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.
- 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:
The United States National Academy of Sciences announced a study to provide a research agenda for a portfolio of carbon removal solutions, garnering funding across agencies.
In addition, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), produced a set of recommendations for current Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, exploring the DOE’s role in advancing CO2 utilization and negative emissions technologies. The report maps the portfolio of carbon removal solutions as part of a larger carbon management framework.
The Department of Energy’s (DOE) ARPA-E program announced $70 million in funding for two new programs related to carbon: one around soil carbon sequestration technology and the other on liquid fuels created from CO2.
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.
- There were a number of policy mechanisms that could support carbon removal that were introduced in Congress, including an extension of the tax credit 45Q to include permanent CO2 sequestration and CO2 utilization captured from point sources, a direct air capture technology prize, and a BECCS demonstration project. While none of these mechanisms came to fruition, their acceptance as amendments in the legislative process is promising.
- On the Administration side, the US DOE continued to support the Archer Daniel Midlands corn ethanol fermentation with CCS demonstration project in Decatur, Illinois. The project is in the process of being scaled to commercial size -- with plans to capture 5.5 million tons of CO2 over the next five years. The White House Soil Science Interagency Working Group -- an effort of over 15 Federal agencies -- released a "Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science", which included efforts to explore soil carbon sequestration through agriculture, forest, and ecosystem management.
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.