Carbon removal markets must grow exponentially by 2030 to keep 1.5C alive, report warns

That is the headline conclusion of a new report from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) think-tank, published this week.

The report argues that, even if “deep” decarbonisation is achieved, the world will need to rapidly expand its carbon dioxide removal capacity by investing in a mix of nature-based, engineered, and hybrid solutions.

“No single [carbon removal] solution can be deployed in significant enough volumes to deliver the emissions removals required, and each entails different costs and risks,” the report states. “A portfolio approach is therefore required, with solutions playing vital and complementary roles.”

It outlines how, even if the “fastest feasible path of emissions reductions” was delivered, at least 70 billion tonnes of carbon removals will likely be needed between 2022 and 2050 to help ‘net’ residual emissions and to begin pushing climate tipping points back. But the ETC estimates that, on the current path of emissions reductions accounted for by national commitments, at least 165 billion tonnes of carbon removals will likely be needed – cumulatively – by mid-century.

For context, the current voluntary carbon market is believed to be delivering just 10 million tonnes of removals annually. The agreements to regulate and scale the market forged at COP26 will doubtless contribute significantly to increasing that number.

Who pays?

Nonetheless, the ETC is warning that delivering the requisite 3.5 billion tonnes of removals annually by 2030 could require an investment of $200bn or more each year. By 2050, the cumulative need for investment will likely reach $15trn.

The report outlines how several key carbon dioxide removal technologies will likely remain far more expensive to deliver than emissions reductions projects in the coming decades. It repeatedly emphasizes how removals must be delivered alongside deep emissions cuts, rather than as an alternative.

Given these high costs, the report calls on corporates to take an in-depth look at their carbon offsetting strategies and – where possible – to support emerging engineered solutions in the longer term as well as nature-based solutions in the near term. Emerging solutions discussed in the report include direct air capture, in which CO2e is sucked out of the air using fan technologies, and enhanced weathering, which involves making oceans more alkaline so they can sequester more CO2e.

Companies that are backing emerging removal technologies include Grosvenor, Microsoft, Swiss RE, Ocado, Audi, Boston Consulting Group, Square and Stripe. Though, it does bear mentioning that Square and Stripe’s climate plans recently faced heavy criticism from As You Sow, partly for an over-reliance on offsetting.

The ETC report warns that, without greater private sector investment, only one-third of the removals capacity needed will be delivered by 2030.

The role of governments, the report states, must go beyond providing public funding to help crowd in private investments. It outlines how nations can use mandated emissions trading schemes to complement voluntary carbon markets; set up regulators for voluntary carbon market monitoring, and set minimum standards to make best-practice the norm.

Nations can also, the report states, help to scale nature-based carbon removal solutions by making changes to agricultural subsidy frameworks. Here in the UK, for example, the Agriculture Bill is shifting subsidy frameworks so that farmers are paid for “common goods” including clean air and biodiversity, rather than being paid solely for levels of production. The introduction of the various new subsidy packages has been bumpy so far, but the Government’s overall vision is that of the ETC.

The ETC said in a statement that it first began work to assess carbon removals last May. Its new report has received backing from the UK’s High-Level Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping, who said: “In addition to rapid and deep decarbonisation, governments and corporates must work together, starting now, to scale-up an ambitious and diverse portfolio of carbon removal solutions. As we look ahead to COP27, this is vital to delivering on commitments made in Glasgow and keeping 1.5C alive.”

Carbon capture context

Last August, the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, chaired by Sir David King, issued a report urging increased investment in carbon removal. That report argued that net-zero by 2050 will not be enough to cap the temperature increase at levels that would ensure a liveable future for the global population; thus, removals are needed to deliver a net-negative emissions future.

The Group, like the ETC, sees a mix of nature-based, man-made and hybrid solutions playing a role. And, like the ETC, it foresees a “reasonable” chance of delivering billions of tonnes of removal annually from 2030.

King reiterated the report’s points as he gave a speech at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum in London this week. He outlined the Centre for Climate Repair’s ‘three rs’ for a net-zero or net-negative world – reducing emissions deeply, removing emissions and repairing nature and polar ice.

For a more in-depth look at this topic, edie readers are encouraged to revisit our feature entitled: ‘Nature-based solutions and carbon capture technologies: Do either have a role to play in the net-zero transition?’

Sarah George

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