Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Carbon Removal Research – Opportunities for Action

Oak in the stone

Seeding research funding into carbon removal options now will pay dividends in the coming decades: Photo credit: Jamie McCaffrey / Foter / CC BY

By Guy Lomax and Peju Adeosun

Last month, we published a Commentary in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, co-authored with Professor Tim Lenton and Dr. Mark Workman, calling on policymakers to begin engaging with and supporting the research and development of a range of different techniques for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

We wrote it because we believe carbon removal is now at a critical point in its journey.

Over the last 18 months, major academic organisations from the IPCC to the National Academy of Sciences have begun to recognise the potential importance of removing carbon from the atmosphere in addition to the main event of reducing emissions to tackle climate change.

Yet this recognition has not been taken up by most decision makers. At best, carbon removal is often considered something to be thought about in a few decades’ time; at worst it’s considered a dangerous distraction.

Yet the decisions made regarding carbon removal today could shape the future of this group of responses for decades, and determine whether they are able to make a significant positive impact towards a sustainable climate-restoring future. .

In a Commentary in the same journal published last year, Dr. Sabine Fuss and fourteen other highly respected leaders across the carbon abatement landscape pointed out that more than half of the climate model scenarios compatible with the 2°C ceiling now call for “negative emissions” (i.e. more carbon leaving the atmosphere than entering it) at a massive, multi-billion tonne scale before 2100.

In other words, meeting global 2°C or 1.5°C temperature targets increasingly means that at some point before 2100, the world must achieve ‘net zero’ emissions. “Net zero” implies that any remaining carbon added to the atmosphere must be neutralised by an equivalent amount physically removed.

And after that, many of the model scenarios now suggest that the sum of activities across all our societies, industries and economies must then begin net removing carbon from the atmosphere year on year.

“it is time to start closing this gap between the models and the technological reality of greenhouse gas removal”


However, Dr. Fuss et al. also pointed out that almost all models currently rely on Bioenergy with CCS to achieve the bulk of that removal goal.

Achieving negative emissions through Bio-CCS is relatively straightforward in the abstract world of climate models. However, in reality, it relies on combining two technologies that are already facing their own major technical, economic, social and environmental challenges, and that raise further techno-economic challenges when combined.

And Bio-CCS at the scale required raises serious questions over our ability to sustainably source vast quantities of biomass resources and access sufficient geological storage. Additionally, there are few dedicated bio-CCS plants operating in the world today, and even fewer plans to scale them that we are aware of.

But if the best projections for the future imply that carbon removal may be necessary in a big way, we argue it is time to start closing this gap between the models and the technological reality of greenhouse gas removal, and sooner rather than later.

Our key message is one of urgency. For Bio-CCS, Dr. Fuss and her co-authors rightly called for a much closer look at this “unproven” technology and its true long-term potential before we put our faith in it. Yet while such analysis is important, it also keeps us firmly placed in the speculative world of long-term projections and far from the concrete and pressing needs of the wide range of emerging carbon removal proposals today.

Pioneering air capture start-ups, for example, don’t need more sophisticated scenarios; they need R&D funding, viable early markets and clearer promises of prices on carbon. Ecosystem restoration techniques need science and policy engagement to develop adequate monitoring, reporting and verification, and help educating landowners to start rolling out at scale. And other frontier areas from advanced capture technologies to carbon negative materials need research agencies to stop treating them as something outside the remit of cleantech or climate mitigation and start allocating funding to them.

“we need to make use of the relative luxury of time that is currently afforded to us”


Crucially, developing any carbon removal approach to the scale at which it could have a sustainable, material impact on avoiding dangerous climate change cannot happen overnight.

Developing the technology, infrastructure, economic case and supportive policy systems can take decades of significant effort, even for a well-funded technology. For comparison, it took three decades of continuous RD&D investment by government and industry in the UK’s “Dash for Gas” to bring the new CCGT gas turbine design from pilot plant to mainstream technology. Solar PV systems still supply less than 1% of the Earth’s electricity demand, despite decades of lab development and industrial scale-up.

Equally, we argue that our understanding of how and whether sustainable, large-scale carbon removal might be ultimately be possible will come from our real-world experiences as well as models and scenarios. In the case of bioenergy, for example, two decades of scenario analysis has not yet resolved questions of what the “sustainable supply” of biomass might be in 2050. “Learning by doing” might be the best way to get a handle on these long-term questions as well.

Yet some models suggest the world might need to be removing more than two billion tonnes of CO2 per year globally by 2050. And if society wishes to decrease atmospheric CO2 levels, say back to 350ppm or less, on anything other than geologic timescales, we need to make use of the relative luxury of time that is currently afforded to us to sensibly and carefully start down this path of engaging with carbon removal as soon as we can.

So yes, while we must think hard about the long-term consequences of a net-carbon-removing world post-2050, we also need to begin to prioritise useful, practical progress and start laying the groundwork to even have the option of getting there. This, we argue, will help ensure that carbon removal tools and policy structures are developed and ready for humanity if and when we need them.

“The benefits of carbon removal are severely limited if we carry on business as usual in other areas.”


The authors calling for more analysis into these scenarios and techniques also have a point. Carbon removal as a whole is still in its infancy. And whilst we know the earth system has been capable of gigatonne scale carbon removal for quite some time, we don’t yet know if human efforts to create, enhance or even restore some of these carbon sinks can ultimately work at the scale the models require.

More to the point, even these ambitious goals for scaling removal of carbon from the atmosphere will only give us a chance to keep below 2°C of warming if we also put our collective foot to the floor on all other opportunities for reducing carbon emissions in the first place. The benefits of carbon removal are severely limited if we carry on business as usual in other areas. Policy must ensure that carbon removal cannot be used to justify prolonging carbon-intensive practice where there are realistic alternatives.

Where do we start, then? Well, four priorities stand out:

1. Scale up public RD&D spending on carbon removal options to help them develop. Ideally, this may come from the budgets currently allocated to fossil fuel technologies and other subsidies in that sector. But even without raising low-carbon R&D spending, giving carbon-removing activities a larger share of available funds would likely pay off.

2.  Make sure that those more mature and low-cost carbon removal options (such as ecosystem restoration) have markets or incentives available to them by supporting them through relevant existing climate mitigation policy arrangements.

3. Start working on how best to incorporate carbon removal into carbon pricing or market schemes, and commit to this early on to support innovators. This must ensure that greenhouse gas removal supports the effective functioning of these mechanisms, and does not destabilise carbon markets or take the pressure off feasible emissions reduction options.

4. Last, begin laying the wider groundwork to make sure that any viable carbon removal systems are not ‘locked out’ in future. We must make provision for these technologies of tomorrow as we design the policy and energy infrastructure of today, even where we don’t expect to see them deployed for some time, and where their potential today is uncertain.

Please note that these suggestions are merely a starting point. It will take sustained effort and investment, and dialogues between governments, the private sector, academia and the public to make sustainable progress towards a healthy climate and ocean over the coming decades.

Right now, however, policy leadership on any one of the steps we suggest would be a hugely valuable boon to the people currently working hard around the world to advance scalable and sustainable ways of taking carbon out of the air.