BERLIN – Researchers say efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere aren't being scaled up fast enough and can’t be relied on to meet crucial climate goals.
A report published Thursday by scientists in Europe and the United States found that new methods of CO2 removal currently account for only 0.1% of the 2 billion metric tons sucked from the atmosphere each year. That compares with roughly 37 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions.
Most current greenhouse gas removal is achieved by planting trees and managing forests and other natural carbon sinks, which themselves are under considerable threat.
New carbon removal technologies include so-called direct air capture, where CO2 is sucked from the atmosphere and stored underground. Another method known as biochar involves burning plant matter and then burying the carbon-heavy waste.
Both have been heavily criticized by environmentalists even as they attract considerable funding from governments and companies seeking solutions to the climate crisis. Developing countries argue that their contribution to global carbon removal — mostly in the form of forests and land management — are equally important and deserve greater recognition.
The study concludes that novel carbon removal needs to increase 30-fold by 2030 to achieve the emissions reductions required to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and ideally no more than 1.5 C (2.7 F) by the end of the century.
Achieving ‘net zero’ emissions by mid-century — a goal many countries are aiming for and experts say is necessary to meet the targets agreed in the 2015 Paris climate accord — would require an increase in carbon dioxide removal by a factor of 1,300 and few countries have realistic plans for doing so, the authors said.
“We are really lagging behind significantly when it comes to carbon removal,” said study co-author Jan Minx of the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change.
“If we want a robust strategy to achieve the Paris climate goals then we need to restrict dependence on carbon removal ... through rapid and far-reaching emissions reductions,” he said. “But at the same time the expansion and development of carbon removal methods needs to be boosted.”
Oliver Geden of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, who also contributed to the report, said natural means of carbon removal, such as reforestation, are currently more cost-effective than artificial methods. But there are limits to how much land can be devoted to forests and rising global temperatures increase the risk that carbon stored that way could be released again, such as through wildfires.
He noted the rapid rise of solar and wind power plants as examples for how new technologies could have a measurable impact on efforts to curb climate change.
The authors of the study say they plan to regularly publish a regular ‘ State of Carbon Dioxide Removal.’