Planning for the active removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere coupled with storage (CDR), is an integral part of any comprehensive net- zero strategy. This white paper is a guide for decisionmakers to some of the key challenges and opportunities they must consider when engaging with carbon removals.
When to use removals?
The use of carbon removals needs to follow the mitigation hierarchy: the first priority is always to reduce or avoid emissions where possible. Carbon removal is appropriate if used for one of three purposes:
- Compensating for emissions that result directly from an actor’s activities but which are difficult or impossible to reduce.
- Compensating for the Earth’s emissions resulting from climate change itself (and hence indirectly from past or future emissions).
- For actors with high ambitions and strong leadership, going further – achieving net negative emissions to address the legacy of past emissions, tackling the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and beginning to restore the climate.
How should leaders engage with removals?
We highlight three key considerations:
Understand carbon removal and its limitations – it is essential to consider the complete end-to-end carbon removal and storage challenge. Carbon removal techniques can broadly be divided into categories according to the method of removal, and the form of subsequent format of storage, some of which are considered “nature-based”, “engineered”, or a hybrid of the two. To deliver the carbon removal volume necessary to meet the Paris Agreement, all of these methods will need to be scaled up over the coming decade. In selecting a safe carbon removal strategy, leaders should keep in mind:
- Where to put removed carbon? Consider the capacity of carbon storage options and how they are distributed among the atmosphere, geosphere (rocks), and biosphere (marine and terrestrial plants and soils). Durable net- zero strategies involve balancing emissions and removals like-for-like (e.g. compensating for ongoing fossil fuel use by returning carbon dioxide to the geosphere).
- When is carbon removed? Not all removals are realized instantaneously, and care must be taken not to borrow from the future.
- How long will carbon stay removed? Consider the risk of reversal to the atmosphere of stored carbon and anticipate a need to transition to options offering greater permanence and lower risk. Ensure robust ongoing performance monitoring.
Plan to address future, present and past emissions – ambitious corporate leaders seeking to determine the scale of carbon removal required by their businesses should prioritize unavoidable present and future emissions, but also be prepared to address past emissions back to an agreed date.
Seek systemic impact – finally, when considering carbon removal options, corporations need to reflect on the impact they want to have and their level of ambition. Leaders in business, finance and policy can act now to support a wide array of removals options. This includes both established methods that are ready for scale plus emerging techniques where urgent, early-stage support will deliver systemic, far-reaching impacts beyond the decision-maker’s own remit.
How best to take action?
The brief closes with a call to action, under the overarching appeal to use removals only to address emissions that cannot be reduced or avoided, prioritizing emission reductions above removals across the full value chain. Corporations engaging with carbon removal must:
- Build expertise, seek advice and support existing carbon removal initiatives
- Support emission reductions and nature-based climate solutions in their own right
- Seek a diversified portfolio of removals spanning biological and geological options
- Consider the use of removals to compensate for past emissions
- Prepare for the future, including potential liability for future emissions
- Balance emissions from high-durability sources with high-durability storage
- Advocate for ambitious climate policies