon to sequester and therefore exhaust our carbon storage potential.
3. Research into carbon removal helps balance resources from other, more immediate mitigation options.
It is true that there is only so much time, effort, and of course, dollars going to fighting climate change, and therefore thinking about technologies that will not be commercialized for at least a decade may seem irresponsible or even counterintuitive for a problem that needs such swift action. However, traditional mitigation, our current “Plan A”, seems increasingly less likely to solve the climate problem on its own. It is vital that we expand our “Plan A” to include carbon removal technologies, so that the field will be past its current infancy when needed. The IPCC already includes many carbon removal techniques are part of this "Plan A", as it defines mitigation as “implementing policies to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and enhance sinks” (emphasis added). If there is anything to be taken away from the current efforts to fight climate change, it is that there are no silver bullets - no one thing that will save us - not just solar, not just wind, not just hydrogen fuel cells, not just carbon removal. We should be exploring the development of a portfolio of all possible mitigation options to prevent climate change, including those with longer time horizons.
It is great news that the scientific community is increasing its efforts to bring carbon removal solutions into same light as the rest of the mitigation family, and although there are legitimate reasons to doubt the potential for negative emissions technologies, their potential threat to other mitigation techniques is not one of them.