2016: Carbon removal gains traction with policymakers

With 2016 coming to a close, it’s clear that carbon removal (or “negative emissions) solutions are starting to gain some serious traction as a critical part of climate action. Governments across the globe have begun to “dip their toes” into the uncharted waters of negative emissions. Here are three key lessons we took away from global policy action on carbon removal this year.

Lesson 1: Carbon removal is critical to deep decarbonization.

With the Paris agreement closing out 2015, 2016 became a year of planning. Policymakers around the world used this year to ask: how will we meet the ambitious goals laid out in the Paris agreement? Although reports like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report previously expressed the likely need for negative emissions to meet our climate goals, this year carbon removal became a more prominent and important pillar in national deep decarbonization scenarios, solidifying its position as a key climate strategy. In 2016, we saw:

  • The US White House Council on Environmental Quality released their “Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” which explores pathways to an 80% reduction of GHG emissions below 2005 levels by 2050. The report included carbon removal solutions as a key pillar of climate action, alongside the transition to low-carbon energy sources and reducing non-CO2 GHGs.  

“Achieving deep economy-wide net GHG emissions reductions will require three major categories of action, [including] Sequestering carbon through forests, soils, and CO2 removal technologies, by bolstering the amount of carbon stored and sequestered in U.S. lands (“the land sink”) and deploying CO2 removal technologies like carbon beneficial bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which can provide “negative emissions”.
— US White House Council on Environmental Quality Mid-Century Strategy


  • Similarly, the UK began to incorporate carbon removal into their national climate action plans. In October, the UK Committee on Climate Change released a report titled, “UK climate action following the Paris Agreement” which extensively explored the technology readiness and cost barriers to implementing various carbon removal solutions. The report states that, “developing and deploying GGR [greenhouse gas removal technologies, also known as carbon removal] options globally and in the UK will be central to realising the Paris ambition” and included three carbon removal solutions into their deep decarbonization scenarios. Following up on this report, in November, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced a four-year, interdisciplinary research program around carbon removal solutions.
  • Key international bodies, like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its annual Emissions Gap Report, also confirmed the need to explore the opportunities and risks associated with using carbon removal solutions to fight climate change. 


Lesson 2: Carbon removal is increasingly seen as a portfolio of Solutions.

An another important development, policymakers have begun to see carbon removal solutions as a portfolio of technologies -- one that ranges from utilizing natural and working lands to sequester carbon through biological processes to more engineered solutions that sequester CO2 directly from the atmosphere. This framework ensures that we explore all relevant options for cleaning up carbon pollution, expand the number of groups that can implement and benefit from carbon removal solutions, and hedges our bets if any solution fails to provide cost-effective, verifiable CO2 removal. This framing was evident in a number of actions by policymakers this year, including the following:

  CO2 removal and reuse landscape mapped by SEAB.

CO2 removal and reuse landscape mapped by SEAB.

Lesson 3: Policy is needed to help these solutions reach cost and scale, but we aren’t doing enough today.

2016 also brought a number of potential support mechanisms for carbon removal solutions. While these are promising steps, they are far from what is needed to fully realize the potential of carbon removal solutions.

  ADM corn ethanol + CCS demonstration project in Decatur, IL. Photo source:  Picture Decatur Blogspot

ADM corn ethanol + CCS demonstration project in Decatur, IL. Photo source: Picture Decatur Blogspot

2016 marked a significant turning point for the carbon removal field. Policymakers have begun to see negative emissions technologies as a key strategy to meet our climate goals and have begun to explore their role in developing these technologies. While they have laid a significant foundation for action by incorporating a portfolio of carbon removal solutions into their deep decarbonization scenarios and research agendas, as they continue on, they will need to continue to be pragmatic spokespeople for these technologies and provide the necessary support mechanisms to help these solutions mature in ways that are consistent with our climate, environmental, and economic goals.