Carbon Dioxide Removal: Pathways and Policy Needs

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions will likely be needed to achieve global climate objectives, though deployment of CDR is not a substitute for cutting emissions. For large CDR projects to be realized at scale by mid-century, an unprecedented level of development and deployment must start taking place now. CDR solutions include both nature-based approaches (e.g., afforestation, reforestation, biochar, soil carbon sequestration) and technological and industrial approaches (e.g., bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, direct air capture).

Whether CDR solutions can scale to the levels that studies suggest are needed to have a significant impact on climate mitigation depends on numerous factors, including: the potential a given technique or technology has to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; cost effectiveness; level of readiness to be deployed; scalability; how quickly the carbon sink reaches capacity; permanence of the carbon removals; and other benefits and challenges. Nature-based solutions are largely affordable and ready now and will be of importance in both the near and long term. Technological solutions may be more scalable and more permanent but must continue to be developed and deployed. Given the variation in removal potential, cost, readiness, and other factors, a portfolio of CDR solutions will be needed to maximize the chances of meeting climate targets. Policy can play a vital role in making such a portfolio a reality.

Policies that can help remove economic and technological barriers for large-scale deployment of CDR solutions include the following:

  • Research, development, and demonstration funding: Government RD&D funding programs can make a huge difference in the costs and deployment levels of technologies. The size of the federal RD&D budget dedicated to CDR should better reflect its potential economic and climate benefits.
  • Carbon pricing and standards: Policies that institute a robust carbon price or carbon constraint could boost CDR’s cost competitiveness. Additional policy mechanisms will also likely be needed to accelerate the deployment of CDR technologies, such as a federal Clean Energy Standard that permits CDR projects to contribute in limited and targeted ways to an overall clean energy target.
  • Infrastructure: The need for supporting infrastructure presents a key constraint on the scalability of several CDR approaches, particularly the technological solutions. Federal infrastructure policies should address siting, permitting, and investment needs for carbon dioxide pipelines and sequestration sites.
  • Market creation: Policies can create demand for CDR technologies (and other carbon capture and storage technologies) by fostering markets for utilization of the captured carbon dioxide, such as through government procurement policies and building codes.
  • Life cycle analysis and environmental monitoring: To foster public trust and long-term support for CDR, it is critical to establish rigorous and credible life cycle analyses for a variety of removal solutions. Real-world impacts also have to be tracked, which means monitoring, reporting, and verification will be critical.
  • Integrity of storage: The integrity of geologic storage will be another key enabler for sustained public support for CDR. Policies are needed to ensure secure geologic storage and to reduce uncertainties related to long-term carbon storage and liability.