Carbon removal: right-sized *expectations* requires right-sized *action*

Dr. Chris Field and Dr. Katharine Mach’s recent article in the journal Science is an important contribution to the future of carbon dioxide removal.  It in, the scientists stress an often overlooked point that  “a transparent and balanced approach is necessary” when considering carbon removal and traditional mitigation solutions to climate change.

Also of great importance, the article attracted coverage of CDR in mainstream media outlets that will be key for informing industry and policy action on carbon removal. Unfortunately, that coverage tended to miss the point.  We must start developing and deploying effective carbon removal solutions today.   Instead, the coverage focuses on the risks the authors identify about what happens if we do not take this action today.

The fact that “technological immaturity [of some CDR approaches] means that estimates of future costs, performance, and scalability are speculative” means that we need more action around carbon removal today.

Uncertainty and risks around carbon removal should not paralyze us, but rather galvanize us to address uncertainties and mitigate risks so these solutions are available at the appropriate scale needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. As the authors say, smart climate action will take “full advantage of the approaches that are available now while simultaneously investing in research and early-stage deployment, driving down the costs of the immature options, and evaluating side effects.” 

Above: Negative-emissions solutions can include use of natural systems (e.g., forest or other ecosystem restoration, agricultural soil carbon sequestration) and technological systems (e.g., bioenergy, direct air capture coupled with storage in long-lived materials or geologic formations, accelerated CO2 mineralization processes). 

Above: Negative-emissions solutions can include use of natural systems (e.g., forest or other ecosystem restoration, agricultural soil carbon sequestration) and technological systems (e.g., bioenergy, direct air capture coupled with storage in long-lived materials or geologic formations, accelerated CO2 mineralization processes). 

A key missing piece of this story is that efforts to develop carbon removal solutions and address important outstanding questions lag far behind necessary levels. The authors are correct that “Much of the recent discussion about CDR concerns deployments at vast scales”.  

But these discussions are in the scientific literature.  This is NOT the case for industry and policy stakeholders responsible for funding the research, innovation, and early technology deployment needed to address uncertainties. The industry and policy conversation on carbon removal is largely non-existent, which is the biggest threat to meeting our climate goals. Solid academic analyses require much better data than is available currently.  That critical data can only be generated if we right-size our action to develop carbon removal solutions immediately.

Fortunately, there are a number of efforts on which industry and policy leaders can build action on carbon removal. Yesterday, Developing a Research Agenda for Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration was kicked off by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.  The study, which aims to map a research agenda for safe and cost effective CDR, will provide critical guidance to policy makers, researchers and industry leaders alike.  The UK government has already launched a $10M+ program of CDR research. A constructive academic conversation on carbon removal requires much more efforts like this today, so that models and discussions are rooted in well-calibrated assumptions.

What do you think?  What promising CDR research do you know about? How should the conversation about CDR be moved from academia to industry and policy leaders who can deliver CDR research, development and deployment?