Subject: Broad Action Urgently Needed to Develop Carbon Removal Solutions
Carbon removal (i.e. “negative emissions”) solutions will likely be essential tools in the risk management portfolio for meeting our commitments to keep global warming to well below 2°C. To understand their potential, governments, companies, and NGOs must invest in carbon removal research and pilot projects today. This way, we will have the information and options necessary for smart decisions about solving the climate challenge.
We are falling behind on our climate commitments, and carbon removal solutions can help us catch up. The 2015 Paris Agreement now entering into force represents important progress. However, it is only a first step in limiting warming to 2°C above the pre-industrial average.[i] Next steps will require dramatically accelerating emission reductions and potentially deploying carbon removal solutions that can offset past CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.[ii] While major uncertainties surround which portfolio of carbon removal approaches will make sense,[iii] the potential value of carbon removal has been affirmed by prominent organizations such as the United States National Academy of Sciences.[iv] Simply put, failing to explore carbon removal solutions substantially elevates our risk of climate impacts that are severe, widespread, and irreversible.
Targeted support for research and development on a portfolio of carbon removal solutions would have great value, yet no country has committed to a program in this area. Open questions around costs, ecological impacts, scale, and the reliability of carbon sequestration must be addressed before carbon removal solutions can be deployed at scale.[v] However, history suggests that technologies like carbon removal solutions typically take decades to reach commercial maturity.[vi] In order to have the option to deploy carbon removal solutions safely and strengthen our climate commitments over the next few decades, we need to accelerate basic research, technology development, and demonstration (RD&D) efforts surrounding carbon removal to decrease costs, improve efficiency, and reduce key uncertainties.
The fate of carbon removal, and the fate of our climate goals, rests in the hands of energy and environmental policymakers. Scientists around the world are ready to explore options for developing, improving, and commercializing carbon removal solutions. The major bottleneck is a lack of financial support. Governments, companies, and NGOs can all play a role in opening new frontiers in innovation in energy, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, and mining through increasing funding for research and pilot projects today. In parallel, scientists, policymakers, and journalists can all work to foster communication and collaboration on carbon removal across sectors and geographies. Existing energy and climate RD&D initiatives, such as Mission Innovation and the Clean Energy Ministerial, offer platforms for launching and coordinating carbon removal research efforts. International organizations like the UNFCCC can facilitate knowledge sharing and stakeholder engagement across industry, academia, and civil society.
Achieving our climate goals means we can no longer delay development of carbon removal solutions. Bold investments now can help assure the availability of carbon removal technologies that are safe, effective, and economical.
- Sally Benson, Stanford University, USA
- Phil Duffy, Woods Hole Research Center, USA
- Ottmar Edenhofer, Potsdam Institute, Germany
- Chris Field, Woods Institute, USA
- Tim Flannery, Climate Commission, Australia
- Arun Majumdar, Stanford University, USA
- Nebojsa Nakicenovic, IIASA, Austria
[i] "Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C" UNFCCC Adoption of the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC Synthesis Report on INDCs.
[ii] For example, 87% of the IPCC’s scenarios consistent with limiting warming below 2°C involve net-negative emissions globally by 2100. Representative IPCC scenarios consistent with 2°C include in the range of 25 GW of carbon-negative energy deployed annually as soon as 2040. See The Case for Carbon Removal.
[iii] “The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees, associated with challenges and risks (high confidence)” IPCC AR5 WG3 SPM Page 12.
[iv] “Atmospheric CO2 removal is and can be valuable, especially given the current likelihood that total carbon emissions will exceed the threshold experts believe will produce irreversible environmental effects.” National Research Council (2015). “Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration.” Page 111.
[v] "The deployment of large-scale bioenergy faces biophysical, technical and social challenges, and CCS is yet to be implemented widely. Four major uncertainties need to be resolved: (1) the physical constraints on BECCS, including sustainability of large-scale deployment relative to other land and biomass needs, such as food security and biodiversity conservation, and the presence of safe, long-term storage capacity for carbon; (2) the response of natural land and ocean carbon sinks to negative emissions; (3) the costs and financing of an untested technology; and (4) socio-institutional barriers, such as public acceptance of new technologies and the related deployment policies." Betting on Negative Emissions. In Nature Climate Change. Figure 2.
[vi] Several scholars have noted “the lengthy process of transitions” in energy, e.g. Grubler (2015) Energy transitions research: Insights and cautionary tales. ”The fact that historical energy transitions have taken many decades, even above a century to unfold is a by now widely shared insight. At the global level characteristic change over times in primary energy range from 80 (growth of oil/gas/electricity replacing coal steam power) to 130 years (growth of coal steam power displacing pre-industrial, renewable energy sources).”