Leading The Charge On Climate: Carbon Removal's Role In Achieving Net Zero
The world is showing signs of progress in reducing carbon emissions and reaching peak emissions by 2025. But, to achieve net zero emissions, equal focus must also be given to carbon removal efforts.…
The world is making progress in reducing carbon emissions, largely due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the rise in funding from measures like the Inflation Reduction Act. But, to achieve net zero emissions, equal focus must also be given to carbon removal efforts. However, the question remains whether stigma and complacency will hinder progress. Many of us have likely heard the urgent warnings from national leaders and scientists that the next two-three years are crucial in averting the disastrous effects of climate change. According to reports, global carbon emissions must peak by 2025 and decrease by at least 50% by 2030 to prevent temperature increases exceeding 1.5 degrees. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts this goal is achievable, partly due to increased investment in renewable energy resulting from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Despite the potential for progress on curbing emissions however, the IPCC, the UN body that provides scientific information on climate change, has repeatedly stressed that attaining net zero emissions by 2050 necessitates not only reducing emissions but also investing in carbon removal technologies and methods. This is highlighted, for instance, in Chapter 12.3 of the IPCC's April 2022 report. The IPCC itself defines carbon removal as the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in a safe and permanent manner, including underground, in the ocean, in rocks, in soil and trees. Different, mostly nascent, technologies exist for carbon removal, including direct air capture (DAC) where carbon is literally extracted directly from the atmosphere in what is currently a very costly and energy intensive process, as well as more natural methods like reforestation and improved soil management. The necessity for such technologies and techniques is arguably two fold. Firstly, the IPCC's most optimistic projections for reducing global emissions estimate that they can be cut by 90-95% by 2050. So despite the best case scenario of the progress we can make, there will still be a residual 5-10% of emissions that need to be neutralized. This balancing act can, it is thought, be achieved by removing an equal amount of carbon - ton for ton - from the atmosphere through carbon removal techniques. Ultimately though, in the long run, humanity must eventually get to a point where we are capable of removing more carbon than we emit, referred to as net negative emissions, to counteract the damage done to the earth's atmosphere over time.Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Hoesung Lee looks arrives to a press ... [+] conference on a special IPCC report on climate change and land on August 8, 2019 in Geneva. - Humanity faces increasingly painful trade-offs between food security and rising temperatures within decades unless it curbs emissions and stops unsustainable farming and deforestation, a landmark climate assessment said the IPCC. Negotiators from 195 countries on August 8, 2019 finalised the most comprehensive scientific assessment yet of how the land we live off affects climate change, after marathon talks in Geneva. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images This brings us to the second reason for pursuing carbon removal, relating to the sheer amount of carbon that has already been released into the atmosphere. Even if all the world's emissions came to a sudden stop tomorrow, the reality is that temperatures would continue to rise for several decades (or even centuries) due to the long lifetime of some greenhouse gasses and the accumulated effect of past emissions. So, not only do we need to offset residual emissions to stabilize global temperatures, but we must overtime also begin to proactively reduce the amount of carbon we have already emitted into the atmosphere over the past two centuries. Yes, and no. Part of the controversy surrounding carbon removal arises in part from its frequent confusion with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Remember that the goal of carbon removal techniques is to remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce the overall concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. In contrast, CCS usually refers to methods for capturing carbon emissions produced by industrial processes or power plants, particularly coal-fired ones, and storing them to avoid releasing them into the atmosphere. Because of this, CCS is often, and arguably quite rightly, criticized for being a form of greenwashing; used by the fossil fuel industry as a means to continue business as usual without having to make significant cuts to their emissions. Investing in carbon removal strategies is also sometimes criticized by those who argue that the current priority should be on the monumental task of decarbonizing the economy. Make no mistake; the transition to a low carbon economy is one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced. The reality is however that we do not have time to delay either making progress on emissions abatement or scaling new carbon removal technologies and techniques. Both must be addressed simultaneously.
So what is preventing us from scaling up carbon removal?
Right now, we are not investing anywhere near at the level needed to take carbon removal techniques to scale. According to John Doerr's book "Speed & Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now," even if our most optimistic emissions reduction efforts are successful by 2050, there would still be a significant amount of residual emissions, approximately 10 billion tons (17% of the world's total emissions), that need to be removed, in addition to the existing carbon concentration in the atmosphere. Yet, as Doerr further notes, as of 2021, DAC, for instance, had only sequestered a total of 2,500 tons of carbon. That might sound promising, but it's the equivalence of the electricity used annually by almost 500 homes in the US. We clearly have a long way to go.
