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What is carbon removal and why is it needed?

The need for carbon removal from the atmosphere is now accepted by the IPCC as a core pillar for stabilising the climate. Carbon removal includes a range of technologies and approaches, and this guidance provides some explanation of different terms and issues, as well as how CTRF prioritises its particular focus areas, based on the potential for biotechnology to support carbon sequestration.

These FAQs have been referenced from WRI’s (World Resource Institute) FAQs on carbon removal, the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report, Carbon Gap CDR Primer and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, under creative commons.

What is carbon removal?

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), or carbon removal, is the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it permanently. Carbon has circulated for millennia from the atmosphere to forests, soils and ocean as part of the natural carbon cycle, but atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have steadily increased since the Industrial Revolution, predominantly due to burning fossil fuels. Carbon removal seeks to accelerate and augment the natural carbon cycle to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere or use technologies that directly extract CO2 from the air.

Why is carbon removal needed?

Keeping temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, as outlined in the Paris Agreement, will require us to reach net-zero emissions globally by midcentury. Reaching this goal, which many recognize is already beyond reach, will require deep emissions reductions, first and foremost, from every sector of the economy. Unfortunately, we are now at the stage where carbon removal is now needed alongside those efforts to balance residual GHG emissions that cannot, or would not, be reduced by midcentury if abatement technologies do not become available or cost effective at scale. Even after we reach net-zero, carbon removal can help reduce the historic excess concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (sometimes called ‘legacy emissions’), as well as the residual emissions from hard-to-abate industries, such as cement and steel, to safer levels. Current concentrations of CO2 are already causing more frequent and intense extreme weather events and sea level rise that are disproportionately affecting countries least responsible for these emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative body on climate science, has stated that all pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C will require some degree of carbon removal. Realistically, this is now a challenge to limit the size and time of ‘overshoot’, given the scientific evidence showing that 1.5°C will be surpassed in the early to mid 2030s.

The IPCC’s climate modelling scenarios indicate that dependence on carbon removal could vary widely, from less than 1 billion tonnes per year to more than 10 billion tonnes per year of carbon dioxide removed. Other estimates that use different methodologies also point to several billion tonnes of carbon removal needed per year.

The amount of carbon removal ultimately required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change depends on the speed and scale of emissions reductions. We have a near-term opportunity – and imperative – to reduce emissions as much as possible to minimise our future reliance on carbon removal. In most cases, it will be more costly and difficult to remove carbon out of the atmosphere rather than prevent it from being emitted in the first place.

How can carbon be removed from the atmosphere?

Carbon removal includes a range of approaches, from nature-based approaches like growing trees and restoring coastal wetlands to more technological approaches like direct air capture (DAC), using biotechnology to enhance carbon sequestration, carbon mineralization/weathering and approaches that store the carbon found in biomass (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is the most common approach here, but others have been proposed as well). A robust portfolio of natural and technological approaches will help reduce costs, increase flexibility, spread risks and balance tradeoffs associated with any one solution.

Is large-scale carbon removal possible?

This is an enormous challenge and there is significant debate and difference of opinion about our ability or otherwise, to remove carbon at the scale and speed needed to stabilise the climate. Some carbon removal approaches like reforestation can be deployed at large scales today but require supportive policies and strong project implementation. Other novel approaches that are at earlier stages of development, like direct air capture (DAC), are not ready to scale and require continued research and development, policy support to accelerate deployment of existing technologies, and adoption of best practices and safeguards to ensure responsible scale up. These investments are necessary to develop approaches today so they will be ready to deploy as soon as technically possible. Complementary infrastructure will also be needed to support carbon removal expansion, including CO2 transport and geological sequestration sites to store captured CO2 for approaches like DAC, and renewable energy infrastructure to power carbon removal technologies.

We must reiterate that first and foremost, we must focus on deep emission reductions, and that we cannot use any potential longer-term benefits from carbon removal technology to continue our current emissions trajectory and business-as-usual. We have to be technology agnostic, and be strategic about our investment in viable long-term solutions, that put less pressure on land, require less energy, and that can be scaled rapidly and sustainably, at an affordable cost.

