To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, the world will need to reach net-zero emissions by removing and storing more carbon dioxide from the air than we put into the atmosphere. While strategies to reduce emissions — such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation — remain critically important, they will not be enough on their own. Reaching net-zero requires strategies that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both natural and technological strategies exist to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it through various means, such as in trees and plants, soils, underground reservoirs, rocks, the ocean and even through products like concrete. Different approaches to carbon removal come with different risks and co-benefits. WRI researches the opportunities and challenges associated with carbon removal solutions and offers practical steps that U.S. policymakers can take to accelerate action. 

 

Analysis by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that deployment of carbon removal is critical to achieve U.S. and global emissions reduction targets by 2050. Even with rapid investment in emission reductions, the United States will likely need to remove about 2 gigatons of CO2 every year by mid-century to reach net-zero — that's about 30% of U.S. 2017 greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, the carbon removal need is about 10 GtCO2 per year by 2050 and 20 GtCO2 per year by 2100.  

A graph showing how we can stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming with carbon removal

Meeting these climate needs requires: 

1. Expanding options and capacity for carbon removal.

  • Carbon removal methods include natural strategies like tree restoration and agricultural soil management; high-tech strategies like direct air capture and enhanced mineralization; and hybrid strategies like enhanced root crops, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and ocean-based carbon removal. 
  • Pursuing an all-of-the-above carbon removal portfolio in the United States would provide the most cumulative carbon removal at the lowest risk. It creates the most options for achieving the 2 Gt CO2 removal target by 2050, should any single pathway fail to realize its expected potential. 
  • Restoring trees to the landscape through reforestation, restocking degraded forests and agroforestry systems is the single largest “shovel-ready” opportunity for carbon removal at scale in the United States. 
  • Direct air capture — a technological method that uses chemical reactions to capture CO2 from the atmosphere — is gaining traction as a promising carbon removal approach that will likely be a necessary part of a larger carbon removal portfolio. 

2. Enacting supportive policies and investments. 

  • Federal and state policies and funding, along with private sector investment, can help the United States develop and deploy a portfolio of carbon removal solutions.  
  • To kickstart U.S. carbon removal, a set of high-priority, near-term, federal policy options would require up to $6 billion per year in federal funding over the next 10 years. By comparison, U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are roughly $20 billion per year. 

Image credit: Andrew Coelho/Unsplash