Assessing carbon removal pathways, their potential, barriers and policy options to accelerate development as part of a suite of climate actions.
To keep temperature rise within 1.5°C as outlined in the Paris Agreement and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, the world will need to reach net-zero carbon emissions by around midcentury, removing and storing as much carbon dioxide from the air as we put into the atmosphere. The United States has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While strategies to reduce emissions — such as increasing renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and avoiding deforestation — are critically important, they will not be enough on their own. Reaching climate goals requires strategies that actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Both natural and technological strategies exist to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it through various means, such as in trees and plants, soils, underground reservoirs, rocks, the ocean and even through products like concrete. Different approaches to carbon removal come with different risks and co-benefits. WRI researches the opportunities and challenges associated with carbon removal solutions and offers practical steps that U.S. policymakers can take to accelerate action.
Analysis by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that deployment of carbon removal is critical to achieve U.S. and global emissions reduction targets by 2050. Even with rapid investment in emission reductions, the United States could need to remove about 2 gigatons of CO2 per year by midcentury to reach net-zero — that's about 30% of U.S. 2019 greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, scientists predict that up to 10 GtCO2 will need to be removed annually from the atmosphere by 2050, with increased removal capacity up to 20 GtCO2 per year by 2100.
Meeting these climate goals requires:
1. Expanding options and capacity for carbon removal.
- Carbon removal methods include natural strategies like tree restoration and agricultural soil management; high-tech strategies like direct air capture and enhanced mineralization; and hybrid strategies like enhanced root crops, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and ocean-based carbon removal.
- Pursuing an all-of-the-above carbon removal portfolio in the United States would provide the most cumulative carbon removal at the lowest risk. It creates the most options for achieving the 2 GtCO2 removal target by 2050, should any single pathway fail to realize its expected potential.
Visit the Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions for resources that translate science into strategy.
- Restoring trees to the landscape through reforestation, restocking degraded forests and agroforestry systems is the single largest “shovel-ready” opportunity for carbon removal at scale in the United States.
- Direct air capture — a technological method that uses chemical reactions to capture CO2 from the atmosphere — is gaining traction as a promising carbon removal approach that will likely be a necessary part of a larger carbon removal portfolio.
2. Enacting supportive policies and investments.
- Federal and state policies and funding, along with private sector investment, can help the United States develop and deploy a portfolio of carbon removal solutions.
- To accelerate U.S. carbon removal, a set of high-priority, near-term, federal policy options would require up to $6 billion per year in federal funding over the next 10 years. By comparison, U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are roughly $20 billion per year.
Cover Image by: Dave Gardner Creative/National Forest Foundation
WRI predicted that 2020 would be the year carbon removal took off in the United States, and indeed, the past few years have seen significant increases in federal spending — from almost nothing before 2020 to more than $80 million in research, development and demonstration (RD&D) in FY2021, along with rising corporate investment and the launch of a number of new carbon removal companies. But the coming years are set to far surpass any previous year’s investment from both public and private sectors, and accelerated implementation of carbon dioxide removal projects is likely to follow.