What are the local impacts of carbon removal?

The intended effect of carbon removal is to remove CO2 out of the atmosphere to ultimately reduce the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to safer levels. This benefit is global, but carbon removal projects may also have local impacts, which can be positive or negative.

For example, tree planting and practices that increase soil carbon can improve air quality, water cycling and resilience to climate change. But changes to the way the land is currently being used may also disadvantage some people economically. Technological approaches like DAC can bring jobs and investment, but need significant amounts of land, energy and water to operate.

These local impacts need to be considered in project planning and in partnership with potential host communities. Understanding the local impacts of proposed projects, communicating those with local communities and providing opportunities for negotiation of benefits will be critical to developing community understanding and hopefully acceptance of carbon removal technologies, and ultimately scaling carbon removal responsibly, with a social licence to operate.

Any potential biotechnology-based carbon sequestration solutions that emerge will need to be carefully assessed and tested and we will be led by what the science tells us. We must be aware of the potential for unintended consequences and ensure that these are understood and accounted for in any decision making.

We need bold and scalable solutions to GHG removal to stabilise the climate, but this cannot come at the expense of, or damage to, biodiversity and other valuable social, cultural and economic services.

For there to be any type of climate justice, there needs to be significant investment in adaptation

Yes, absolutely – investment for adaptation is fundamental for a just climate transition. We are acutely aware that those most vulnerable and most impacted by the negative impacts of climate change, are those that are least able to adapt at scale, and are those that have contributed least to historic and current emissions. Therefore, any solutions for carbon removals that come from the research that we are supporting, or that are being deployed by others, should be strongly encouraged to be deployed in a way that benefits local communities and countries, in a way that promotes and supports these most vulnerable countries to be able to achieve their Net Zero ambitions and adaptation needs.

What is carbon sequestration?

Carbon sequestration usually refers to the long term removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via natural processes. This includes storage of carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean. Carbon sequestration occurs both naturally and as a result of anthropogenic activities and typically refers to the storage of carbon that has the immediate potential to become carbon dioxide gas.

What’s the difference between carbon dioxide removal, carbon capture and carbon sequestration?

The IPCC defines carbon dioxide removal (CDR) as follows: “CDR refers to anthropogenic activities that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it durably in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products.”

Carbon capture and use or storage (CCUS) is a technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions at the source, such as cement, steel plants, fossil fuel power stations before it enters the atmosphere – making it a form of emissions reduction. CCUS is likely to be particularly critical in the industrial sector, where there are few or no alternatives to abate some types of emissions (e.g. process emissions from traditional cement production). The carbon captured has to then be transported and either permanently stored underground or converted to a product that effectively prevents that carbon from returning to the atmosphere for 10 to 100s of years at least.

Carbon sequestration usually refers to the long term removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via natural processes.  This includes  storage of carbon in plants, soils, geologic formations, and the ocean. Carbon sequestration occurs both naturally and as a result of anthropogenic activities and typically refers to the storage of carbon that has the immediate potential to become carbon dioxide gas.

CCUS results in reduced emissions to the atmosphere from point sources by removing the carbon from the waste gas stream, whereas carbon dioxide removal tends to refer to removing carbon dioxide from the general atmosphere. Within the climate community CDR is considered to refer to the second of these processes i.e. removal of carbon from the general atmosphere.

There are different ways of achieving carbon removal from the atmosphere, including Direct Air Capture (DAC; mechanical/chemical means of removal) and carbon sequestration (naturally occurring processes). As stated, these are distinct from point source CCUS, because carbon removal removes excess carbon dioxide that has already been emitted into the atmosphere.

As the topic of carbon removal gains more attention, there are potential risks that may arise from conflating the different carbon management and removal systems and approaches, as can be seen this past year, as global financial investments and supportive national policy instruments have been directed towards carbon removal, there has been some confusion around the different technologies and systems. We must be careful not to conflate carbon removal and carbon capture, as they are very different climate mitigation strategies.

