Only through deep decarbonisation alongside a massive ramp up in CO2 removal projects can the world keep its 1.5C goal within reach, Energy Transitions Commission warns

Both natural and technological means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere must be rapidly scaled up in addition to deep cuts in emissions in the current decade and beyond if the world is to stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, a fresh analysis today has warned.

All sectors of the economy can and must decarbonise by mid-century, which requires significant emissions reductions in the 2020s, but given the closing window for action, decarbonisation alone will likely not be enough to reach climate goals, according to the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC).

Climate scientists on the IPCC have estimated global emissions must fall by 45 per cent by the end of the decade from 1990 levels in order to achieve the Paris Agreement target to limit average temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2C and preferably 1.5C by the end of the century.

However, with greenhouse gases on the rise again post-pandemic, research today by the ETC – a global coalition of experts, business leaders, and green groups – asserts that so-called carbon dioxide removals (CDR) must also be a crucial part of the equation for hitting Paris Agreement climate targets.

Even the fastest feasible path for emissions reductions would mean the world would need at least 70-220 gigatonnes of carbon removals between now and 2050 in order to limit cumulative net greenhouse gas emissions to a level compatible with the Paris Agreement, the ETC said.

As such, the report argues a combination of nature-based climate solutions such as forestation and improved soil management, alongside engineered technologies such as direct air capture (DAC) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) urgently need scaling up worldwide.

In the immediate term, natural climate solutions can be more quickly scaled up to help combat greenhouse gas emissions in the current decade, ETC said, although it cautioned that inherent difficulties exist in measuring precisely how much carbon they sequester.

Therefore, while at present engineered carbon removals are more expensive and less tried and tested, these technologies could then play a much bigger role in capturing carbon in the 2030s and 2040s, when efficiencies and innovation may bring down the costs of production and development, according to the ETC.

With sufficient investment and support to sale up, a “feasible” scenario assessed in the report estimates that natural and engineered carbon removals could serve to remove 3.5 gigatonnes of carbon by 2030, rising to around 165Gt of cumulative CO2 sequestration over the next 30 years.

Chair of the ETC, Lord Adair Turner, stressed that deep decarbonisation in the 2020s was mission critical for avoiding the most catastrophic climate change scenarios, particularly through priorities such as cutting global coal use in half and ending at least 70 per cent of deforestation by 2030.

But in addition to these efforts, he urged investors, business leaders, and policymakers to urgently work to scale up carbon removal solutions in the coming decade and beyond.

“Unless we develop carbon dioxide emissions rapidly and on large scale – closing the gap in both ambition and funding between today’s minimal level and what we need – it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Lord Turner. “It’s not either or – deep decarbonisation or carbon dioxide removals. Both are essential, rapidly and at scale, if we are to avoid enormous harm to people across the world.”

However, the ETC report cautions that no single CDR solution can be deployed in sufficient volumes to deliver the emissions removals required, and that each approach comes with different costs and risks attached to it.

It therefore recommends a “portfolio approach” for carbon removals that sees a variety of nature-based as well as technological measures deployed where best suited in order to support climate targets, with an initial focus on nature-based projects then accompanied by the roll out of technological solutions.

But whichever pathway is taken, carbon removals need urgently scaling in the current decade, and to do so requires a major ramp up in investment beyond the current $10bn a year which the ETC estimates such solutions are currently attracting.

The report estimates supporting around 3.5Gt of carbon removals a year by 2030 could require annual payments of $200bn a year, while sequestering 165Gt of CO2 over the next three decades may need around $15tr a year, which equates to around 0.25 per cent of global GDP.

However, it argues that such investment is eminently affordable, as well as entirely necessary. For comparison, the investment required in clean power over the next three decades is estimated at around 1.5 per cent of global GDP.

In order to scale up funding for CDR, voluntary carbon markets are likely to play a key role, although they may still only deliver around a third of the volume required, according to the study. Government and policy support will therefore also be needed to help pump-prime the market through emissions trading schemes (ETS), direct finance, or redirected agricultural subsidies to support nature-restoration, the ETC suggests.

Businesses, too, can help support CDR, by setting ambitious, science-based net zero goals aligned with 1.5C and taking action to slash their emissions, in addition to investing in credible, certified carbon removals credits to tackle unavoidable emissions in the short term, the report recommends.

Moreover, it argues that corporates can help create enabling conditions for carbon removals by investing in supporting infrastructure, such as renewable energy and CCS, as well as improved agricultural and land management practices, bolstered by verification and best practice guidance from governments.

The report marks the latest intervention from the ETC, which counts a host of high profile companies among its members, ranging from clean tech giants to carbon intensive oil majors, including Heathrow Airport, steelmaker ArcelorMittal, wind energy giant Orsted, oil and gas firms BP and Shell, financial powerhouses HSBC and Credit Suisse, mining giant Rio Tinto, and many more. Figures from green groups such as We Mean Business, the World Resources Institute and the European Climate Foundation also sit on the ETC’s board.

Nigel Topping, the UK’s High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26, today endorsed the report’s findings, as he stressed the importance of focusing minds on carbon removals as well as emissions reductions. “In addition to rapid and deep decarbonisation, governments and corporates must work together, starting now, to scale-up an ambitious and diverse portfolio of CDR solutions,” he said. “As we look ahead to COP27, this is vital to delivering on commitments made in Glasgow and keeping 1.5C alive.”

There are now less than eight years until 2030, by which time global emissions must almost halve. And as the IEA yesterday confirmed, global emissions are back at record levels following the pandemic-induced fall in emissions seen in 2020. Whether they are referred to as negative emissions, carbon dioxide removals, direct air capture, or nature based solutions, any project that promises to draw greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is inherently controversial given the potential for them to distract from the need to slash emissions at source. But with the clock continue to tick down and emissions still creeping upwards, it is becoming increasingly clear that every weapon in the world’s net zero arsenal is going to be needed if the 1.5C goal is to be kept alive.

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