As CO2 emissions continue to rise, experts say our chances of avoiding drastic climate change will rest not just on controlling pollution, but also on removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Between 2010 and 2019, annual average global greenhouse gas emissions reached their highest level in human history, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). . last report in April.
As the rate of growth has slowed, the IPCC estimates that the world needs to eliminate up to 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by the end of the century.
“We need to get carbon out of the way because we need to get to net zero emissions and then net negative emissions. This is the way to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C or at least get to that point,” says Eve Tamme, who leads Climate Principles, a climate policy consultancy.
What are carbon removals?
The IPCC defines carbon removals as human activities that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it durably in geological, terrestrial or oceanic reservoirs.
“If you think of the atmosphere as a bathtub and think of water as carbon dioxide, the emission reductions reduce the faucet, so the flow of water into the bathtub,” says Kathy Fallon, director of land and climate at the NGO Clean Air Task Force.
“The disposals,” she adds, “open the drain and pull out how much carbon is already in the atmosphere or how much water is in the bathtub.”
Methods of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere vary widely. Natural forms of elimination, such as carbon sequestration in the ocean, soil and plants have existed for millennia.
Meanwhile, new methods like direct air capture, which sucks carbon out of the air, are still being developed.
Is nature or technology better at removing carbon?
Currently, one of the most available forms of carbon removal is terrestrial. Some of the best examples of this are reforestation projects in tropical and temporal zones, which have good carbon removal results and do not change the balance of the natural environment or the impact biodiversity.
However, there are concerns about the permanent nature of these removals. Damage to natural structure storing carbon, such as a forest fire, can release it into the atmosphere.
There are also criticisms of using nature to control emissions from burning fossil fuels.
For this reason, the focus is increasingly on technology-based removals, which capture carbon through methods such as direct capture from the air and then store it underground.
Fallon says we should look at this as a “shifting portfolio” of carbon removal methods, using what’s available now – land-based – but moving towards long-term solutions as more innovations and funding support them.
Some projects are already considering long-term moves, such as the Orc Projectthe world’s first direct air capture and storage plant, launched in September 2021 in Iceland.
The world is definitely in a time of carbon removal innovation, says Tamme. For example, the Elon Musk-funded XPrize had over 1,000 start-ups applying and many more start-ups working on different aspects of moves, including surveillance and technology.
“But of course we don’t have the tools yet to get to the level of deletions needed, so it’s a challenge,” she says.
The ‘Wild West’ of carbon removal financing is hampering progress
However, innovation alone will not be enough to bring the cost of carbon removals down to a level where they can be deployed as widely as needed. It also requires adequate funding and policies to support them.
While some of the money for the moves comes from sources such as the UN and the World Bank, the majority is provided by volunteers. compensation market, which focuses on tackling emissions, not removing excess carbon.
The voluntary market is valued at approximately one billion US dollars per year and is expected to grow approximately 50 times over the next few decades. But it’s unregulated and is often called the “Wild West,” according to Fallon.
The market is suffering from an integrity crisis and there must be higher standards to combat this, she adds. There also needs to be more funding for removals, rather than compensation, to achieve the level of removals requested by the IPCC.
What future for carbon removals?
Although carbon removals have been part of climate policy for decades, there is still a long way to go. For example, it remains to be decided what counts as “residual emission” – an emission that will remain after the net-zero emission targets.
The EU must also determine how it distributes kidnappings among its member countries. Different countries have different capabilities for remove and store carbon – some have more forests, some have greater geological storage of CO2 or greater supply of renewable energy to power technologies like direct air capture.
There must also be a unified accounting system and tracking, reporting and verification processes to ensure the validity of referrals. The EU has started to try to address this issue, with a carbon-free certification framework due by the end of the year.
“I think we’re in a phase right now where it’s very clear that we need to scale up suppression and we need to develop different types of suppression methods,” Tamme says.
“But what we need to do first is the quantification part because there are very few elimination methods for which we have accounting rules in place,” she adds.