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Foundational Questions on Carbon Removal in the United States

This working paper is part of a World Resources Institute (WRI) publication series CarbonShot: Creat­ing Options for Carbon Removal at Scale in the United States. The series presents findings from a WRI-led assessment of needs for scaling candidate carbon removal approaches and technologies in the United States.

This working paper serves as a primer for U.S. policymakers and the climate community on several foundational questions associated with carbon removal, including the following:

  • What is carbon removal?
  • What is the role of carbon removal in global climate change mitigation?
  • Is large-scale carbon removal possible today?
  • Is carbon removal safe and prudent?
  • Does carbon removal pose conflicts or present opportunities for emissions reduction efforts?

Key Findings

Executive Summary

Highlights

  • The ambitious emissions reduction measures modeled in most global emissions pathways are not enough to achieve the Paris Agreement targets for limiting temperature rise. In these pathways, it is also necessary to undertake efforts to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere at the gigaton scale—billions of metric tons per year globally.
  • Several approaches and technologies are candidates for large-scale carbon removal. Many of these hold promise but also face challenges and limitations. In many cases, their full potential remains uncertain. Given this uncertainty, a portfolio-based approach to carbon removal technologies would improve prospects for achieving CO2 removal on a large scale.
  • Carbon removal approaches would require effective governance, accounting procedures, and policy safeguards to ensure productive deployment and prevent counterproductive or harmful deployment.
  • Although carbon removal has raised some concerns about the degree to which it might detract from ongoing efforts to reduce emissions, it has the potential to broaden the public policy agenda on climate change in ways that bring additional stakeholders and resources to the table.

Background

Carbon removal is the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. Carbon removal is intended to help address global temperature rise by reducing atmospheric concentrations of CO2, a major greenhouse gas.

If deployed successfully at a large scale, carbon removal could substantially contribute to limit­ing global temperature rise. Global scenario analysis indicates that the prospects of achieving the temperature targets established in the Paris Agreement are greatly improved if CO2 can be removed on a large scale. The need for carbon removal intensifies if the world is unable to make deep reductions in global emissions by 2030. Other measures that are currently excluded from global models because they are viewed as too costly, or because adoption is driven by factors other than cost, could also help to achieve temperature targets. Such measures include noncoercive population growth reduction and widespread lifestyle changes such as shifting diets to less greenhouse-gas-intensive foods. However, even then, global scenario analysis suggests the global economy will need to reach carbon neutrality in the second half of the century to maintain a likely chance of achieving the Paris Agreement targets. Achieving carbon neutrality without carbon removal would require eliminating all emissions, including from sectors like aviation that are difficult to fully decarbonize.

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