There are two reasons we need carbon removals. The first is that we can’t now do reductions fast enough – we have left it too late. Scenarios from the Energy Transition Commission, the IPCC and the International Energy Agency all show that even if we reduce emissions as fast as possible – which, just to be clear, we must do – to have a fighting chance of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees we will also have to take billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air in the next few decades. We’re going to need both reductions and removals.
But there’s another, more heartening reason why we need removals: they give us a chance not just to stop the problem getting worse but to start making it better. Even 1.5 degrees isn’t actually safe. We haven’t got there yet and we’re already seeing the effects of climate warming in fires, floods, storms and droughts. With carbon removals we can pull our historical emissions back out of the sky, clean up the mess we’ve made, and start to reverse climate change.
There are four major challenges with getting carbon removals right: 1) the moral hazard – the very reasonable fear that giving attention to removals might take attention away from reductions 2) the need for removals to address climate inequity and drive a just transition 3) the importance of durability – it matters how long stored carbon stays stored and 4) how to drive finance towards carbon removals and get them to scale.
These challenges mean that, rather than working urgently to ensure that removals approaches are truly additive and effective, and ready to be scaled to the level we will need, many people simply look away – leaving the field more open for misuse. To add to the challenge, the removals ecosystem itself is fragmented and poorly aligned.
As a consequence, most governments and companies do not have credible plans and timelines for implementing a removals strategy – in parallel with their reductions strategy — and those that are developing targets face muddled options for accounting for different types of removals clearly and robustly.
I am leading a collaboration called Rethinking Removals, in partnership with the UNFCCC High Level Champions for Climate Action. The ultimate objective is to get carbon removals on to the climate agenda and into corporate net zero greenhouse gas commitments and NDCs.
This year we are focused on fostering critical thinking and better dialogues around removals, to help change the mindset from if we should do them to how we should do them right.
I’ll be giving a TED talk at the Countdown Summit in Edinburgh next week, and we are also running a breakout session on removals there to explore ways to resolve the four main challenges. We are also collaborating with the UN High Level Champions for Climate Action to run a Futures Lab workshop on carbon removals at COP – a series highlighting questions that are not on the COP agenda but should be.