Could Engineered Carbon Removal Solve the Climate Crisis?

Earth Fire Global Warming Concept

An IIASA-led study has investigated fairness and feasibility in global warming mitigation pathways, including novel carbon dioxide removal technologies like Direct Air Capture with Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS). While the study found that these technologies can keep pre-Paris climate targets within reach, it emphasizes that significant improvement in institutional capacity, emissions reduction, and comprehensive global efforts are essential for meeting the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.

A study led by IIASA has delved into the fairness and feasibility of deep mitigation strategies using innovative carbon dioxide removal methods, taking into account the institutional capacity to actualize these mitigation measures.

Realizing the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target necessitates vigorous climate measures within this decade. Nonetheless, challenging inquiries persist about how to curtail global warming within the boundaries of technological feasibilities, while simultaneously acknowledging the shared but different responsibilities and capabilities of various nations en route to a sustainable future. To rise to this challenge, we need to achieve substantial emissions cutbacks to attain global net-zero emissions.

Among the new options being studied in scientific literature, engineered Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) like Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS), is a potentially promising technology to help bridge this gap. DACCS captures carbon by passing ambient air over chemical solvents, which can be considered a form of CDR if the captured carbon is stored permanently underground. But whether these novel technologies can help make ambitious goals more attainable, or whether they can help reach them more equitably remains an open question.

In their study published in Environmental Research Letters, an interdisciplinary research group led by IIASA scientists developed new scenarios exploring fairness and feasibility in deep mitigation pathways, including novel CDR technologies. For the first time, the team implemented DACCS in a well-established integrated assessment model called MESSAGEix-GLOBIOM, and studied how this technology could impact global mitigation pathways under different scenarios of environmental policy effectiveness based on country-level governance indicators.

“In current policy debates, concerns about the political feasibility and fairness of the current generation of climate mitigation scenarios are raised, and DACCS is often proposed as a possible solution. In our study we quantified under what conditions and how DACCS might address those concerns,” explains Elina Brutschin, a study coauthor and researcher in the Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group of the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program.

The researchers emphasize that the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C does not change when considering novel forms of CDR. For a broader perspective on pathways to limit warming, the research team investigated how novel CDR interacts under different assumptions of techno-economic progress and the evolution of regional institutional capacity. The researchers highlight the risks of dependency on unproven carbon removal while also discussing the role novel CDR and similar technologies could play in the future for developing countries.

The results indicate that novel CDR can keep pre-Paris climate targets within reach when accounting for such risks, but that increasing institutional capacity beyond historical trends is necessary for limiting warming to the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal, even with novel CDR processes. The study also suggests that substantially improving institutional capacity to implement environmental policies, regulations, and legislation is critical to keep warming below 2°C if new forms of CDR fail to emerge in the near future.

The authors further point out that, when accounting for the possible future evolution of novel CDR technologies combined with inherent risks, the ‘fairness’ of overall outcomes did not meaningfully improve. DACCS did not impact the near-term required global mitigation ambition, and additional carbon removal in developed economies accounted for only a small component of the mitigation necessary to achieve stringent climate targets. This is because the removal of carbon dioxide in these areas does not compensate sufficiently for their historical emissions by mid-century.

The inability of DACCS to enhance the fairness of outcomes, like cumulative carbon emissions, in 1.5°C scenarios, emphasizes the notion that meeting global climate targets is a global effort requiring an ‘all-of-the-above’ mitigation strategy. There is no room for flexibility when it comes to reaching climate goals.

The results, however, show that engineered removals can play a role in making the post-peak temperature stabilization (or decline) phase more equitable. This means that the full timeframe under which accounting takes place is critical for exploring fair outcomes that are agreeable by most Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“Our results show that new technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere can play a role in ambitious climate policy, but they won’t be a silver bullet for solving the climate crisis. Developed countries especially need to cut emissions by more than half this decade, primarily by reducing existing sources of emissions while scaling up CDR technologies to be in line with the Paris Agreement,” says study lead author Matthew Gidden, a researcher in the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program.

The researchers emphasize that there is a clear need for the modeling community to assess the role of novel CDR in a structured way to better understand robust outcomes and insights versus observations related to a given model framework or approach. Looking forward, these issues can be explicitly included in scenario design to arrive at more equitable outcomes while incorporating political realities of the capabilities of governments and institutions to enact strong climate policy.

Reference: “Fairness and feasibility in deep mitigation pathways with novel carbon dioxide removal considering institutional capacity to mitigate” by Matthew J Gidden, Elina Brutschin, Gaurav Ganti, Gamze Unlu, Behnam Zakeri, Oliver Fricko, Benjamin Mitterrutzner, Francesco Lovat and Keywan Riahi, 22 June 2023, Environmental Research Letters.
DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/acd8d5

2 Comments on "Could Engineered Carbon Removal Solve the Climate Crisis?"

  1. Hottan Bothred | July 30, 2023 at 8:16 pm | Reply

    I have so many questions. We just need to manufacture, maintain, and operate these carbon removal machines. Can we do all of that without emitting CO2? What powers them? Has there ever been a fully carbon-negative DAwCCaS system, without resorting to silly carbon offsets? Would it be economically feasible? Why doesn’t IIfASA’s ECEP use a CDRW-IACCO2WATQFM2S+ system for CO2 with their MESSAGEix-GLOBIOM instead of CDR-DAwCCaS for the UNFCCC?

    Also, I’m curious on the image. Why is everything on Earth but Spain and the Sahara Desert and the Eastern Atlantic Ocean on fire? Why are the clouds on fire? In what atmosphere is the fire burning a thousands miles away from the planet? Why is there no smoke in the atmosphere? Why does the smoke rise northernly into space? Why would anybody think most of the planet is on fire? Are all these flaming-Earth articles parody? I’ve so many questions.

  2. OK, these carbon removal methods are all sponsored by big oil. Pay big oil to make the mess, and then pay big oil to clean it up. Wrong on soooo… many levels. How about NOT BURNING THE POISON IN THE FIRST PLACE? Yeah, cleaning up the mess already made is important, but I wouldn’t trust the oil companies with any of this.

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