To keep temperature rise within 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) as outlined in the Paris Agreement and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, the world will need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by around midcentury, removing and storing as much carbon dioxide from the air as we put into the atmosphere. The United States has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While strategies to reduce emissions — such as increasing renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation — are critically important, they will not be enough on their own. Reaching climate goals 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, Engineering, and Medicine and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that deployment of carbon removal is critical to achieve U.S. and global climate targets by 2050. Even with rapid investment in emission reductions, the Long-term Strategy of the United States indicates the need to remove about 1 billion tons of CO2 (GtCO2) per year by midcentury to reach net-zero — that's about 16% of the country’s total 2021 greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, scientists estimate that up to 10 GtCO2 will need to be removed annually from the atmosphere by 2050, with potential for increased removal capacity up to 20 GtCO2 per year by 2100.

Graphic showing Staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of Global Temperature Rise.

Meeting these climate goals requires:

1. Expanding options available and capacity for carbon removal.

  • Carbon removal approaches include a range of activities that can all pull carbon dioxide directly out of the air. These include natural approaches like tree restoration and agricultural soil management as well as more technological and engineered approaches, such as direct air capture and carbon mineralization, biomass with carbon removal and sequestration, 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 1 GtCO2 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 attracting investment as a promising carbon removal approach that will likely be a necessary part of a larger carbon removal portfolio.

[Visit the Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions for resources that translate science into strategy.]

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. Already, billions of dollars in direct investment and other types of support have come through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, creating a strong foundation for scaling up carbon removal. At the state level, California is setting carbon removal targets and developing a regulatory framework to achieve them. The private sector is beginning to step up, too, with more than $1 billion committed to purchases of carbon removal by 2030. But even with all of this momentum, more will be needed to support a diverse portfolio of options.
  • At the same time, policies and regulations are needed to ensure that carbon removal is deployed responsibly, incorporating robust community engagement, consistent measurement, reporting and verification, and attention to environmental impacts of projects. Efforts by the public and private sectors are being made along these lines, but much remains to be seen in terms of how carbon removal projects are deployed as the industry is still in the early stages of development.


Cover Image by: Dave Gardner Creative/National Forest Foundation