In Stalemate with Legacy Emissions, Carbon Dioxide Removal can be our Knight in Shining Armor
In the last decade, New York endured two of its most destructive storms ever. They killed over sixty people and cost tens of billions of dollars in damage. Climate change is not only responsible for the recent surge in extreme weather events like Hurricanes Sandy and Ida, but also for higher annual average temperature, increased precipitation, and rising sea levels. Climate change is warming the planet at a pace ten times faster than any rate in the past sixty-five million years. If our policy does not address climate change holistically, new generations of superstorms will threaten New York with increasing regularity.
Decarbonization will be pointless if, by the time we achieve it, the climate has warmed to a perilous temperature. We need a way to remove previously emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that large-scale deployment of negative emission technologies is essential if we are to limit the average global atmospheric temperature increase to 1.5°C, the tipping point for irreversible climate damage. The White House Council on Environmental Quality has corroborated the growing scientific consensus that removing significant quantities of carbon dioxide is required to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. Climate policy that focuses solely on expanding renewable energy neglects a key fact: previously emitted carbon dioxide has a lifespan of 300-1,000 years in the atmosphere. This is why Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) is vital. Although decarbonization is an important goal, a carbon-free society is not yet a reality. We need an intermediate solution. Even after decarbonization is achieved, CDR will play a crucial role in restricting committed warming, the process by which global temperature continues rising due to the climate’s lagged calibration to previous emissions.
The state of New York should pass the Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act (CDRLA). This act will catapult the state as a frontrunner to secure first-of-its-kind funding to procure carbon removal technology. The bill will fund CDR deployment by removing tax exemptions on fossil fuel companies and allocating those funds toward the removal of CO2. The Department of Energy recently allocated $3.5 billion for the development of four removal hubs across the United States. The DOE will distribute this funding based on “state incentives” that demonstrate how funding will be leveraged. New York can make the most of this golden window of opportunity if we pass CDRLA.
Negative emission technologies fall under one of two main categories: carbon capture (CCS) or carbon removal (CDR). CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide directly from the source, such as refineries or gas plants. CDR, on the other hand, involves removing carbon dioxide from ambient air. With CDR, emissions can then be permanently stored deep underground in geological formations. With CCS, however, emissions are often injected down into fossil fuel reservoirs to help extract new oil. As of 2021, 73% of all CO2 captured by CCS facilities was used to retrieve more fossil fuels. The Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act promotes CDR, not CCS.
Some environmental nonprofits claim that subsidies for negative emission technologies will prolong demand for fossil fuels, wasting money that would be better spent on replacing oil, gas and coal with carbon-free energy. Real-world applications of CCS at energy plants, they point out, have been cripplingly expensive and rife with failure. CCS’s shortcomings have been used to question the efficacy of CDR. However, CCS and CDR are fundamentally distinct technologies. The ceiling of CCS’s potential is carbon neutrality under continued fossil fuel dependence. CDR creates negative emissions, no strings attached.
CDR will only be an effective solution if it can be scaled to address the magnitude of CO2 emissions. Certain CDR methods like direct air capture have scaling potential, but others such as afforestation and reforestation are mathematically impossible to scale. This is because the amount of land needed to plant trees at scale far exceeds the amount of land available. For example, petrochemical company Shell will need to plant trees on 5.72%of remaining available land to achieve their 2050 net-zero emission plan. Shell is just one amongst the legion of companies and governments that have net-zero plans, most of which do not rule out the use of land-intensive offsets. Scalability aside, nature-based CDR methods are also ineffective because they only remove emissions temporarily, not in perpetuity. Whereas direct air capture removes emissions for millennia, emissions sequestered in trees are susceptible to re-entering the atmosphere due to natural conditions such as forest fires. In 2019, the State of New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which stipulated that the use of offsets could only account for up to 15% of its net-zero plan, and that those offsets must permanently remove emissions. If CDRLA is passed, CLCPA will guide it to procure direct air capture technology while ensuring that CDR deployment does not discourage decarbonization.
Partisan agendas on climate change are typically considered so disparate as to cause insurmountable stagnation on policy progress. Even after climate legislation is passed, it is often struck down when the winds of political power change. CDR, however, has a track recordof bipartisan support, with provisions for its technology in the Agriculture Improvement Act and the Energy Act of 2020. Climate policies that are piecemeal or short-lived will only get us so far. New York can unite CDR across state and federal agendas.
Carbon dioxide removal has the potential to create negative emissions and reverse the impacts of climate change that would afflict us with a lasting legacy. Join the movement of people striving to put CDR at the forefront of robust climate solutions and tell your state representatives to endorse carbon dioxide removal. If you are a New York state resident, express support for the Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act by telling your representative: “I support CDRLA because New York deserves a bright future.”
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the authors
Harrison Chapin is an intern at Claremont Wildlands Conservancy and a student of environmental analysis at Pitzer College.