Carbon Sequestration Explained: All You Need to Know

Carbon Sequestration Explained: All You Need to Know

Grace Smoot

Read Time:12 Minutes


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Environmental degradation resulting from increased levels of carbon in our atmosphere threatens our planet’s environmental, social, and economic health. Carbon sequestration could offer a solution to the problem, if implemented properly. So, we had to ask: What is carbon sequestration really, and could it help us mitigate climate change?

Carbon sequestration is the storage of removed or captured carbon in various natural reservoirs. It mitigates climate change but does not address the core issue of reducing overall carbon emissions. It improves air quality and protects ecosystems, but is limited to the available carbon sinks.

Keep reading to find out all about what carbon sequestration 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 Sequestration

Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of captured or removed carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean.

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

Oxford Dictionary

Carbon sequestration can occur via two main methods:

  • Artificial carbon sequestration: The result of carbon capture. The captured 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. 
  • Biological carbon sequestration: Carbon storage in vegetation (forests), soils, and oceans, which 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:

  • Soil: Absorb approximately 25% of all carbon emissions, with most of it stored as permafrost. 
  • 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. 

Carbon sequestration is commonly referred to as carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) because carbon capture is the first step in the process. The first large-scale CCS project was located in Norway at the Sleipner offshore gas field. To date, the project has stored more than 20 megatons (Mt) of carbon in deep saline formations. This is equivalent to removing 4.3 million passenger vehicles from the roads. 

A leader in today’s CCS 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 sequestration isThe long-term storage of carbon in various natural reservoirs.
How carbon sequestration worksCarbon sequestration represents indirect emission reductions. Carbon is removed or captured and then stored in various natural reservoirs. 
The impact of carbon sequestration on your own emissionsCarbon sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 
The impact of carbon sequestration on global emissionsCarbon sequestration mitigates the problem, but it does not work at the core issue of reducing overall CO2 emissions.
The overall effectiveness of carbon sequestration on reducing carbon emissionsCarbon sequestration effectiveness is limited by carbon sink limitations and high costs.
The main benefits of carbon sequestrationCarbon sequestration aids in climate change mitigation, improves air quality, and protects ecosystems.
The main drawbacks of carbon sequestrationHigh costs of implementation and slow technological development.

How Does Carbon Sequestration Work

Carbon sequestration refers to the storage of captured or removed carbon in various natural reservoirs. It is one way to mitigate the adverse effects of carbon emissions that occur after they enter our atmosphere. 

How Does Carbon Sequestration Reduce Carbon Emissions

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

  • 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 sequestration 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 natural reservoirs. It removes and stores carbon after it has been emitted, preventing it from entering our atmosphere. 

Growing concerns about increased atmospheric carbon have prompted us to consider increasing the rate of carbon sequestration through changes in land use, forestry, and geoengineering techniques.

What Impact Does 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 sequestration does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. 

Carbon sequestration does not directly reduce your own carbon emissions. It only removes carbon after it has already been emitted. 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 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 sequestration aims to reduce the global carbon emissions entering our atmosphere and mitigate these negative environmental effects.

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

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

There is also a disparity between the number of facilities currently in operation and the number of facilities needed to reach this target. As of 2021, there were 27 operational facilities worldwide with a capture capacity of 36.6 metric tons per year.

Illustration of the world map of CSS facilities at various stages of development
Global CCS Institute: World Map of CCS Facilities at Various Stages of Development

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 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

How Effective Is Carbon Sequestration in Reducing Carbon Emissions

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

  • Carbon sequestration effectiveness is limited by carbon sink limitations and high costs.

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. The more carbon we add to these sinks, the faster we degrade them and render them unusable. 

Carbon emissions are also a double-edged sword. On one hand, they stimulate photosynthesis. Increased photosynthesis results in increased plant growth, which can help plants absorb more of the carbon we emit. But on the other hand, increased carbon emissions can also limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, which are crucial for plant growth and carbon-absorbing capabilities. Plants need more than just carbon to grow, and too much can limit their ability to absorb carbon.

Carbon sequestration is also expensive to implement, and there will be little economic incentive to use it until the cost of emitting carbon rises enough to prompt behavioral changes.

What Are the Main Benefits and Drawbacks of Carbon Sequestration

As with anything, carbon sequestration 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 Sequestration 

Carbon sequestration 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 sequestratuon aims to reduce the amount of carbon emissions entering our atmosphere. Levels of carbon in our atmosphere have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 ppm, and emissions are currently 35 billion tons per year and still increasing. Carbon sequestration can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.
  • Improves Air Quality: Degradation of air quality as a result of carbon emissions is a serious issue. In 2009, the U.S. 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. Reducing carbon emissions would lead to improved public health in terms of asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, and lung cancer.  

Carbon sequestration 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 Sequestration 

The main drawback to carbon sequestration is the high upfront cost of implementing it. In one pathway outlined by the International Energy Agency, 15% of the world’s emissions reduction between 2021 and 2050 would be delivered by CCS. This amounts to 2,000 CCS facilities being operational by 2050, which would require capital investment of between $650 and $1,300 billion.

Carbon capture costs alone vary greatly by carbon source. It can range anywhere from $15-25 per 1,000kg of CO2 (for ethanol production and natural gas processing) and $40-120 per 1,000kg of CO2 (for cement production and power generation). 

Carbon transportation and storage also present with costs. Pipelines for land-based transportation, port facilities and liquefaction facilities for overseas transport, and storage facilities for local usage must be factored into the grand cost. 

Overall, carbon sequestration is a relatively new and understudied technology. CCS projects are often perceived as high-risk and are capital intensive. Only some technologies are currently commercially available while others remain in development, which contributes to a large range in costs.

Why Is Carbon Sequestration Important to Fight Climate Change

As outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Carbon sequestration could be important to meeting this target because geological analysis has shown that our planet has great potential for carbon sequestration, with one global storage estimate being between 8,000 and 55,000 gigatons

However, carbon sequestration should not be used as a panacea for climate change. Relying on it solely is impractical because carbon sink limitations prevent us from storing every ton of carbon we emit. The more carbon we store, the quicker we degrade our environment.

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 Sequestration

If used correctly, carbon sequestration 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 sequestration 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 sequestration 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 sequestration.

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 sequestration is the long-term storage of captured or removed carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean. 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 sequestration 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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