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The case for federal procurement of carbon removal

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By Erin Burns

· 4 min read

Our vision for legacy emissions involves the world’s largest customer.

There is unprecedented action on carbon removal in the US today. The bipartisan infrastructure deal of 2021 included billions of dollars for direct air capture (DAC) and forestry. The Biden Administration has reoriented existing agency efforts around carbon removal, launching the Carbon Negative Earthshot and shifting how the Department of Energy approaches carbon management. Most recently,the FY22 omnibus brought the total federal investment in carbon removal this year to over a billion dollars across solutions.

To get carbon removal to the billion-ton scale, we need new policies that build on these landmark investments in R&D and infrastructure. Those policies should prioritize equity and justice, ensure durable carbon storage, leverage private sector investments, and align with climate goals.

So, what’s next?

We think the answer is clear: the federal government should directly purchase carbon removal. The government is in a position to procure carbon removal as a service, creating a much-needed certain and significant customer for carbon removal companies and practitioners. It also allows the government to ensure that projects meet high standards from labor practices to durability.

As we’ve seen in the recent IPCC report, we must scale carbon removal to meet climate goals and how we scale it matters. To that end, procurement offers significant benefits.

  • It’s solution agnostic. Procurement can focus on metrics like durability and scale, rather than picking and choosing specific carbon removal pathways. That reorients the focus to removing carbon from the atmosphere and doesn’t require congressional action every time there’s a promising new removal pathway.
  • It sets standards. Strong standards on measurement and verification are needed across carbon removal, including to ensure private sector purchases are high quality.
  • It allows for robust protections. As the customer, the federal government can require projects to include meaningful community engagement, strong labor practices, consideration of non-CO2 impacts, and other metrics that will ensure these projects are aligned with key equity and justice principles.
  • It’s designed to drive innovation. Providing a long-term customer for projects is one of the most direct ways to support new, groundbreaking solutions.

Recent action in the private sector from companies like Stripe and Shopify has shown how impactful procurement can be. While this early action has been and will continue to be catalytic, these companies can’t do it alone. We’re going to need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, which is more than voluntary purchases can cover. Plus, federal action can set standards that will improve the quality of carbon removal purchases and allow for new private sector engagement from companies that don’t have the resources or expertise to create those standards on their own.

And there are numerous examples of the federal government using its purchasing power to drive clean energy and climate action, from Obama-era power purchase agreements to President Biden’s recent executive order articulating the role of procurement in meeting net-zero emissions.

And we’re already starting to see Congressional action on federal procurement of carbon removal. Congressman Paul Tonko and Congressman Scott Peters just introduced the Federal CDR Leadership Act. The bill is both ambitious in vision and pragmatic in approach, focusing on highly durable carbon removal with the ultimate goal of lowering costs for both established and emerging pathways.

Over the past few years, both Congress and the Biden administration have responded to what we’ve heard from climate experts with increasing urgency: reaching our climate goals requires gigaton-scale carbon removal and gigaton-scale carbon removal requires robust policy support. With major investments in R&D and infrastructure, strong private sector action, and more carbon removal companies than any other country in the world, the US couldn’t be better positioned to lead on this essential climate solution. What’s needed now is the next wave of policy to move from tens of thousands of tons to millions and then billions.

Since the early days of Carbon180, we’ve been excited about federal procurement to thoughtfully and rapidly scale carbon removal. What’s been missing is the political momentum. Now, we have policymakers who are as enthusiastic about this as we are. It’s time for the US to take the next step on carbon removal in order to remove legacy emissions and create a livable climate for all.

This article is also published by Carbon 180. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Erin Burns is Executive Director of Carbon180 and she worked in the Senate, handling energy, environment, and labor, including staffing for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Public Lands Subcommittee. She also worked at Third Way, a DC-based think tank and coal community transition.

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