Home News We need to draw down carbon—not just stop emitting it

We need to draw down carbon—not just stop emitting it


But carbon removal has become a sensitive topic. What is truly worrying is that the growing focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may encourage governments and businesses to delay or even avoid the most obvious and immediate response to climate change: preventing emissions from entering the atmosphere in the first place.

The convenient perception that we may continue to pump out huge amounts of carbon dioxide and simply clean up the atmosphere in the future is an example of so-called “moral hazard.” It has the potential to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels and push the cost of fighting climate change to future generations.

This is a legitimate concern.some companies have wrongly suggested Carbon removal could keep our emissions at nearly half of current global levels. But this will require absorption and storage of carbon dioxide at levels that are almost certainly not technically, environmentally or economically feasible, or possibly all of the above.

However, there is also a real risk that stigmatizing carbon rather than a moral hazard issue creates a greater danger: delaying much-needed investment and jeopardizing our ability to meet future climate goals. Unfortunately, after decades of delays, there are few paths to achieving our climate goals that require neither cutting emissions today nor building the capacity to absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide in the coming decades.

Emission reductions are not enough

Why does carbon need to be removed in the first place, and why can’t we stop climate change by achieving “absolute zero” emissions? A recent UN report identified four distinct roles for carbon removal in climate modelling scenarios that would limit warming to well below 2˚C below pre-industrial levels by 2100.

First, while fossil fuels can be replaced by clean energy alternatives in most economies, industries that are difficult to fully decarbonize will continue to emit some CO2. These are major industries like aviation, cement and steel production where we simply don’t have affordable, scalable carbon-free technology available. While more work needs to be done to understand how low our CO2 emissions can be, these industries will likely continue to generate billions of tons of production each year that need to be neutralized by carbon removal.

Second, carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas warming the planet. Others, including methane and nitrous oxide from sources such as cattle, animal manure and fertilizers, are much more difficult to eliminate completely.

A recent United Nations report found that existing technologies could reduce emissions of these gases by about 50 percent, while additional behavioral changes such as dietary changes could push it to 66 percent. However, carbon removal must offset a considerable residual amount.

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