In 2021 carbon dioxide removal (CDR) went from a niche interest of enthusiasts to something the public heard of, and that corporates and politicians started to care about. In whatever way you measure, carbon removal grew multifold. 2022 is set to be an even stronger year; here is some of what to expect.
Count on fast growth, but keep expectations in check
I think carbon removal today might be where solar was in the early 1980s. It’s hyped, and we had some breakthroughs, but it's still very, very small. Solar in 1983 was worth 250 million USD in sales (700 million USD in today's value). Known sales of durable carbon removal are only 20-30 million USD for the last two years. Most of that is payments for future removals, with some of it being commitments to buy in the future and not money paid out today. This number doesn’t include all purchases since not all of them are public, but definitely the biggest ones.
Another comparison is that solar energy stood for 0,001 % of all energy consumed in 1989. The equivalent for CDR would be 0,001% of all CO2 emitted, translating to around 360 000 tons. My best estimate of carbon durably removed, and sold as such during 2021 is less than 50 000 tons, although I think the number will be several times higher in 2022.
Judging from requirements for corporate net-zero commitments and what governments already have promised to pay for, I think we can expect permanent carbon removal to grow to cover at least 0,1% of today's CO2 emissions by 2030 (meaning minimum 36 million tons, but hopefully much more). But even to achieve that, CDR must grow as much in 8 years as wind and solar did in 20-30 years.
Much of the near-term volume growth is going to come from biochar.
Biochar providers can scale up quickly once they get pre-commitments for purchases. There is also a lot of biochar already being produced where the carbon removal benefit is not sold as a credit. This means there is an easily accessible supply, but it also raises questions on additionality . Providers will need to show that the income from CDR credits leads to an equivalent rise in tons of CO2 removed through increased production. Puro and Carbonfuture are the leading aggregators of biochar credits, but some providers are doing the selling themselves.
Expect to see more biochar providers teaming up with food producers that generate biomass as a waste product. This creates an attractive business model for both actors. It also makes biochar production easier since all the biomass is already collected in one place, and there is often a buyer of the waste heat from the biochar production.
We also see several new biochar producers getting started in the Global South, where the greatest co-benefits and additionality can be found. Examples include Planboo (Sri Lanka), Netzero (Cameroon), HUSK (Cambodia), and Mash Makes (India). Biochar excels in countries with poor soils, contributing to increased yields and lesser dependence on fertilizer and irrigation. Using biomass that otherwise is burnt on fields polluting the air (like Mash Makes) generates further co-benefits. The additionality is often higher since carbon credits cover all or significant parts of the costs of the projects.
Look for new carbon removal methods getting out of the garage
Many new CDR solutions will get tried outside the lab/ prototype stage for the first time in 2022/2023, going from kilograms to tons. We will see DAC companies like Heirloom, Sustaera, Mission Zero, and Noya test out their tech at larger scales. And ocean CO2 removers like Planetary Hydrogen do the same. There are also exciting corporate developments around enhanced weathering to look out for in the coming year.
Wood harvest sequestration is another method that is slowly gaining attention. Burying, or storing solid biomass in an environment where it doesn’t degrade is a very cheap solution that has the possibility of also being durable. EBS, Carbon Sequestration-inc and Exaquest are organizations active in the field.
Action-enabling research being published
In all the hype, it can be easy to forget that there are a lot of unknowns in CDR left to work out before many of the solutions can be scaled up. A lot of research and development is taking place in startups, especially for Direct air capture, but there are many exciting CDR research programs ongoing too. These are some of the scientific projects I am keeping a close eye on in 2022:
- Ocean carbon removal is a CDR area growing fast. This large new Ocean carbon removal program in Germany will likely generate many exciting results.
- Project Vesta, exploring coastal enhanced weathering, should also be coming out with data on their studies on the safety and removal potential of the method.
- Enhanced weathering of basalt and olivine in soils is a promising CDR method with significant potential for co-benefits. I am excited to see results from The University of Sheffield, The Working Lands Innovation Center, and Carbon Drawdowns project on the topic.
- And I hope we can get some field results from testing this exciting idea of direct mineralization in practice.
There is also an international conference on carbon removal in Sweden in June! It was supposed to have been held in 2020, but like everything else, it had to be postponed. A LOT has happened since 2020, so I expect the conference to be even more interesting now than it would have been then. Expect to see me there.
And more. Much more
This is far from everything to look out for. What will the new EU Taxonomy on removals look like? How will the carbon market evolve, will more companies shift to buying permanent removals in 2022? (See this list of all known purchases.) Will the trend of VCs funding carbon removal projects continue? What will come out of the accelerators on carbon removal (like The ClimAccelerator, Build a climate startup, Activate CDR). Who will win the Xprize milestone awards? How will the US Carbon Negative earth shot and support to DAC hubs evolve? And much more.
So far, I have been trying to keep myself updated on all the major things that happen in carbon removal, but I suspect 2022 will be the first year when there just will be too much good stuff to follow it all.
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 Meaning that the sale of a carbon credit finances a removal of CO2 that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
Robert Höglund is an independent advisor working with carbon removal and climate policy. He manages the Milkywire climate transformation fund and sits on the board of Mistra sustainable consumption. He previously headed Oxfam Sweden's policy and communications team and took part in the Science-based Target Initiatives' Net-zero expert advisory group.