Shouldn’t we put all our energy into stopping carbon emissions from happening in the first place?
We see lots of in-fighting in the climate community centred around cutting carbon emissions vs removing existing CO2 from the atmosphere.
The common concern is that by focusing on carbon removal we neglect the need to cut emissions in the first place – giving governments and businesses an excuse to continue emitting.
The reality? We desperately need both.
We need drastic cuts in carbon emissions to keep below 1.5 degrees of warming.
We’ve known that for a long time.
But global CO2 emissions are not reducing. In fact, aside from 2020 (an anomalous year due to Covid-19 inactivities), global emissions have continued to rise.
This needs to change. But even if carbon emissions were to be massively reduced, it’s unlikely that we’d cut them enough to maintain 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that we need to be removing 10 billion tons of CO2 (10 gigatons) from the atmosphere per year by 2050 – alongside an array of mitigation measures providing massive cuts to emissions in the first place. In their report 'Global Warming of 1.5 degrees' they stated:
Clearly, neither emissions cutting or carbon removal activities will be enough on their own.
A 2021 study modelled a ‘crash’ programme of scaling up Direct Air Capture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, funnelling $1 trillion into the technology annually and deploying 12,700 DAC plants by 2100.
The research found that if this emergency deployment happened alongside current emissions-cutting policy trends, we’d still see global warming reach 2.4–2.5ºC in 2100.
Further, this scale of DAC deployment would also consume huge amounts of energy, consuming around 9-14% of global electricity by 2075. For DAC to be viable, then, we’d also need to see renewable energy projects scale up at the same time to reduce the impact of this electricity use.
No single climate solution is going to be enough to keep us to 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050. We need deep emissions-cutting activities and carbon removal solutions, both working in tandem towards that singular goal.
Right now, even if we all accepted that carbon removal was a necessary part of the fight against climate change, we don’t have the means to remove the 10 billion tons of CO2 each year that we need to.
By the end of 2021, we had permanently removed less than 10,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in total.
We need to be doing that a million times over every single year.
From Direct Air Capture (DAC) to bio-oil sequestration to enhanced weathering, there are lots of exciting carbon removal technologies in development.
But they’re all early-stage technologies.
Most are still in the research and development stage, working to prove that the technology is actually viable. After that, they still need to prove that the technology can be scaled to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at the rate we need, and test and improve deployment.
This research and development phase is expensive – and there’s no guarantee that there will be buyers for the CO2 once the technology has been proved and developed. That makes it risky for the project developers.
If we want carbon removal of 10 billion tons per year by 2050, we need to speed up that process – providing massive amounts of funding now to project developers to enable them to scale up more quickly now, and to remove risk by providing a guaranteed market for purchasing the CO2 once the technology is ready.
That means creating demand for carbon removal now – even though the technologies are still being developed.
We’ve seen some exciting movements in 2022 on this.
Most excitingly, Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey launched Frontier, an Advanced Market Commitment – essentially a commitment to purchase CO2 from promising carbon removal companies in advance of the CO2 actually being removed – of $925 million over the next 9 years.
Not only does this guarantee future demand for the technologies that Frontier supports, it also demonstrates that there is a growing demand and market for carbon removal technologies – sending a signal to researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors that this is a market to invest time and money into.
But it isn’t enough yet.
Ultimately, what these early-stage technologies need right now is large amounts of financial investment to scale.
And businesses are uniquely positioned to accelerate their development.
Take a logistics company for instance, one of the highest-emitting industries out there. If they committed to contributing 1% of profits to innovative carbon removal technologies, that would go a long way.
But if they embedded carbon removal into their customer experience then all of their merchant customers would be prompted to contribute too – and that could be game-changing.