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10 reasons we need carbon removal

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By Grant Faber

· 10 min read


Research has determined that large quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal (CDR) are physically feasible, and rapidly scaling deployments are increasingly suggestive of the technical and economic feasibility of CDR processes. Despite these advances, there has been an uptick in skepticism surrounding carbon removal. This skepticism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which would be an unfortunate outcome given the numerous potential benefits of CDR.

Many who work in the carbon removal industry are well aware of the reasons we must advance the technology. Securing continued financial and political support, however, will be partially dependent on how effectively we can communicate these reasons. Being explicit about our aims might also help us move toward consensus and better achieve them.

In this post, I lay out 10 key reasons I believe we must advance carbon removal with the goals of working toward consensus and responding to the uptick of CDR skepticism that has emerged during and after COP28.

1. Carbon removal can help restore the climate in the long term

By directly removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and permanently storing them, carbon removal technologies could eventually allow for the restoration of Earth’s climate to its pre-industrial temperature range. This range has been highly beneficial for human flourishing and development. Emissions-reducing technologies like electric vehicles and green hydrogen slow the rate at which we add carbon to the atmosphere, but this only stops the problem from getting worse. While such technologies should play a central role in our efforts to combat climate change, only carbon removal can actually reverse our emissions and allow us to begin the long process of healing the climate.

2. Removing extra emissions can help society address overshoot of temperature goals

Carbon removal might also be necessary to restore Earth’s temperature to currently agreed-upon warming targets, such as 1.5°C or 2°C over baseline if we exceed these targets. 2023 was the warmest year on record by a significant margin, already reaching 1.4°C of warming. It seems increasingly likely the world will cross the average warming level of 1.5°C in the coming decade. Given that it will take decades to wind down emissions even in the IPCC’s most optimistic scenarios, carbon removal technologies can and should be scaled up in parallel to allow humanity to pull back from a widely expected overshoot of our mandated goals.

Additionally, in a lecture that helped influence this post, Dr. Zeke Hausfather points out that CDR can help hedge against our climate being more sensitive to continued emissions than expected. If the climate warms more than we expect for some fixed amount of emissions in our carbon budget, removal will be necessary to pull us back from that type of overshoot as well.

3. Hard-to-abate CO2 emissions can be addressed with carbon removal

To truly reach net zero, 100% of our CO2 emissions must be eliminated. Any amount of remaining emissions will continue accumulating in the atmosphere, eventually leading to warming we are trying to avoid. While there are many extremely promising technologies for emissions reduction being implemented today with more on the horizon, carbon removal can be used to cancel out emissions from sources that might be economically or socially difficult to eliminate otherwise.

For example, aviation emissions are commonly classified as hard to abate given that low-carbon alternatives may remain expensive and imperfect while global demand is rising. Carbon removal could provide an economically efficient and socially acceptable means of canceling out the climate impact of aviation, and corresponding amounts could be funded by a combination of public subsidies and premiums paid by the relatively wealthier individuals who can afford to fly more often.

Lund et al. have pointed out the significant politics that come along with determining what qualifies as hard-to-abate or “residual” emissions. These same authors analyzed national emissions inventories in a separate article and found that residual emissions might account for a non-negligible percentage of current global emissions, which corresponds to a startling requirement for gigatons of removal to simply reach net zero. While there is much more work to be done on defining what counts as hard to abate and on making new emissions-reducing technologies more feasible, there is still a clear need to develop a significant amount of removal in parallel.

Advancing carbon removal now also acts as a hedge against emissions that may be found to be harder to abate than we initially expected. If we neglect developing enough capacity, we could wind up in an unfortunate situation with some level of unabatable emissions that continue to accumulate in the atmosphere.

4. Hard-to-abate non-CO2 emissions can be addressed with carbon removal

Often ignored are non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, primarily methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), which have higher warming impacts but shorter atmospheric lifetimes than CO2. Some of the sources of these gases could be similarly difficult to eliminate, and carbon removal could be used to offset their impact. Due to the shorter lifetimes of these gases in the atmosphere, cheaper and shorter-duration CDR techniques such as afforestation could be used to compensate for their warming impacts, although the cost of doing this when taking CO2 equivalence into account remains a question. This strategy would contrast with using removal to compensate for long-lived fossil CO2 emissions that require long-duration removal to properly offset their impact.

While the focus of this post is on carbon dioxide removal, there are also emerging plans for atmospheric methane removal that could play an important role in addressing hard-to-abate methane emissions. However, essentially all of these approaches only accelerate the conversion of CH4 to CO2 in the atmosphere rather than removing the entire molecule. While there could still be significant climate benefits from such processes, some amount of CDR may still be required to offset the climate impact of converted methane if the carbon in it is from a fossil origin.

5. CDR can support the increased deployment of low-carbon energy

There are often concerns that energy-intensive carbon removal pathways, such as direct air capture (DAC), could consume low-carbon energy that could more effectively have gone to direct decarbonization efforts. At times, this is a real concern, and I have written before on this Substack about the importance of additional, non-parasitic, low-carbon energy procurement for CDR operations.

