A preeminent climate report, co-authored by scientists from around the world and scheduled to be published next week, is expected to affirm that humans have released too many greenhouse gas emissions and that removing them is essential for a climate-safe future. A growing number of governments and corporations are responding to this climate challenge by investing in solutions that remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Many on the market are taking a portfolio approach, investing in a wide range of promising solutions and minimizing risk. To continue encouraging innovation and a menu of proven options, it’s imperative to keep a level playing field and avoid picking winners and losers.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the author of the upcoming benchmark report, has previously found that gigatons of carbon already lodged in our atmosphere need to be scrubbed from the skies, in tandem with the crucial work of companies and governments reducing their emissions. While there is clarity on the need for massive amounts of carbon removal, the definition of removals is one that is still being grappled with.
The length of time that carbon stays locked away once it is removed from the atmosphere emerges as a key definitional question as the industry scales. Different forms of removal lock away carbon dioxide for different amounts of time — ranging from decades to hundreds of thousands of years. Projects should not be written off just because the carbon they sequester is shorter-term in duration. These approaches are more bountiful in the existing market and are generally more affordable. Shorter-term approaches also help give society a bit of breathing space as the crucial work of decarbonizing operations continues to ramp up. Locking away carbon today, even if it does not stay locked away forever, buys important time to avoid hitting climate tipping points.
But approaches that lock away carbon for shorter amounts of time are only one part of the equation. Solutions — such as geological mineralization or ocean alkalinity enhancement — can last for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years respectively, and help to ensure that the carbon removed from the atmosphere stays locked away. Approaches that address the fast and slow aspects of the carbon cycle should both be part of the solution, rather than facing the current competitive “either / or” approach that is at risk of roiling the carbon removal industry.
Taking an inclusive approach to carbon removals spurs private sector investment and leads to the scaling up of multiple solutions. In the same way that the cost of solar has decreased dramatically, carbon removal can follow a similar arc if tech-neutrality is enshrined in policies and investments. We see this with leadership like the U.S. Energy Department’s Carbon Negative Shot, which is designed to expedite innovation across multiple approaches to carbon removal. We also see it in the $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, which encourages a diversity of carbon removal projects in the fast and slow carbon cycle.
Based on purchases of carbon removal credits today, there is evidence that many corporations already are taking a portfolio approach to support climate actions in a range of ways that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Doing so helps them to manage risk and ensures that as many climate solutions as possible are supported. A portfolio approach does not mean that each ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere is or should be priced the same. Longer-term storage solutions generally come with a higher price tag, with the costs of innovative approaches needing to be covered in order to continue scaling up.
Each carbon removal approach provides a unique series of benefits beyond just locking away carbon, from the local jobs that can be created to new sources or revenues for communities. While methods to remove carbon vary, there are points of commonality across all of them. At the project level, maximizing co-benefits and building community support are crucial elements of responsible deployment. For companies or governments realizing a net-zero or net-negative pledge, there is a benefit to supporting dual and reinforcing targets that provide clarity about how much carbon to limit from entering the atmosphere and how much to remove.
In the race to reach gigaton-scale removals, the more crowded the playing field, the better. The key to success is keeping the field level so that multiple forms of carbon removal can scale to spur innovation and protect communities from the impacts of climate change.
Philip Moss is the global director of tech removals at South Pole, a company that develops and implements comprehensive emission reduction projects, and he is the chairman of the board for the NextGen CDR Facility.
Ben Rubin is the executive director of the Carbon Business Council, a tech neutral coalition with more than 80 carbon management companies.
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