Carbon removal is here. What comes next will define this industry – and the green economy

Scaling the CDR market 1000-fold requires strong federal investment and regulation to support innovative technology developers.

December 5, 2023
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Photo credit: Halldor Kolbeins / AFP via Getty Images

The carbon removal industry has reached a critical inflection point. 

Experts know the technology is capable of reaching gigaton scale by 2050 — but we can’t get there without sure-footed policy frameworks and meaningful public sector partnerships.

Many of the technologies we enjoy today, from solar panels to iPhones, are the product of decades of federal research, standard setting, shared infrastructure development, and demand-pull policies. Getting carbon removal to the gigaton scale will require us to know every page of this technology-development playbook, and to adapt it to the unique needs of carbon removal technologies.

This is not to say the policy progress we’ve seen hasn’t been substantial. When I got started in the carbon removal industry back in 2015, there were no carbon removal projects outside of university labs and virtually zero dollars in funding for permanent carbon removal technologies from governments across the globe. I’ve spent countless hours explaining what “carbon removal” even means; we’ve come a long way in name recognition alone.

A shift in the United States began in 2018, as the federal government committed tens of millions (and soon after, hundreds of millions) in funding to carbon removal research, development, and demonstration. That investment proved the technology’s potential on small scales and fueled improvements and further innovation. 

And landmark public sector investments shortly followed. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $3.5 billion for direct air capture hubs, and the Inflation Reduction Act included a DAC tax credit of $180 per ton of carbon removal. At the same time, innovative private sector companies, like the founders of the Frontier advanced market commitment, stepped up to help scale these solutions by becoming a critical first customer for carbon removal.

Those investments have already begun to pay dividends, turning a niche modeling concept into a budding industry. As of 2021, carbon removal companies across the globe have permanently captured and stored 2.3 million tons of carbon removal through novel carbon removal approaches — this represents both incredible progress and a drop in the bucket in terms of what we need. 

What’s more, there are more than 300 carbon removal demonstration projects planned for 2024. In the U.S., the country’s largest carbon removal projects to date — four DAC facilities capturing one million tons of carbon dioxide every year — will break ground in the next few years.

I’ve spent the better part of a decade working with policymakers, community leaders, and technology innovators to scale this industry from lab to reality. Those conversations have shown me that the next steps we take as an industry will have consequences for the whole ecosystem: CDR suppliers, purchasers, and communities across the country. 

Any meaningful deployment of carbon removal solutions at scale must take into account a broad range of solutions. Just as there is no silver bullet for climate change, there is no silver bullet in the CDR industry. Whether it be supporting enhanced rock weathering, ocean-based carbon removal, direct air capture, or biomass carbon removal and storage, we’ll need to invest across them all to reach the billion-ton scale — and our climate targets.

Public sector programs will be imperative to building trust among those in the private sector who want to buy carbon removal and help create a market for carbon dioxide, an invisible commodity that has no existing value the way that solar-generated watts do. 

We need to get those private sector customers off the sidelines, and the government can help by setting standards and frameworks for monitoring, reporting, and verification. Federal procurement programs like those recently announced by the Department of Energy and other federal funding mechanisms — including cost-shares, pilot projects, and loan guarantees — offer significant, industry-shaping examples of what “good” carbon removal looks like. 

And with additional RD&D funding, we can work to bring down the costs of today’s innovations while driving the innovations of tomorrow. The CDR industry will need a full suite of tailored regulations that will ensure carbon removal projects — and the green infrastructure needed to enable them — can be built safely at scale.

It is also crucial to ensure that the communities that host these new projects are centered in the development and decision-making process from the very beginning. This will in turn ensure robust risk mitigation and management plans, and maximize co-benefits. 

For instance, biomass-based carbon removal and storage approaches involve forest-thinning, a tactic proven to reduce the risk and severity of wildfires. And enhanced rock weathering can be applied to agricultural fields as a soil amendment to improve soil pH and increase yields. 

Across the board, studies show a wide range of carbon removal solutions can create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Taking these co-benefits seriously will be critical to building long-term community buy-in and political will for carbon removal projects.

Ultimately, what we do today will define the success of this critical market for decades to come. Given that already commercialized climate technologies like solar and wind have already demonstrated how to successfully scale new markets and solutions, carbon removal has a playbook of sorts that the industry can use to write its own story. 

If done right, we’ll build a multi-trillion-dollar industry that does good for our planet, our economy, and local communities. But we can only do so if we bridge the gaps between the technology innovators, private carbon removal purchasers, our nation’s policymakers, and the local communities that stand to benefit from this world-changing climate solution.

Giana Amador is the executive director of the Carbon Removal Alliance. The opinions represented in this contributed article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of Latitude Media or any of its staff.

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