Moreover, because it's incredibly expensive to sequester carbon there is not really much of a market for new carbon removal techniques. As Doerr notes in his book, 'The practical issue with carbon removal is a lack of any real incentive to pay for it. Why would anyone fork over six hundred dollars or even three hundred dollars to erase a ton of carbon from the air?' To be sure, there has been some encouraging new developments over the last year or two. Stripe, known for its payment processing platform, has long stood out for its commitment to supporting efforts to nurture a large-scale market for carbon removal. Last year, it launched Frontier, 'an advance market commitment to buy an initial $925M of permanent carbon removal between 2022 and 2030.' As well as Stripe, the initiative is currently being funded by Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey.
We should also note here the incredible momentum that has emerged in recent years around the potential of nature based solutions such as tree planting. I am a big fan of this movement (disclaimer: I've advocated in support of the Trillion Trees Initiative). However, tree planting is far from a silver bullet. Firstly, it is simply not practical to rely on it as a sole solution to humanity's sequestration needs. As Doerr notes in Speed & Scale, 'for trees to remove the emissions of Americans alone, we'd need to dedicate half of the world's landmass.' Secondly, to cite Doerr again, and as countless media reports have highlighted over the years, 'Trees get burned… stored carbon gets released back into the air.' They are not a permanent solution. Again that is not to say there is no value in nature based solutions, and given the amount of carbon stored in existing forests such as the Amazon, we can achieve a lot by simply cutting down on deforestation.
In the end, and as the IPCC notes, 'public awareness around carbon removal is low.' Until that changes it may remain the case that investment in carbon removal remains limited.
So we need to build a movement in support of carbon removal?
This is certainly the stance of one man, Craig Cohon, who is currently walking from London to Istanbul as part of a personal mission to "walk back' his lifetime emissions and promote carbon removal. Cohon feels strongly that governments, businesses, and individuals must take action on both reducing emissions and removing carbon to effectively address the climate crisis.This photograph taken on January 15, 2023, shows London-based, Canadian former Coca Cola Global ... [+] Brand manager Craig Cohon poses on the Champs-Elysees avenue, surrounded by students and environmental activists, during his stage in Paris. - Craig Cohon has undertaken a 4.000 kms walk from London to Istanbul to reverse his lifetime carbon footprint going back to 1963 and raise awareness about climate change. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP) (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty Images)AFP via Getty Images
Cohon started his journey from London a month ago at the start of the year, and I joined him on his first night and second day (disclaimer: Craig is a board member of Global Citizen, the organization I work for). Currently, at the point of writing, his website states that he is about 12 hours from reaching Amsterdam.
So, why is Cohon doing the walk? Craig explains on his website, 'I have lived a very privileged white man's carbon-polluting Boomer life.' He goes on to quantify his lifetime carbon footprint, which equates to the distance from London to Istanbul when translated from carbon tons into miles.
Cohon has certainly put his money where his mouth is. With the support of the climate technology company, Patch, Cohon has invested 1 million pounds of his own pension fund into carbon removal technologies. Nonetheless, more than one person has criticized Craig's "Walk It Back" campaign for its perceived lack of clarity on how it will contribute to a larger scale of carbon removal. Arguably, such criticisms stem from the typical skepticism often exhibited towards advocacy efforts, which aim to impact policy decisions, rather than directly bringing about specific programmatic changes. Policy advocacy can be difficult yes, but, if it's effective, has the potential to impact millions of people.
To that end, partnering with Re-Earth, Cohon has compiled a robust policy agenda looking specifically at the role cities can play to scale carbon removal techniques, such as through their procurement policies. During his journey, Cohon is meeting with city leaders to promote these policies (according to his website, he has already met with 4). He has also developed a suite of actions businesses and individuals can take, including guidance on how to calculate their own lifetime emissions. Additionally, Cohon's walk is accompanied by a huge, refurbished shipping container powered by clean energy. It serves as both a home on wheels and a learning center showcasing prototypes of various carbon removal methods. Ultimately, the Walk It Back campaign seeks to inspire actions, initiatives and spin off campaigns that remove no less than 100,000 tonnes of carbon.
Beyond immediate policy change however, the impact of Cohon's walk may lie in the direct impact it has on the people he meets along the way. In her book, Saving Us, Katherine Hayhoe makes the powerful case of how talking about personal actions to address climate change can have a significant impact. She cites an example of a man who had a few conversations in his immediate network, which led to 12,000 subsequent conversations, resulting in his local council taking action on climate change by divesting from fossil fuels and increasing the use of renewable energy.
On that cold, miserable, overcast day I joined Craig just south of London, we met 14 people who had varying responses - some were disheartened, while others were optimistic. Nevertheless, after speaking with Craig and learning about his walk, most of them were left in disbelief, but all seemed more motivated, empowered even, and walked away with what seemed to be a new spring in their steps. As we continued our journey, I wondered if they would go on to take action and what the potential impact - ripples of change, of hope - could be. An African proverb seemed particularly apt, "To go fast, go alone. To go further, go together." In the end, it will take the combined effort of all of us - governments, businesses and individuals - to effectively "walk it back" on climate change.