Carbon Removal vs Carbon Sequestration: What’s the Difference?

Carbon Removal vs Carbon Sequestration: What’s the Difference?

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Grace Smoot

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Mitigating global warming requires us to reduce global atmospheric carbon levels now to maintain a sustainable planet for future generations. Carbon removal and carbon sequestration are two ways to do this, but they are different methods with different mechanisms. So, we had to ask: What’s the difference between carbon removal and carbon sequestration?

Carbon removal is the elimination of carbon emissions after they have entered our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various environmental reservoirs. 

In the fight against climate change, how can we tell the difference between carbon removal and carbon sequestration? Below we will define both terms, identify the key advantages and differences of each, explore how they operate and what impact they have on carbon emissions, and discuss why they are both important in the fight against climate change.

How Are Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration Defined

Carbon removal and carbon sequestration are two sustainability tools that can help individuals and organizations lower their carbon footprints. But since they are different mechanisms, understanding their differences is important. 

What Does the Dictionary Say About Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration

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

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

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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 

One of the most prominent examples of carbon removal is Climeworks, a DAC company founded 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.

Carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon, is another option to reduce carbon emissions. This can occur either artificially or biologically via various methods. 

Carbon Sequestration: the process of storing carbon dioxide that has been collected and removed from the atmosphere, in solid or liquid form”

Oxford Dictionary

Artificial carbon sequestration is a result of carbon capture, the process of capturing and storing carbon after it is emitted but before it enters the atmosphere. Carbon is captured either pre or post-combustion of fossil fuels or as the result of burning fossil fuels in the presence of pure oxygen. After it has been captured, the carbon is compressed into a liquid and transported via pipeline, ship, or tanker before being pumped deep underground, often at depths of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), and sequestered in depleted oil reserves, coalbeds, or saline aquifers. 

According to the Global Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Institute, global storage capacity increased 32% from 2020, with 27 fully operational CCS facilities worldwide and 108 more facilities in development. The operational facilities occupy the cement, steel, hydrogen, power generation, and direct air capture sectors.

Biological carbon sequestration is carbon storage in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans. These are commonly referred to as our carbon sinks. 

Carbon Sink: a forest, ocean, or other natural environment viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Oxford Dictionary

Biological carbon sequestration is made up of these main carbon sinks:

  • Forests: They absorb 2.6 billion tons of CO2 every year. The main threat to this sink is deforestation, which occurs at roughly 10 million hectares (~ 25 million acres) per year. 
  • Soil: They absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, with most of it stored as permafrost. Not only that, but Earth’s soil contains 2,500 gigatons of carbon, more than three and four times the amount stored in our atmosphere and in all living plants/animals, respectively. One of the main threats to this sink is the melting of glacier ice due to global warming, which would instead release massive amounts of carbon into our atmosphere. 
  • Oceans: Phytoplankton in our oceans are responsible for absorbing approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, making them one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But this absorbing ability has come at a cost. Increased absorption of CO2 causes ocean acidification. Over the past 200 years, our oceans have experienced a 30% increase in acidity, which harms marine life and has a ripple effect on our economy.

What Are the Differences Between and Advantages of Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration

Both carbon removal and carbon sequestration represent ways in which we can mitigate carbon emissions and global warming. But they are also different methods of climate action with different environmental impacts, making it important to understand their differences.

The main difference between carbon removal and carbon sequestration is that carbon removal removes the carbon that has already been emitted from our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon in various environmental reservoirs, is often the next step in the carbon removal process. Carbon sequestration can also occur after the process of carbon capture.

The following are key advantages of carbon removal:

  • Removes carbon from the atmosphere permanently
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels

The following are key advantages of carbon sequestration:

  • Carbon can be sequestered after carbon has been removed or captured
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide levels

How Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration Impact Your Carbon Footprint

Knowing the similarities and differences between carbon removal and carbon sequestration is important when making a decision of which one to use. 

Carbon Removal Carbon Sequestration
How are carbon emissions reduced Carbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is eliminated after the emissions have already entered our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is removed or captured and then stored in various natural reservoirs. 
Impact on own carbon emissions Carbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint.  Carbon sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
Impact on global carbon emissions Carbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions. Carbon sequestration mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
Environmental benefits Carbon removal aids in climate change mitigation. Carbon sequestration aids in climate change mitigation.
Overall effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions Cost and storage capacity limits affect carbon removal effectiveness on a global scale. Carbon sink limitations and costs affect carbon sequestration effectiveness on a global scale.

