Two former Department of Energy staffers warn we’re doing carbon removal all wrong

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But a fundamental challenge is that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) isn’t a product that any person or company “needs,” in the traditional market sense. Rather, carrying it out provides a collective societal good, in the way that waste management does, only with larger global stakes. To date, it’s largely been funded by companies that are voluntarily paying for it as a form of corporate climate action, in the face of rising investor, customer, employee, or regulatory pressures. That includes purchases of future removal through the $1 billion Frontier effort, started by Stripe and other companies.

There’s also some growing government support in countries including the US, which is funding carbon removal projects, offering a comparatively small amount of money to companies that provide the service and subsidizing those that store away carbon dioxide. 

But in a lengthy and pointed essay published in the journal Carbon Management on Tuesday, researchers Emily Grubert and Shuchi Talati argue there are rising dangers for the field. Both previously worked for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which drove several of the recent US efforts to develop the industry.

They write that the emergence of a for-profit, growth-focused sector selling a carbon removal product, instead of a publicly funded and coordinated effort more akin to waste management, “presents grave risks for the ability of CDR to enable net zero and net negative targets in general,” including keeping or pulling the planet back to 1.5 ºC of warming. 

“If we missallocate our limited CDR resources and end up not having access to the capacity that can help meet the needs we really have, climatically, that’s a problem,” says Grubert, now an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame. “It means we’re never going to get there.”

One of their main concerns is that corporations have come to see carbon removal as a relatively simple and reliable way of canceling out ongoing climate pollution that they have other ways of cleaning up, which the authors refer to as “luxury” removal.

That could significantly increase the total carbon removal the world would need to pull off, and effectively dedicate a large share of a limited resource to things that can be addressed directly. Moreover, it grants a significant slice of the world’s carbon removal capacity to profitable companies in rich nations rather than reserving it for higher-priority public goods, including allowing developing nations more time to reduce emissions; balancing out emissions from sectors we still don’t have ways of cleaning up, like agriculture; and drawing down historic emissions enough to bring global temperatures to safer levels.

“You really need to save it for the stuff you can’t eliminate, not just the stuff that’s expensive to eliminate,” Grubert says. 

That means using carbon removal to address things like the emissions from the fertilizer used to feed populations in poor parts of the world, not for avoiding the hassle and expense of retrofitting a cement plant, she adds.

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