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The carbon removal gap: how far are we to achieving net zero?

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By Bashir Dan

· 7 min read

In the face of an escalating climate emergency, the global community is confronted with an unequivocal scientific consensus: to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, we must achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. This commitment extends beyond a mere moral obligation; it stands as a critical imperative for the very survival of our planet. Failing to cap warming at 1.5°C will usher in devastating consequences, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and an array of human health risks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscores the urgency, emphasizing the need for rapid, profound, and sustained reductions in global GHG emissions, coupled with large-scale removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The path to net-zero, however, is laden with unprecedented challenges. A stark reality confronts us: a 45% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 and a complete cessation by 2050, relative to 2010 levels. Such a transformation necessitates rapid and unprecedented transitions across all sectors of the economy and society, spanning energy, transport, industry, agriculture, and land use. Even if we succeed in dramatically slashing emissions, it remains insufficient. The IPCC estimates that 100-1,000 gigatons of CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere over the 21st century to limit warming to 1.5°C – equivalent to 10-100 years of current global emissions. The persistent accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere over time underscores the need for active measures to extract and permanently store it.

Nature and tech in harmony

Enter Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), a multifaceted array of methods and technologies designed to capture and store CO2. CDR can be categorized into Nature-based solutions, harnessing natural processes like photosynthesis and weathering, and Technological solutions, involving machinery for atmospheric CO2 capture. Nature-based solutions encompass reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, wetland restoration, and ocean fertilization. On the flip side, technological counterparts include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture and storage (DACS).

Yet, the current state of CDR falls dismally short. According to a recent report by scientists in Europe and the United States, new methods of CDR currently account for a mere 0.1% of the 2 billion metric tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere each year – a fraction compared to the colossal 37 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions². This glaring disparity forms what we term the "carbon removal gap" – a void that demands swift closure through concerted and coordinated action from all stakeholders, including governments, businesses, civil society, and academia.

Navigating the opportunities and barriers of the CDR landscape

Scaling up CDR is not merely a task; it's a strategic endeavor that requires a nuanced understanding of the landscape, encompassing opportunities and barriers alike.


  • Increasing awareness and demand: Governments, businesses, and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the need for CDR solutions, reflecting a growing demand that propels innovation and investment.
  • Diverse funding sources: The landscape is enriched by the availability and attractiveness of funding and financing sources for CDR solutions, ranging from government grants to carbon markets, corporate partnerships, and impact investing.
  • Innovation and collaboration: The potential for innovation and collaboration among CDR stakeholders is immense, fostering knowledge exchange, best practices, and lessons learned across different regions, sectors, and disciplines.


  • High costs and risks: CDR solutions, especially technological ones in early stages, grapple with high costs and associated risks, demanding sustained investment and development.
  • Lack of clear standards: The absence of clear and robust standards and frameworks poses challenges, potentially compromising the quality, integrity, and transparency of CDR solutions, and risking issues like double counting and emissions displacement.
  • Policy and regulatory framework: The absence of supportive policies, incentives, and markets creates obstacles, hindering the creation of an enabling and conducive environment for CDR solutions, and complicating regulatory, legal, and social challenges.
  • Public skepticism: Some CDR solutions face public skepticism and opposition, especially those involving geological storage or large-scale land use. Public engagement and education become paramount to increase awareness and acceptance.

A linchpin for hard-to-abate sectors

One key facet of CDR is Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS), a linchpin that holds immense promise, particularly for challenging-to-decarbonize sectors such as oil and gas. These sectors collectively contribute about 30% of global CO2 emissions and encounter significant hurdles in transitioning to cleaner technologies.

CCUS, in this context, acts as a bridge, offering an immediate solution to reduce emissions while alternative technologies are developed and deployed at scale. However, it's crucial to underline that CCUS is not a carte blanche for business as usual. Industries must uphold their responsibility to reduce emissions as much as possible through measures like energy efficiency, electrification, fuel switching, circular economy practices, and innovation.

The success of CCUS in these sectors depends on addressing several challenges:

  • Technology maturity: CCUS technologies, especially in the context of hard-to-abate sectors, need further development and deployment to reach maturity. Continued research and innovation are crucial to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance overall feasibility.
  • Infrastructure development: Establishing the necessary infrastructure for CCUS, including pipelines and storage facilities, is a significant undertaking. Collaboration between governments, industries, and investors is imperative to create a supportive environment for infrastructure development.
  • Policy and regulatory framework: Clear and consistent policies are essential to provide a regulatory framework for CCUS deployment. Governments play a pivotal role in creating incentives, setting emission reduction targets, and ensuring that regulations are conducive to the growth of CCUS technologies. A well-defined regulatory framework is essential for building investor confidence and ensuring the long-term success of CCUS initiatives.
  • Public acceptance: Overcoming public skepticism and addressing concerns about environmental and safety implications are critical for the success of CCUS. Public engagement and education campaigns are necessary to build trust and foster understanding of the benefits and risks associated with these technologies.
  • Financing and investment: The high upfront costs of CCUS projects, coupled with uncertainties in long-term revenue streams, pose challenges for attracting private investment. Governments, international organizations, and the private sector need to collaborate on financial mechanisms that make CCUS projects economically viable. Innovative funding models, such as carbon pricing and tax incentives, can play a pivotal role in encouraging investment in CCUS.

As we navigate the complexities of achieving net-zero and limiting global warming, CCUS emerges as a valuable tool. It offers a pragmatic approach to tackle emissions from sectors that are difficult to decarbonize promptly. However, it should be viewed as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes aggressive emission reduction measures, investments in renewable energy, and a commitment to sustainable practices across all sectors of the economy.

The path forward to NetZero

In conclusion, the carbon removal challenge presents a critical juncture that demands strategic and immediate action on a global scale. Bridging the carbon removal gap necessitates collaborative endeavors, innovative solutions, and unwavering commitment from stakeholders worldwide.

To navigate the path toward net-zero, governments, businesses, civil society, and academia must work hand in hand. Concerted efforts are required to scale up carbon removal technologies, both natural and technological, to meet the ambitious targets set by the IPCC. The success of these endeavors hinges on addressing challenges, seizing opportunities, and fostering a collective commitment to sustainability.

Governments play a pivotal role in setting clear and supportive policies, providing incentives, and creating an enabling environment for the growth of the carbon removal industry. International collaboration is essential for sharing best practices, knowledge exchange, and mobilizing resources to support carbon removal projects globally.

Businesses have a dual responsibility – to actively reduce their emissions through sustainable practices and innovation, and to support the development and deployment of carbon removal solutions. Collaboration between the public and private sectors is crucial to drive investment, innovation, and the adoption of sustainable technologies.

Public awareness and engagement are fundamental pillars of success. Educating communities about the importance of carbon removal, addressing concerns, and building trust are integral to the widespread acceptance and success of these initiatives. It's essential to convey the co-benefits of carbon removal, such as biodiversity conservation, improved air and water quality, and sustainable economic development.

As we stand at this pivotal juncture, the promise of achieving net-zero and safeguarding our planet hinges on our collective will to act – now and together. The carbon removal challenge is not insurmountable. With determination, collaboration, and innovation, we can pave the way for a sustainable future that prioritizes the health of our planet and future generations.

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.

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About the author

Bashir Dan is the CEO of Stack Carbon, a carbon asset developer and management company.

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