Zero, then negative: Why getting to net-zero isn’t enough

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Reducing our emissions as quickly as possible is absolutely essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Over the past couple of years, “net-zero” emission has emerged as a climate target both in the private sector and from the federal government. This has included strong investments in renewable and low-carbon energy, electric vehicles, storage and other fundamental decarbonization pathways. 

Alone, however, it isn’t enough. Even if we stopped emitting today, it wouldn’t undo the last two centuries of human activity — we also need to remove carbon from the atmosphere and go beyond net-zero to reach negative emissions. 

To date, we have emitted billions of metric tons of CO2 — our legacy emissions — which are impacting people around the world. In particular, the most vulnerable communities in the U.S. and globally are being disproportionately harmed, exacerbating existing environmental injustices. Stopping our emissions is necessary, but insufficient. 

Luckily, we have carbon removal solutions, ranging from land-based pathways like improving soil carbon storage to technological pathways like direct air capture. Climate models show we will need to scale these solutions to eventually pull billions of tons of carbon from the air each year. Today, direct air capture (DAC) projects remove only about 10,000 tons of CO2 a year and soils are still largely an untapped solution. 

Just like federal action is needed to reach zero, it’s needed especially for negative emissions to scale responsibly and quickly. 

This isn’t just about climate, though. Carbon removal can create high-paying, union jobs and drive prosperity. Each megaton DAC project is expected to create around 3,000 direct jobs, relying on steel, cement and other products. “Carbontech” represents a $1 trillion total available market in the U.S. alone. And land pathways can improve local air and water quality and build resilience to extreme weather.

There’s been incredible federal support as of late. In 2020, Congress created the first-ever federal carbon removal research and development program while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in negative emissions pathways. This past November, the Department of Energy (DOE) launched their Carbon Negative Earthshot to align federal efforts around scaling durable carbon removal to less than $100 ton. And then at the end of last year, the bipartisan law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $3.5 billion — yes, billion — for four regional Direct Air Capture Hubs that can capture 1 million tons of CO2 each, which represents not just the single largest investment from any government ever in DAC, but would also increase global DAC capacity about 400 fold.

This is just the beginning. As policymakers look at what’s needed next, there are a few places in particular they should prioritize:

First, develop policies that focus on drawing down legacy emissions with carbon removal, without delaying mitigation.

Second, ensure community engagement shapes carbon removal projects as they are sited and built, untethering the field as a whole from fossil fuels.

Third, soils can play a major role in removing carbon and building resilience for American farmers; in the upcoming farm bill, Congress should invest in foundational science and research to improve our ability to measure, report and verify how much carbon is in our soils.

The efforts we’re making today to reach net-zero are needed and carbon removal is a necessary complement to those efforts, not a replacement. 

Erin Burns is the executive director of think tank Carbon180, focused on equitably scaling carbon removal and addressing the climate crisis. She previously worked on energy, labor and coal worker transition issues in the Senate. Follow her on Twitter: @erinmburns

Tags carbon emissions climate action Climate change Fossil fuels net zero

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