How Do Carbon Removal and Sequestration Reduce Carbon Emissions

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

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is eliminated after it has already entered our atmosphere.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is captured before it has a chance to enter our atmosphere and then is stored in various natural reservoirs. 

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

Carbon sequestration also still permits the combustion of fossil fuels at current rates, it is just the gathering of either removed or captured carbon and storage of that carbon in various environmental reservoirs.

What Impact Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration 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: Carbon removal does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 

Carbon removal and carbon sequestration do not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. They are both indirect methods 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 Do Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration 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 and carbon sequestration aim to reduce global emissions and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration 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 in 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 2050-2100. Currently, carbon removal processes contribute negligibly to this amount. 

Carbon sequestration does not have a significant impact on global carbon emissions. In 2021, overall carbon capture and storage installed capacity reached 40 million tonnes per annum. But in order for this to contribute substantially in the fight against climate change, installed capacity must reach 5,600 million tonnes per annum. 

Thus there still 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 both carbon removal and carbon sequestration.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest decrease in energy-related carbon emissions since World War II, a decrease of 2 billion tonnes. However, emissions rebounded quickly and rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. This indicates that the earth is still warming at an accelerated rate, and not enough is being done to implement clean energy practices. 

Illustration of annual CO2 emissions globally
Our World in Data: Annual total CO2 emissions

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration

Using carbon removal and carbon sequestration can reduce our consumption of and reliance on fossil fuels (i.e., coal, oil, and natural gas) which can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas emissions. But they also come with various environmental benefits.

  • Carbon removal: Carbon removal aids in climate change mitigation.
  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sequestration aids in climate change mitigation.

Carbon removal and carbon sequestration aid in climate change mitigation because they both aim to reduce the amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. Levels of carbon emissions increased exponentially to more than 35 billion tons per year at the end of the 20th century. And the global average amount of carbon in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million

The more carbon there is in our atmosphere, the more serious climate change becomes. When carbon and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, they trap the heat and act as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). But this rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

Rising global temperatures can wreak havoc on our environment. So the more we remove or sequester carbon emissions, the more we slow the rates of sea-level rise, ice melting, extreme weather occurrences, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

How Effective Are Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration in Reducing Carbon Emissions

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

  • Carbon sequestration: Carbon sink limitations and costs affect carbon sequestration effectiveness on a global scale.

The main factors affecting carbon removal effectiveness are the cost and storage capacity limits, which are dependent on the method of removal that is used. For example, planting trees is one of the cheapest and most natural ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but the 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.

The main factor affecting carbon sequestration effectiveness is carbon sink limitations. There simply aren’t enough carbon sinks to contain every ton of carbon that we sequester, and once those sinks fill up, we won’t be able to sequester any more carbon. Also, the more carbon we add to these sinks, the faster we degrade them and render them unusable.

Both carbon removal and carbon sequestration are reactive, rather than proactive, ways of dealing with emissions. In this manner, we can continue to use fossil fuels at an accelerated rate. They are also 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. 

Why Are Both Carbon Removal and Carbon Sequestration Important to Fight Climate Change

Carbon removal and carbon sequestration are important to fight climate change because they are both ways to reduce carbon emissions. This mitigates 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.

However, carbon removal and carbon sequestration should not be used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on carbon removal and carbon sequestration solely is impractical because they are reactive (indirect) rather than proactive (direct) ways of dealing with emissions.

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 and Carbon Sequestration

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

However, we can’t let these two methods be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Carbon removal and carbon sequestration must be used in conjunction with 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 footprint:

Reduce your travel 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 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 less 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 greenhouse gas 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.

Final Thoughts

In short, carbon removal is not the same thing as carbon sequestration. Carbon removal occurs after the emitted carbon has already entered our atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various environmental reservoirs.

Both are tools in our sustainability toolbox that can be used to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. But we should not rely on either or both to be a cure-all for our environmental problems. Direct measures of carbon emission reduction are much more effective in reducing emissions both in the short term and in the long term.

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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