6 Things to Know about Carbon Removal and the Climate Crisis

By Kelley Gardner

New research shows that at least 85 percent of the global population has already experienced weather events made worse or more frequent by climate change, and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that many of the impacts of climate change are widespread, intensifying, and likely irreversible.

Meanwhile, global carbon capture projects have surged 50 percent in the last nine months as governments and organizations look for ways to cut emissions and curb global warming; the world’s largest carbon capture plant opened in Iceland last month to pull thousands of metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and pump it underground using geothermal energy.

What is carbon removal, and is it critical to reversing climate change? We asked David Morrow, director of research at SIS’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy, to share with us six things to know about carbon removal and climate change.

Carbon removal includes a wide variety of approaches to cleaning up carbon pollution from the air. These range from nature-based approaches, like forest restoration and regenerative agriculture, to more engineered approaches, like machines that capture CO2 directly from the air. What they all have in common is the ability to take CO2 from the air and store or sequester it for a long time.

Carbon removal can help reduce—and even reverse—climate change. CO2 is the main physical driver of human-caused climate change, and a large fraction of all CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. By cleaning up that CO2 and eventually drawing down atmospheric CO2 levels, carbon removal can help reduce or even reverse climate change.

Carbon removal is likely essential to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. In the Paris Agreement, the international community committed itself to holding global warming well below 2C, and ideally below 1.5C, all in the context of sustainable development. To do that, humanity needs to get to net-zero emissions and maybe even go “net-negative,” removing more CO2 from the air than we emit every year. Carbon removal will likely play a vital role in achieving those goals.

Carbon removal is not a replacement for cutting emissions. The most important thing we can do to stop climate change is to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2. Carbon removal can provide an essential supplement to emissions reductions, but it’s too slow and expensive to do all the work that needs to be done.

Carbon removal is not the same as fossil carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is sometimes touted as a way to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. This is not carbon removal. To tell the difference, pay attention to where the carbon comes from: carbon removal takes carbon out of the air and puts it underground, while fossil CCS just catches carbon from fossil fuels before it escapes into the air.

Not all carbon removal is created equal. Every approach to carbon removal comes with benefits, risks, opportunities, and trade-offs—but some approaches are better than others, and some will work better in some places than others. Creativity, scientific research, and good policy can help foster sustainable carbon removal.

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