Carbon Removal Explained: All You Need to Know

Carbon Removal Explained: All You Need to Know

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Grace Smoot

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More than 80 countries have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, to meet this target, removing carbon from our atmosphere is crucial. So, we had to ask: What is carbon removal really, and could it help us mitigate climate change?

Carbon removal eliminates carbon emissions after they have entered our atmosphere. It mitigates climate change, improves air quality, and protects ecosystems. But it does not address the core issue of reducing overall carbon emissions and is limited by cost and storage capacity.

Keep reading to find out all about what carbon removal is, the impact you can have with it both individually and globally, its benefits and drawbacks, and why it may not be the most effective way to mitigate climate change.

The Big Picture of Carbon Removal

Carbon removal is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. It is also referred to as negative emissions or carbon drawdown.

Carbon Removal: the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Carbon removal can be split into 2 categories, technological and natural carbon removal. 

  • Natural removal (carbon sequestration): Carbon is stored naturally in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans. Forests absorb 2.6 billion tons of CO2 every year, the soil absorbs approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, and phytoplankton in our oceans absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions. 

Overall, different carbon removal processes can include:

  • Afforestation/ reforestation: Planting new forests
  • Soil carbon sequestration: Storing captured carbon in the soil
  • Biochar: Creating charcoal and burying it or plowing it into fields
  • Bioenergy: Capturing and sequestering carbon from biofuels and bioenergy plants
  • Enhanced mineralization: Crushed rocks are spread over the land to absorb carbon
  • Direct Air Capture (DAC): Machines suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in  geological formations underground
  • Ocean-based methods: Ocean alkalization/fertilization, artificial upwelling/dwelling 

To date, 19 countries have explicitly stated the amount of carbon removal they intend to use to meet their mid-century climate goals. For example:

  • The US plans to remove 1 billion tons of carbon by 2050.
  • Spain intends to meet 10% of its overall target by 2050 via natural carbon removal approaches.
  • Nepal plans to remove 5.7 million metric tons of carbon via land-based approaches by 2050.
  • And Slovenia plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80-90% from their 2005 baseline by 2050, with the remaining emissions to be compensated for with carbon removal practices.

A leader in today’s carbon removal industry is Climeworks, a direct air capture company based in Zurich, Switzerland. Their specialized machines take CO2 from the air, mix it with water, and pump it deep underground. Through the process of natural mineralization, the captured CO2 is turned into stone. For every 100 tons of CO2 captured from the air, 90 tons are permanently removed, and only up to 10 tons are re-emitted by the DAC machines.

What carbon removal isCarbon removal is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. 
How carbon removal worksCarbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is eliminated after the emissions have already entered our atmosphere.
The impact of carbon removal on your own emissionsCarbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
The impact of carbon removal on global emissionsCarbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall carbon emissions.
The overall effectiveness of carbon removal in reducing carbon emissionsCost and storage capacity limits affect carbon removal effectiveness on a global scale.
The main benefits of carbon removalCarbon removal aids in climate change mitigation, improves air quality, and protects ecosystems.
The main drawbacks of carbon removalWide-ranging costs and carbon sink limitations.

How Does Carbon Removal Work

Carbon removal refers to the elimination of carbon via technological or natural processes. It is one way to mitigate the adverse effects of carbon emissions that occur once they enter our atmosphere.

How Does Carbon Removal Reduce Carbon Emissions

The goal of carbon removal is to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

  • Carbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. It is the removal of already emitted carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbon removal still permits the combustion of fossil fuels at current rates, it just eliminates the carbon after it has entered our atmosphere. The carbon can then be stored permanently in land or ocean-based reservoirs via technological or natural processes.

What Impact Does Carbon Removal Have on Your Own Carbon Emissions

One of the best ways we can aid in the fight against global climate change is to reduce our carbon footprint. And to do this we first have to reduce our carbon emissions. 

  • Carbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 

Carbon removal does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. It is an indirect method of emission reduction, and knowing there is an option to essentially erase our emissions after we cause them negates any incentive of reducing emissions of our own accord. 

What Impact Does Carbon Removal Have on Global Carbon Emissions

Every year we pump over 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. This causes temperature and sea-level rise, melting of sea ice, changing precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification. Carbon removal aims to reduce global emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

  • Carbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.

