Land-based Carbon Dioxide Removal:
as urgent and as difficult a policy challenge as ever

Guest post by Richard King and Duncan Brack, Chatham House / 8 September 2020

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

This blog is based on a new paper published in the forthcoming special issue of Global Policy, edited by C2G. To access an early view of the full article, click here.

Although global CO₂ emissions fell by nearly a fifth during the height of worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns, these dramatic reductions are likely to be an inconsequential blip in decadal terms. Widespread recovery packages strongly tilted towards green stimulus measures could have a more meaningful impact, potentially saving around 0.3°C of future warming by 2050.

But even this will not eliminate the need to proactively and widely deploy carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches in the coming decades. If these approaches are to have any prospect of preventing runaway global heating without also presenting other serious environmental and social risks, then policymakers, legislators, and investors need to get real now.

In our new article Managing Land‐based CDR, we outline three key messages for the policy communities considering the sequestration potentials of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – the main technology currently considered by climate models – and how these interact with more nature-based solutions such as forest management and afforestation.

CDR should add to, but not replace, conventional abatement

First, we need to be absolutely clear that all CDR efforts have to be additional to – not substituting for, or detracting from – urgent acceleration of conventional abatement actions.

Carbon removal and negative emissions technologies (NETs) were originally envisaged as fall-back insurance mechanisms allowing us to reduce carbon in the atmosphere if earth system processes started to behave in unexpected ways. However, as emissions have continued to inexorably rise, they have become increasingly integral to climate models and it is virtually impossible to conceive of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, without some degree of CDR.

 

Fig: Four illustrative pathways to limit heating to 1.5°C. All four pathways include contributions from various CDR approaches, predominantly from BECCS but also from changes to agriculture, forestry and other land use patterns (mainly afforestation and reforestation). Source: IPCC

 

But now that door is ajar, we cannot afford to swing it wide open and unreservedly usher in NETs as a technological saviour allowing us to scale back mitigation efforts. There are simply too many drawbacks and uncertainties associated with BECCS and other NETs to place excessive reliance on them.

We can’t treat them as future offsets for current intransigence; rather we need to use the reset opportunity afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic to double-down on realising a low-emissions transformation. One potential mechanism for doing so is to set net-zero legislation that explicitly distinguishes between emission reduction and removal targets.

CDR work needs to begin now

Second, this doesn’t mean the development and deployment of sustainable NETs can be left to simmer unambitiously on the back burner.

No single NET – whether BECCS, nature‐based, or otherwise – will achieve the scale of CDR required in the vast majority of 1.5°C and 2°C mitigation scenarios, let alone do so sustainably. But portfolios of multiple NETs, deployed sensitively at modest scales, will be invaluable for achieving climate security.

“If these approaches are to have any prospect of preventing runaway global heating without also presenting other serious environmental and social risks, then policymakers, legislators, and investors need to get real now.”

Working out what works where is not straightforward and the groundwork needs to be laid now. A key component will be designing policy and financial mechanisms that are sufficiently attuned to these contextual specificities, but which are sufficiently catalytic to galvanise appropriate and complementary actions at adequate scales and with enough urgency.

For land- and forest‐based solutions, this requires almost immediate implementation due to the time taken for these natural solutions to realise their full sequestration potential. For technological solutions, this requires a step‐change in research, development, iteration, and deployment of promising options.

Both nature-based and technological approaches require significant investment, financial mechanisms, and the development of supportive governance arrangements and safeguards.

BECCS is not the only way

Third, there is a common assumption in climate models that BECCS is the pre‐eminent carbon removal solution (principally due to the relative ease with which it can be modelled). This assumption is dangerous and needs abandoning.

Instead, scientists and policymakers alike need to rigorously analyse BECCS’s in-situ potentials alongside all other CDR approaches. Such scrutiny needs to be based on full lifecycle assessments of carbon balances, including dropping the assumption that all biomass feedstocks are inherently carbon neutral.

But if social, environmental, and political risks are to be avoided, co‐benefits are to be realised, and public acceptance is to be achieved, then rigorous carbon accounting alone will not be enough. Given the wide range of trade‐offs that result from all land‐based CDR solutions, proactive policy engagement is required for each potential deployment to reduce the risks and unintended consequences that may result.

This is especially important as the removal, energy, environmental, economic, social, and political benefits and costs are all unique to each deployment ecosystem.

Uncertainties ahead

There are still large uncertainties over what appropriate policy roadmaps look like, and there will be significant challenges ahead in ensuring multiple policy silos are sufficiently coordinated and aligned to successfully implement a portfolio of CDR approaches as they cut across agricultural, forestry, environmental, water, energy, and climate policy domains.

But without briskly moving down this path, the risk of missing climate goals and the scale of negative emissions needed in the future both increase alarmingly.

The twin dangers that ought to jolt us into action are the prospects of policymakers ‘sleepwalking’ towards BECCS purely because most models incorporate it, and, almost as bad, that they simply ignore the need for any meaningful action on CDR as a whole.

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