The Biden administration signaled that the U.S. was back at the climate diplomacy table last week, using the Leaders Summit on Climate to release an updated pledge to the world on what the U.S. will do to address climate change (known as our nationally determined contribution, or “NDC”). Given political realities, the new U.S. NDC sets a fairly ambitious, yet achievable goal of reducing GHG emissions 50 percent by 2030. Coupled with Biden’s campaign promise to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, this NDC sets the U.S. on a credible path to eliminating additional emissions in line with what scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.  

But there’s a catch: eliminating emissions isn’t enough. As U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry remarked, “even if we get to net zero by 2050… we still have to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A lot of people don’t focus on that.”

Kerry is right. Scientists and environmental groups increasingly agree that we need to develop and scale carbon removal strategies, including approaches such as forest restoration, agricultural practices that sequester carbon in soils, and technologies that capture and store carbon directly from the atmosphere. 

And carbon removal is out of focus for much of the climate conversation. While carbon removal came up in a few interesting ways during the Summit, the U.S. NDC — and the NDCs of nearly all other countries — lacks specifics on many key questions related to carbon removal: how much and what types of carbon removal do we plan to use? By when? And what efforts do we plan to launch today to get us there in time to deliver on the Paris Agreement goals? 

Answering these questions on carbon removal today is essential, even as reaching net-zero goals remains over the horizon. Developing and deploying carbon removal technologies, policies, and standards in an equitable way that delivers large scale negative emissions while avoiding major unintended social and environmental consequences will take decades. If we don’t start working on carbon removal now, we risk badly missing our climate and sustainable development targets, even as we make strides towards decarbonizing the economy.

So what might the U.S. and global climate leaders do to begin addressing carbon removal in a more focused way in their climate plans? Here are a few ideas:

Say it’s important. 

Only by world leaders saying that carbon removal needs to be on the climate agenda — and part of NDCs — will carbon removal get on the climate agenda in a robust and durable way.

Set a dedicated carbon removal target. 

Countries that are first in setting clearly measurable and time-bound goals around carbon removal will lead on a global scale. Furthermore, distinct goals for carbon removal will provide valuable transparency into efforts to reduce emissions — a point well taken by the EU who just legislated their climate law with this distinction.

Develop frameworks for equity and scientific rigor in carbon removal efforts. 

The silver lining of the carbon removal field being underdeveloped is that there is still an opportunity to develop standards that push the field towards a more equitable and environmentally responsible design. Coordinated efforts to set standards for carbon removal innovation and deployment — including lifecycle carbon accounting — can help ensure carbon removal projects deliver on their promised climate impacts, create tangible benefits for communities that deploy them, and avoid unintended environmental and/or social impacts.

Walk the walk. 

At the end of the day, what really matters is that countries begin investing in carbon removal innovation and early deployment efforts, and coordinating efforts with aligned partners to the extent practicable. We need both a multi-billion dollar research and development strategy and incentives to scale carbon removal — starting at a modest level (e.g., 10,000 tons per year scale of today’s projects) and ramping quickly to the billions of tons per year scale as technological innovation progresses. Countries around the world have varying opportunities to contribute to these missions, and coordinated efforts can help us move farther, faster. 

The world needs carbon removal to get us to zero, and then negative emissions. It’s time climate leaders get serious about how we scale carbon removal in a socially, economically, and environmentally beneficial way.

Noah Deich is cofounder and president of Carbon180, a new breed of non-profit dedicated to accelerating the development of carbon removal solutions.

Published on Apr 28, 2021