To prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change, the science shows that global greenhouse gas emissions will have to reach net zero by the middle of this century. That will require both deep cuts in emissions and the removal of remaining emissions directly from the atmosphere.
Realizing the untapped global potential of natural carbon removal in forests and agricultural soils and hastening development of promising carbon-removal technologies will require considerable public investment.
The United States is well-placed to lead on carbon removal. A WRI paper published today offers a policy roadmap for the U.S. government to kickstart carbon removal over the next decade, setting a course to stabilize the climate and spur the kind of innovation the United States was built on.
The United States is no stranger to this kind of challenge. At the start of World War II, the federal government partnered with industry and academia to produce a substitute for natural rubber; five years later, the U.S. was producing tens of thousands of tons of synthetic rubber. In 1961, a manned lunar mission seemed out of reach, but years of concerted effort made this moonshot happen. In 2011, the Department of Energy launched a SunShot Initiative to reduce the cost of solar power by 75 percent by 2020 — and hit that target three years early.
Now we need a major new federal initiative to scale up carbon removal—a CarbonShot.
The US Should Be Prepared to Remove Billions of Tons of Carbon by 2050
Even ambitious mitigation plans fall short of eliminating emissions by 2050. The 2016 U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization left roughly 2.55 billion tons of gross annual emissions remaining in its 2050 benchmark scenario. U.S. forests currently offset emissions by sequestering more than 700 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, but that rate is projected to decline in the next few decades as forests age and forest disturbance increases. Thus, even if the United States successfully executes this strategy, roughly 2 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide would need to be removed from the atmosphere each year to bring net emissions to zero. The actual need will depend on the pace and extent of emissions reduction efforts in practice. The 2-billion-ton benchmark may be best viewed as a starting point for U.S. investment rather than an endpoint.
Combined Natural-Technological Portfolio
Natural carbon removal, such as forest restoration, is shovel-ready and can provide significant cumulative carbon removal through 2050. However, technologies like direct air capture will also be needed to achieve the 2 billion tons benchmark. A combined natural-technological portfolio also reduces cost and risk. If any single pathway fails to realize its potential, another may be able to fill the gap.
How Congress Can Kickstart a CarbonShot Initiative
Here are the top five federal policy investments Congress can make now to put the U.S. on a path to removing billions of tons of carbon by 2050:
Underwrite a $4 billion-per-year campaign to restore trees to the landscape. A national tree restoration campaign would focus on enhancing tree density in existing timberlands, especially in the eastern U.S.; reforesting disturbed non-agricultural land; expanding urban tree cover; and integrating trees into agricultural systems. A tax credit or direct payment program to restore trees to these areas could remove up to 360 million tons of carbon dioxide per year without interfering with food production, assuming the campaign results in tree restoration on two-thirds of suitable acres. Fully restoring trees on all suitable land could remove over half a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year.
Expand direct air capture technology development. Direct air capture could scrub more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year from the air by 2050. The National Academies of Sciences found annual investments to develop this technology will need to average $150 million per year over the next decade. Just last month, Congress appropriated $60 million for carbon removal technology development, including at least $25 million for direct air capture. As a next step, Congress can support private sector deployment experience by increasing the 45Q tax credit for direct air capture at a cost of $360 million in 2025 and $1.3 billion by 2030 — a fraction of the $3 billion taxpayers spent on fossil fuels in 2018.
Launch a 10-million-acre farm innovation program. Managing agricultural soils is a no-regrets climate mitigation strategy, because practices that can enhance soil carbon can also increase farm profitability and prevent erosion. Further research and innovation in agricultural soil carbon management could enable the removal of 100–200 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050 in the United States. Combining federal cost-share and technical assistance with on-farm research and monitoring would advance scientific understanding of potential benefits and limitations. Scaling this program to cover 10 million acres would enable researchers to draw statistically robust conclusions about the effectiveness of various practices across the U.S. Such a program would cost $500 million annually over 10 years — a small percentage of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture already spends on farm support and conservation programs.
Establish a foundational research program for carbon mineralization. Carbon mineralization approaches would speed up natural reactions between certain minerals and carbon dioxide to produce solid materials that can be used in building materials like concrete. These approaches remain relatively underexplored given their conceivable potential: shifting one-third of the construction aggregate market to mineralized aggregate would remove 410 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Roughly $25 million in annual federal research and development funding would help to clarify promising mineralization pathways and demonstrate approaches warranting further public investment and commercialization.
Accelerate the development of enhanced root crops. Developing crops with more, deeper and larger roots could increase carbon storage in soils. Estimates of potential remain theoretical but point to the possibility of removing up to 185 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. An increase in current efforts by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy — up to $40 million to $50 million per year — would need to be sustained over a decade or longer to accelerate development of new or enhanced varieties of major crops.
While midcentury is still three decades away, scaling carbon removal to a meaningful level requires starting today. In the tradition of past grand challenges, the U.S. should now launch a CarbonShot: a new decade of innovation and opportunity by investing in climate solutions like carbon removal.
Editor's note: Updated to state how much tree restoration is required to remove 360 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Added information about the carbon removal potential of full tree restoration.