Bringing society together around the creation of a UK carbon removal sector
In October 2021, the UK pledged to start removing at least 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere by 2030.
It aims to grow this amount to 23 million tonnes by 2035, and to more than 60 million tonnes by 2050.
This process of carbon removal - also known as negative emissions - is an essential part of achieving net zero and eventually net negative emissions, both to offset the most persistent remaining emissions, and eventually to bring back down the concentration of CO2 in the air to more sustainable levels.
But this scale-up poses an enormous challenge and would entail one of the fastest ramp-ups of a new industry in recent history. To put it in context, the UK in 2020 emitted well over 300 million tonnes of CO2, and currently removes less than half a kilotonne.
A 10,000-fold scale-up by 2030 would require the coordinated engagement of first movers to create at least one entire new value chain built around carbon removal. This is no small task.
A 120,000-fold scale-up by 2050 would require the integration of multiple carbon removal value chains. It would also entail substantive societal engagement to ensure this work benefits everyone - in a way that is just, sustainable and equitable - with a genuine impact on the climate.
To put it simply, carbon removal can be done well, and it can be done badly. Doing it well requires building safeguards, monitoring and constant consultation to ensure it has the impact society wants. This is what we call ‘high integrity carbon removal’ - and for the moment benchmarks that define it do not exist.
We began this process by convening experts from across the economy, to help understand the financial and non-financial barriers to establishing a thriving and high-integrity carbon removal sector in the UK.
Over the past two years, we engaged with more than 100 policymakers, innovators, investors, and environmental and civil society groups, and posed questions around the three tenets of human-centered design: financial viability, technical feasibility, and social desirability. Its findings are outlined in a newly published study, Establishing a large-scale Greenhouse Gas Removal sector in the United Kingdom by 2030: First mover dilemmas.
How financially viable is carbon removal for first movers?
The first question was to establish whether there is a viable carbon removal sector on offer for businesses to make money from.
To do this we co-generated a number of scenarios with participants and identified up to £1.8 bn of carbon removal revenue opportunities by 2050 for a number of business models that would service the aviation sector. This augments a further £39 bn of revenue opportunities that business models servicing the electricity sector might access already identified by other studies. 
Of course, this number is dependent on a number of variables. For example, how readily available will sustainable biomass be? Will carbon credits be available for carbon removal negative emissions offsets?
How technically and regulatorily feasible is it for first movers to build a UK carbon removal sector?
Carbon removal technologies vary considerably in terms of their readiness - and there is a need for considerable support to advance technological innovation and diffusion.
There is also uncertainty around the policy, regulatory, and governance frameworks that first movers face in the UK. For example, can they access the emissions trading mechanisms and will there be financial opportunities for the co-benefits of carbon removal technology value chains - such as soil regeneration and flood prevention?
What has become clear is that there is a need for much greater coordination within the government. Achieving this will require a new convening body - a centre of excellence - to be established, which can develop objective integrated frameworks and bring together and realise critical mass for the currently fragmented actors required to address carbon removal governance processes.
How socially desirable is it to build a new carbon removal sector in the UK?
For the moment, there is considerable uncertainty in civil society as to whether building a UK carbon removal sector is a good idea. What will the impacts be for jobs and incomes? How can society avoid corporate greenwashing? How can solutions be found that also support other goals, such as restoring ecosystems and protecting biodiversity?
The reality is that the UK does not yet have the tools to answer these questions. To help this process, we found a number of areas which need work:
- Confidence and credibility: Affordable and accurate tools to measure, report and verify CO2 concentrations and emissions in varying conditions are fundamental in facilitating market creation.
- Economic opportunity and shared value creation: The narrative around carbon removal market creation should focus on shared value creation or Gross Value Added (GVA) to the economy and society.
- Re-thinking policy: The scale of challenges we face requires constantly evolving innovations, but policy mechanisms sometimes can be outdated for current needs.
- Public engagement: Policymakers and the public need to develop a closer relationship; policy mechanisms can educate the public and drive participation, while public acceptance can provide confidence to governing bodies.
- Impartial advice and mediation: There is a need for an independent body to act as a hub for shared knowledge, innovation and a platform for constructive dialogue.
What is next?
Overall, we found that the creation of a UK carbon removal sector represents a multi-billion pound opportunity for businesses in 2050. At the same time, the lack of a coherent policy and governance environment means that first movers face too much risk and uncertainty to commit substantive investments. It was also clear that purely techno-centric approaches are inadequate to address all the stakeholders that need to be brought into the discourse to release an equitable, just and sustainable sector.
So how do we overcome this challenge? A crucial step is to build an independent and impartial convening safe space that is inclusive which can build trust and knowledge on all sides. Based on our research there is a need to:
- Guide and bring together companies and civil society groups to address knowledge gaps around large-scale carbon removal, to inform better governance and practice;
- Establish how to deliver high integrity solutions in a way that deals with uncertainty, manages risk, and supports just, equitable and sustainable climate action; and
- Assist organisations to explore the landscape, envision their unique role within it, and engage with other key participants for better results.
In short, the UK needs to build a high-integrity carbon removal sector from the bottom up - in a way in which all voices are heard, and the results benefit everyone.
This won’t be easy: reality is messy, and the task is daunting. But bringing different actors together around shared societal goals is a crucial first step.
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.
 Platt, Devon, Mark Workman, and Stephen Hall. 2018. ‘A Novel Approach to Assessing the Commercial Opportunities for Greenhouse Gas Removal Technology Value Chains: Developing the Case for a Negative Emissions Credit in the UK’. Journal of Cleaner Production 203 (December): 1003–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.08.291.
About the author
Mark Workman is Director of Foresight Transitions Ltd. He has been working in the carbon removal space for a decade and is a co-founder of the Carbon Removal Centre.