However, carbon removal can actually provide support for further development of low-carbon energy resources for everyone’s benefit. Energy-intensive carbon removal projects could help drive revenues for low-carbon power operators by making use of low-carbon energy that might otherwise go to waste due to a lack of energy storage or transmission. By funding the deployment of additional low-carbon power at scale, CDR could also help bring related technologies down their cost curves even more quickly.

CDR projects could also support advancements in contractual and power purchasing structures such as 24/7 carbon-free energy procurement needed for other climate tech sectors. There is even the possibility that stable electricity demand from CDR operations could help increase renewable energy access in countries like Kenya, allowing for further emissions reduction benefits beyond the scope of the project in addition to any carbon removed.

6. Wealthier nations could use carbon removal to expand the carbon budget for developing nations

The world’s 46 least developed countries (LDCs) only emit around 4% of total emissions, but over the last 50 years they have accounted for 69% of global climate-related deaths. Even with significant funding for emissions mitigation and adaptation, which itself will likely remain a challenge based on recent developments at COP28, such countries may remain far more focused on basic development than implementing full net-zero emissions plans in the coming decades.

Carbon removal paid for by wealthier nations could play an important role in compensating for continued emissions, particularly hard-to-abate agricultural emissions, from the world’s LDCs that would otherwise accumulate in the atmosphere and continue to drive warming. In this way, CDR could play a vital role in facilitating a just and equitable transition to net zero.

7. Valuable co-products and co-benefits can be generated by CDR processes

Some carbon removal processes generate economically and socially valuable co-products. Examples include:

  • Low-carbon hydrogen from certain kinds of biomass processing;

  • Critical minerals from various mine tailing processing techniques;

  • Carbonated aggregates that can be used in construction;

  • Better soils from soil carbon sequestration or biochar pathways; and

  • Long-lived polymer and solid carbon products made from atmospheric carbon.

These co-products can help offset the economic cost of carbon removal processes as well as help reduce emissions or promote other socially desirable goals in other sectors. 

Certain CDR pathways may also generate inherently valuable co-benefits, such as improved air quality or reduced ocean acidification, that could be desirable to the communities where facilities are located.

8. Carbon removal can create meaningful, high-paying jobs

Billions of dollars are already being transacted for carbon removal offsets, and plenty of interesting, high-paying jobs have already been created to support early research and deployment. As the industry grows, millions of jobs could be created. These will include both new blue-collar and white-collar jobs, attracting individuals who might have otherwise worked in the oil and gas industry. 

Such positions can also fill the gaps created by the energy transition. As we transition away from fossil fuel extraction and refining, carbon management jobs could offer displaced employees relevant, meaningful, safer, and high-paying work. The matching process will not necessarily be smooth as major economic changes rarely are. We should intentionally improve the process through training programs, internships, apprenticeships, proactive community education, informed deployment planning, and more.

CDR jobs could grow to become an important part of communities all over the world, and the jobs that will be created will likely carry a significant degree of meaning with them. Over the past several years, I have spoken with dozens of people looking to break into climate and CDR. Most are interested in joining the industry primarily due to a desire to do globally meaningful work. Scaling up CDR can provide even more people with this fulfilling opportunity.

9. CDR can support the development of technical talent

Building the carbon removal industry to the point where billions of tons of CO2 are being removed and safely stored each year will require developing a massive, highly skilled workforce with talent in fields ranging from chemical engineering to soil science to ocean biogeochemistry and beyond. Many of these capabilities will be transferable to other sectors of the economy as will the entrepreneurial spirit embodied by many carbon removal founders.

Motivating people to deeply consider and work on the global commons problem of climate change could also lead them to more deeply consider how we should approach solving other major commons problems currently facing humanity.

10. Proper community engagement and responsible CDR deployment could provide an opportunity to restore trust in institutions

Trust in the U.S. government is hovering around a historic low. When asked to summarize their feelings about politics, Americans used the words “divisive” and “corrupt” the most frequently. “Big business” does not fare too well in opinion polling either. While I will not speculate on the origins of this distrust and whether it is warranted, this is likely a harmful trend that results in pessimism and other unfortunate feelings and outcomes.

Carbon removal enjoys a high level of bipartisan support. Fortunately, there has also been a focus in the industry on responsibly deploying plants with community needs in mind, exemplified by the Carbon Business Council’s Responsible Deployment Training. While we always have more to do on this front, successful outcomes that address every stakeholder’s desires and needs could help contribute to a restoration of trust—however small—in our societal institutions, which could be quite valuable.

Conclusion

Different stakeholders may be more interested in the different reasons listed above. While all are valid grounds that society should continue advancing carbon removal technologies, it may be helpful to emphasize particular points when communicating with certain audiences.

When discussing my work, I often lead with the first reason regarding CDR’s ability to support climate restoration while adding a qualifier that this may take some time after we hit net zero. I have found this reason to be quite captivating for those new to CDR. Healing our climate rather than merely slowing our damage is a beautiful goal, and this promise can be a powerful way to attract more individuals to join the cause.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Grant Faber runs Carbon-Based Consulting LLC, where he assists carbon management startups and investors with techno-economic and life cycle assessment. He specializes in direct air capture, enhanced weathering, and carbon utilization. He also publishes related articles on his Substack, Carbon-Based Commentary.

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