Carbon removal does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. To contribute substantially to the fight against climate change, global carbon removal capacity would need to reach 10 gigatons (Gt) of carbon by 2050 and 20 Gt of carbon for each year from 2050 to 2100. Currently, carbon removal processes contribute negligibly to this amount. Thus, there remains a substantial gap between what we currently have and what is needed to reduce our emissions to the Paris Climate Agreement target levels for carbon removal.

How Effective Is Carbon Removal in Reducing Carbon Emissions

Carbon removal can be effective at reducing carbon emissions under certain conditions.

The main factors affecting carbon removal effectiveness are the cost and storage capacity limits, which depend on the removal method. In general, technological methods of carbon removal are more expensive and have a greater carbon storage capacity when compared to natural methods

For example, planting trees is one of the cheapest and most natural ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but storage capacity is limited by available land and can be negatively impacted by deforestation. On the other hand, direct air capture is more expensive than planting trees ($250-$650 per 1,000kg compared to $50 per 1,000kg), but the storage capacity is vastly greater.

Carbon removal is also a reactive, rather than proactive, way of dealing with emissions. In this manner, we can continue to use fossil fuels at an accelerated rate. Removal technologies are expensive to implement, and there will be little economic incentive to use them until the cost of emitting carbon rises enough to prompt behavioral changes. 

What Are the Main Benefits and Drawbacks of Carbon Removal

As with anything, carbon removal comes with benefits and drawbacks that must be understood before we decide to implement this technology on a large scale.

What Are the Main Benefits of Carbon Removal 

Carbon removal comes with environmental benefits in addition to limiting global carbon emissions resulting from fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas). 

  • Aids in climate change mitigation: Carbon removal aims to eliminate carbon emissions from our atmosphere. Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon removal can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.
Illustration of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over 800,000 years
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Carbon Dioxide Over 800,000 Years
  • Improves Air Quality: Degradation of air quality as a result of carbon emissions is a serious issue. In 2009, the US government declared CO2, CH4, N2O, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) threats to the public health and welfare of current and future generations. Removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere would lead to improved public health in terms of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer

Carbon removal can mitigate the effects of climate change, which has a positive cascade effect on public health and plant and animal diversity. In addition, it boosts the global economy and leads to innovative, more environmentally-friendly solutions in years to come.

What Are the Main Drawbacks of Carbon Removal 

The main drawback to carbon removal methods is the high cost of development and implementation. Costs vary widely depending on the method utilized:

Cutting the cost of carbon removal will be necessary to make it an affordable and dependable method of global carbon reduction.

And the main drawback to natural carbon removal methods involves carbon sink limitations. There simply aren’t enough carbon sinks (i.e. forests, oceans, soil) to contain every ton of carbon that we remove, and once those sinks fill up, we won’t be able to sequester any more carbon. And the more carbon we add to these sinks, the faster we degrade them and render them unusable. 

Why Is Carbon Removal Important to Fight Climate Change

As outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Carbon removal is important to meet these targets because it eliminates carbon, that when emitted, can remain in our atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.

However, carbon removal should not be used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on it solely is impractical because it does not prevent further emission of carbon, it only eliminates some of what we have already emitted. 

In the long term, direct methods of carbon footprint reduction are much more effective. Reducing your household, travel, and lifestyle carbon footprint can go a long way in the fight against climate change!

What are Better Alternatives to Carbon Removal

If used correctly, carbon removal can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. It has the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon removal must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures until the industry has time to invest, develop, and refine more sustainable innovations. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because carbon removal is an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, it alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to carbon removal. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important

Final Thoughts

Carbon removal is the process of eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. It does not work at the core issue of reducing global carbon emissions because it is a reactive way of dealing with emissions. It also faces financial barriers due to its high cost of research, development, and implementation. However, when implemented properly it can aid in climate change mitigation, improve air quality, and protect our ecosystems.

Carbon removal is a good place to start if you want to get into the carbon-emission reduction game, but to be effective in the long term, we must not rely on it solely. Cutting emissions from the source is the best way to reduce our carbon footprint and provide the highest environmental benefits.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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