It will not be easy to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. To meet them, global average temperature must be limited to no more than 2 degrees – and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees – above pre-industrial levels. This would require reducing global emissions by more than they fell in 2020, due to Covid-19, each and every year until 2030. However, emissions continue to rise. Urgent action is needed to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.
Enter the new cool kid on the block, carbon removal technologies. These technologies, such as direct air capture (DAC), remove carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the atmosphere. This CO2 can be used for fuel manufacture and in industry, or it can be converted to a mineral form, such as a fine sand or stone, trapping the carbon for the long-term in the earth’s geology. These technologies have been getting a lot of hype lately, making headlines and getting interest and investment from superstar billionaires such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk.
The carbon removal capabilities of these technologies are often compared to nature. Carbon Engineering, one of the largest DAC companies, states on its website that: “CE’s plants can be built to capture up to one million tons of CO2 per year each – equivalent to the work of 40 million trees.”
But if trees can do the work, why not just support the growth of trees? Why reinvent the wheel? Why use a novel, complex solution, when a simple one will do?
The answer is that we need to put all carbon removal activities in high gear to achieve our collective climate goals before it is too late. Both new carbon removal technologies and nature-based solutions are necessary if we are to reach Paris targets in time and maintain a stable climate in the long-term to secure a livable future for all.
Below, we take a look at the case for carbon removal technologies, the case for nature-based climate solutions, and, our conclusion, the case for both.
Carbon removal technologies are popular for a reason. They have some advantages over nature-based climate solutions. Firstly, there’s carbon permanence. Carbon trapped in a forest for centuries, could be released within minutes if it is impacted by a wildfire. Carbon captured using technology, such as DAC, can store carbon in a stable compound form for long-term geological storage. In addition, it’s far easier to determine the exact amount of carbon taken out of the atmosphere and stored in these very specific minerals than it is to determine the carbon stored in a wide variety of natural sinks. This is already highly challenging when trying to determine the carbon stored in individual specimens such as plants, but it gets even more complex when wider ecosystems such as soils, peatlands, and the oceans need to be assessed for their carbon storage capabilities.
But this technology also has its challenges. The most significant are cost and scale. These solutions are currently very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars to remove a single tonne of CO2. They are also small in scale. There aren’t that many in operation yet, and, most importantly, they won’t reach the scale necessary in time, on their own to remove the amount of carbon necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Their permanence claim is also moot if these mineral carbon stores are used as a power source shortly afterward, releasing the carbon back into the atmosphere. Finally, these technologies currently take an enormous amount of energy to power, and while some of these technologies are powered by renewable energy sources, others aren’t. Therefore, if you’re thinking of investing in these solutions to make climate claims, be sure to ask these important questions before making any investment decisions.
Unlike these new technologies, high-quality nature-based solutions are available right now, at scale, and at a much lower cost. While the CE plant’s 40 million trees might sound like a lot, the average rainforest has about 400–600 trees per hectare, which means the plant is equivalent to just 80,000 hectares of trees. This is about the area of a single average-sized forestry project. The largest projects are over 100 times larger.
Importantly, natural resources are being destroyed and releasing carbon into the atmosphere every day, so a top priority has to be to reduce and eliminate deforestation. Worryingly, government subsidies and private capital investment into destroying nature currently outpace those protecting it. Some steps in the right direction were taken at COP26, including a commitment by over 100 nations to end deforestation by 2030, but there is a lot of work to be done to achieve this.
To address issues of permanence with nature-based carbon solutions, better management solutions are being developed and implemented every year. The challenge of accurately measuring carbon trapped in trees, and other natural systems, is also being solved.
Research published across the last decade shows that classical tape measure-based approaches to measuring the carbon stored in trees are uncertain, and potentially underestimate carbon stored in trees by up to 35%. That is why we are using new, more accurate laser scanning methods. We actually hired several of the scientists who helped to pioneer these methods, including Dr. Andrew Burt, who now heads up our team collecting and processing these measurements across the world’s forests. Last year Andrew’s team traveled to Gabon and Peru, where they scanned trees from the ground and air using these cutting-edge light detection and ranging (lidar) technologies, and this year, an expanded team will be traveling back to Gabon and multiple other countries.
Finally, we cannot speak about nature or forests without considering the other benefits, sometimes called co-benefits, that these resources deliver to our planet and people. A human-made factory can simply never be a healthy natural habitat or a primeval old-growth forest. It does not sequester carbon in the soil or in the biomass of animals. It does not help to create clean water or have the many benefits biodiversity adds to the planet or human society. Finally, it does not have the same societal value to people, such as being a key part of a community’s ancestral heritage, or benefiting the psychological well-being of communities and individuals.
Read more about the value of nature for the climate here.
To see carbon removal technologies and nature-based carbon climate solutions as competitors is a mistake. They are complimentary. We must use all levers to address the climate crisis rapidly. We need to use both the existing tools we have available and invent new ones. It is largely a question of timing: we need to rapidly scale all forms of emissions reductions, which in the 2020s includes natural systems, while also investing in DAC technologies. This is so that DAC technologies can scale in the 2030s and 2040s, once we have made use of the full potential of nature-based solutions. It’s an added bonus that this older, simpler option is more effective, both in terms of carbon impact and wider co-benefits, than is commonly believed.
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This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Andrew Burt, Research Lead, and Polly Thompson, Policy Intern.
Both new carbon removal technologies and nature-based solutions are necessary if we are to reach Paris targets in time and maintain a stable climate in the long-term to secure a livable future for all. We take a look at the case for both carbon removal technologies and nature-based climate solutions.
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