CTRF supports all efforts to reduce emissions and it is essential this is done rapidly and at scale, as this is required in order to stabilise the climate. However, this alone is not enough, as we have already emitted too much carbon into the atmosphere and sadly emissions continue to rise globally. As a result it has also become essential to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere – carbon dioxide removal. This task is already monumental, but becomes even more difficult for every additional ton of carbon that is emitted to the atmosphere.

Useful sources to highlight the differences in more detail can be found at Carbon Gap and State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report.

How did you identify your research priorities - why biotechnology and carbon removal?

We commissioned a horizon scan and scoping study of published scientific research in 2022, as we were becoming established. This piece of work and its recommendations has informed our initial research priorities. We are in the process of finalising our Research Strategy, which will be published in autumn of this year.

We want to identify areas to fund that are currently underfunded, but have the potential to make a significant positive impact on our collective climate outcomes. From this initial scoping study, we understand that the very early research points to huge potential for biotechnology in the carbon removal space, however, this area is currently largely underfunded. We are keen to fund early-stage research in this area, in order to add to the current pool of research and highlight the significant potential and make the case for additional targeted investment.

How do you ensure the highest quality of research?

Our research focus and priorities are guided by our Scientific Advisory Council, which was established in early 2023, to provide expert oversight and robust technical advice on our Research Strategy, as well as our research projects to be selected. They ensure the rigour of our scientific approach and research excellence. They are a diverse group of leaders in their respective fields, bringing expertise ranging from biological sciences, ocean and ecosystem functions, engineering technology and commercialisation. The Council is chaired by Surabi Menon, who is a leading climate scientist with over 25 years of experience in climate change.

We have a robust evaluation and due diligence mechanism in place to ensure our research projects are of the highest calibre. Full proposals will undergo an extensive peer review process, which involves assessment by relevant independent experts, identified by CTRF, who will score the proposal against the assessment criteria and provide written commentary. This will be submitted to the Scientific Advisory Council, who will then discuss jointly, and produce a rank ordered list of proposals and make funding recommendations to the CTRF Board for final approval.

Once projects are approved, we will establish a clear grant management process to support research teams and maintain oversight of project deliverables and progress.

This process seeks to ensure research excellence across our portfolio of projects.

What do you fund?

We fund research into new methods of carbon sequestration, which have their roots in nature, but which could be scaled significantly using biotechnology.

In the coming years, we will support research projects involving sequestration by microorganisms through to plant-based systems. We recognise the challenge and complexity of cutting edge research, but also the huge challenge in finding and deploying scalable carbon removal solutions.

Our inaugural funding announcement launched in February 2023. Through this call we are actively scoping opportunities and encouraging the research community to come forward with their most innovative solutions to accelerating natural carbon removal pathways.

We are excited by the potential application of cutting-edge transformational biotechnologies including synthetic biology, gene editing and engineering biology. We are particularly interested in research on bacteria and microalgae.

We also consider projects involving more speculative research into soil carbon sequestration via fungi and sequestration via macroalgae and archaea. Whilst plant-based systems remain the most well-researched, the application of ground-breaking technologies in genetic engineering and synthetic biology provide significant opportunity as well.

These opportunities represent a snapshot of what may be possible in the world of biotechnology applications to nature-based carbon sequestration in open or closed terrestrial or ocean systems. As we develop our research strategy over the coming months we welcome continued engagement with the research community to inform our evolving priorities.

If you are interested in learning more about our funding priorities and grants, please visit ‘Apply for Funding’.

How are you funded?

We are currently funded by our founder member company, Fremr, a Norwegian investment company supporting a low-carbon project portfolio, founded and owned by businessman and philanthropist, Stig Arff. We are looking for additional funders to join Fremr, and support us to increase the number and size of projects we are able to fund, recognising that we need a large portfolio of projects in order to find those that can succeed and deliver scalable solutions. If you are interested in learning more or would like to speak to one of us about joining us, then please visit ‘Funding Partners’. 

We are a non-profit organisation, and are registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in the UK and regulated by the respective UK bodies. Our Articles of Association define our purpose and any income or donations are invested into our research funding programme seeking solutions for the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans. Our Board provides financial, governance and risk oversight over our operations; and our Scientific Advisory Council provides quality assurance over our research programme.

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