To achieve the ambitious climate goals the Paris Agreement sets, these innovative solutions must ramp up quickly, removing gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies are crucial tools in the fight against climate change, but their development and scaling must accelerate to align with global policy targets. A recent study led by Gregory Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, sheds light on the urgency of advancing these technologies to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. As the world prepares for the UN Climate Change Conference on November 30, 2023, whether climate technologies are progressing rapidly enough to fulfil the Paris Agreement’s demands looms. Nemet’s research emphasises that novel CDR methods must scale up significantly faster to achieve the agreement’s temperature goal of limiting global warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees Celsius. Achieving this goal necessitates the removal of hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere throughout the century, underscoring the critical role of novel CDR technologies.
CDR encompasses techniques for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. Traditional CDR methods include reforestation, wetland restoration, and improved forest management. Novel CDR methods, on the other hand, have only seen limited deployment and include bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, direct air carbon capture and storage, and biochar. These innovations offer potentially more durable carbon storage than conventional approaches relying on trees and soils.
In a recent publication in Communications Earth & Environment on October 30, 2023, Nemet and his team introduced the Historical Adoption of TeCHnology (HATCH) dataset. This innovative resource tracks and analyzes various agricultural, industrial, and consumer technologies adopted over the past century, providing insights into the scaling of new technologies like carbon removal. The study analyzed the emergence and growth of 148 technologies spanning 11 categories, dating back to the early 20th century. It then cross-referenced this data with IPCC CDR scenarios, company announcements regarding CDR scale-up plans, and policy-driven CDR targets. While the research found that scaling up carbon removal technologies falls within the historical range of previous efforts, company announcements and government targets suggest significantly faster growth than historical records and IPCC scenarios.
Balancing Historical Insights
The scale-up rates needed for carbon removal to meet the 2- and 1.5-degree Celsius targets are within the range of historical experience, even if at the high end. Drawing from historical lessons, the study aims to facilitate the rapid scaling of carbon removal technologies in the coming decades. However, a study reveals that current carbon dioxide removal efforts amount to just 2 gigatons per year, primarily through tree planting, with novel CDR contributing only 0.1%. This falls far short of the hundreds of gigatons needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals.
To limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, almost all scenarios require substantial deployment of novel CDR methods, with an average increase of 1,300 times by mid-century. The study suggests that accelerating the formative phase, the period between technology introduction and rapid production scaling, for novel CDR methods is essential to address the climate crisis. Speeding up innovation during this phase can expedite technology adoption and align with the urgent needs of a warming planet.
Jan Minx, head of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change working group Applied Sustainability Science, emphasizes the need for greater commitment to novel removal technologies, stating, “The required levels will only be feasible if we see substantial development of novel CDR’s formative phase in the next 15 years.” The future of our planet hinges on the swift advancement and implementation of these critical carbon removal technologies.