Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require not only steep reductions in emissions but also the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere at a massive scale (aka, carbon removal). The United States needs to make large-scale investments in carbon removal in the coming years—up to $6 billion per year in federal funding over the next 10 years, with continued support for scaled deployment beyond 2030—if the country is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Compiled deployment scenarios through 2050 illustrate needs and trade-offs to achieve a 2 GtCO2 per year benchmark by 2050—an objective roughly commensurate with the emissions left unabated by 2050 in the U.S. Mid-century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization.
The purpose of this working paper is to provide a consolidated set of high-priority, near-term federal policy options to advance carbon removal capabilities and deployment in the United States. This paper is the fourth installment 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 terrestrial-based carbon removal in the United States. This paper focuses on prioritized federal policy options across the carbon removal portfolio.
Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require not only steep reductions in emissions but also the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere at a massive scale (aka, carbon removal). Global climate models leave little ambiguity regarding the critical importance of carbon removal alongside deep emissions reductions to reach and sustain global carbon neutrality—a central requirement for stabilizing global temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C above preindustrial levels (IPCC 2018).
A wide range of carbon removal pathways can augment the net removal of carbon from the atmosphere to plants, soils, the built environment, and underground geological formations. This includes low-tech natural carbon capture methods like tree restoration and agricultural soil management, high-tech methods like direct air capture, and emerging concepts like enhanced mineralization. Carbon removal is distinct from measures that reduce anthropogenic emissions to the atmosphere, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) with fossil energy, avoided land use conversion, and cropland nutrient management. Carbon removal is also distinct from solar radiation management, which seeks to reflect incoming sunlight to reduce warming rather than remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Dedicated federal investment is needed to realize substantial untapped opportunity for natural carbon capture and to close a gap between current capabilities for technological carbon removal and the estimated need. Realizing the carbon removal potential in the natural pathways will require public funding to close the gap between total costs and the value of generated co-benefits. Technological pathways will require sustained investments in research and development as well as commercialization support.