How to Make Carbon Removal Part of Our Climate Journey

How to Make Carbon Removal Part of Our Climate Journey

by Noah Deich

Carbon removal is an essential yet underdeveloped component of the climate solutions portfolio. Here’s why carbon removal is critical for climate action, and a menu of options for what individuals at the beginning of their climate journeys can do has a high impact in the carbon removal field today.

The IPCC just released its 6th Assessment Report (AR6) on climate change. The takeaway? It’s grim, but not hopeless. With enough investment in stopping emissions, we can slow, then halt the rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

AR6 also shows that if we only focus on stopping emissions, we won’t stop climate change. Climate change is already here. The scientific data -- alongside increasingly apocalyptic experiences of drought, fire, flooding, and other extreme weather around the globe -- make this clear.

The only way to reverse the damage we’ve done to the atmosphere is carbon removal: capturing and storing CO2 directly from the atmosphere. CO2 is a “long-lived” greenhouse gas and stays in the atmosphere for centuries if left to nature. With carbon removal -- including land-based approaches like tree-planting and agricultural practices that store carbon in soils, or technologies like direct air capture machines -- we can help nature speed up the clean up of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Historically, carbon removal has been relegated to the sidelines of the climate conversation. Back when the IPCC released its first assessment report about 30 years ago, carbon removal was much less urgent. If we had invested in decarbonizing the economy then, we wouldn’t have needed carbon removal at the pace or scale required now.

Unfortunately, carbon removal is nowhere close to the scale required. Technological carbon removal solutions have only been deployed at the thousands of tons per year level. Land-based carbon removal approaches have gained greater traction, but we currently lack a comprehensive database of efforts with consistent standards of permanence and additionality.

We’ll need to learn from the history of other climate technologies. For example, solar, wind, and electric vehicles were all able to come down a cost “learning curve” following a big investment in applied innovation funding coupled with technology-specific incentives to bring solutions to market, creating a snowball effect of lower costs and greater deployments. We will also need standards and technologies for carbon accounting and verification that ensure solutions deliver climate benefits. Labor standards are critical to ensure that removal efforts create family-sustaining jobs. And, we will need to empower communities to co-create projects alongside developers and investors to ensure we advance equity and justice. 

Ensuring carbon removal advances equitably from the beginning is not just the moral thing to do, but an essential political requirement. Unlike clean energy, long-run demand for carbon removal will ultimately come from governments procuring “atmospheric clean-up services.” For carbon removal policy to be durable across changes in administration and Congress, we have to make sure that carbon removal delivers robust carbon sequestration, and creates economic and social opportunities while protecting the environment in blue, red, and purple districts alike.

All this means that there’s no better time than today to get started on your carbon removal journey today. Here are three steps that will help anyone looking to engage more deeply in the carbon removal field:

Learn. A wealth of resources now exists for newcomers to get up to speed quickly on the often steep learning curve around carbon removal solutions. The CDR Primer is a great place to start, and co2removal.org is a launchpad for diving deeper into the accelerating academic field. Subscribing to Carbon180’s newsletter will keep you up-to-date on the most important emerging developments in the field. The carbon removal community is also generous with their time and eager to help others -- the MCJ Slack channel and other communities such as Air Miners are great places for learning from others interested in carbon removal.

Build. Many carbon removal research labs and startups could use additional talent. And the field is far from saturated -- never been a better time to start building something new, especially with announcements like Lowercarbon Capital and the US Department of Energy funding available to new ventures. The demand from voluntary corporate and philanthropic initiatives is also maturing: Stripe, Shopify, Microsoft, and XPRIZE are customers for high potential efforts. Increasingly, entrepreneurship support organizations -- from Y Combinator to NYSERDA’s C2V program -- are supporting carbon removal efforts.

Catalyze. To put it mildly, the carbon removal field is under-resourced. It received only 1% of climate philanthropy over the past five years. Investments have only recently ticked upward. Public innovation funding is still billions shy of what the National Academies says is necessary. More carbon removal initiatives across the investment, corporate sustainability, philanthropy, and policy fields are needed. There’s no better time to expand the aperture of ongoing climate efforts to support removal or to launch new efforts dedicated to moving the concept of a carbon-sequestering economy of the future from idea to reality.

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