Governments and businesses have been placing their hopes on future carbon dioxide (CO2) removal from the atmosphere rather than actively reducing emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels. However, new research published in Science reveals that this reliance on carbon dioxide removal is misguided and fails to recognize the potential harms to people, food security, and natural ecosystems.
The study highlights that the carbon dioxide removal potential, as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is greatly overestimated. The IPCC’s assessment, while valuable at the time of publication, does not account for recent advancements in scientific understanding of mitigating climate change. The research team mapped various carbon dioxide removal options against sustainability risks to determine which strategies align with climate policy goals without causing unacceptable hazards.
Lead author Alexandra Deprez from IDDRI-Sciences Po warns that governments and industries are banking on large-scale carbon dioxide removal to achieve the goals set in the Paris Agreement. However, the proposed scale of deployment poses severe risks to food security, human rights, natural ecosystems, and even planetary boundaries. The potential consequences of these actions could be irreversible and far-reaching, affecting biodiversity, freshwater use, and overall food security.
The Gap Between Expectations and Reality
To assess the feasibility of carbon dioxide removal options, the researchers analyzed the scientific literature underlying the most recent IPCC reports and the pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C. They found that the sustainable thresholds for land-based carbon dioxide removal were significantly lower than the expectations presented in the IPCC reports when considering the risks to biodiversity and human livelihoods. Professor Paul Leadley from the University of Paris-Saclay emphasizes that the levels of removal proposed by the IPCC carry high risks to agriculture, livelihoods, and the environment due to the limited land available. The vast amount of land needed for carbon dioxide removal would come at the expense of other crucial aspects, such as biodiversity preservation, freshwater use, and food security.
Another concern highlighted in the research is the discrepancy between climate commitments and recommended emissions reductions. The analysis of current commitments indicates that countries plan to produce twice the amount of fossil fuels recommended by the IPCC’s Paris-aligned pathways by the end of the decade. Moreover, by 2060, these commitments would require approximately 12 million km2 of land for carbon removal, nearly equal to the total available global cropland. Dr. Kate Dooley from the University of Melbourne asserts that using carbon dioxide removal to offset ongoing fossil fuel emissions is not a legitimate solution. Instead, government climate plans should establish separate targets for emission reductions and removals to reduce dependence on the latter and fulfill climate and biodiversity commitments through the restoration and preservation of natural ecosystems.
Redefining Climate Strategies
To address the critical issues surrounding carbon dioxide removal, the researchers propose several key actions. Firstly, a sustainable carbon dioxide removal budget should be estimated based on socio-ecological limits. This budget would guide the allocation of carbon dioxide removal resources to the most legitimate uses. Furthermore, viable pathways to limit warming to 1.5°C without exceeding sustainability thresholds should be identified, with a focus on near-term national climate plans. These plans, due in 2025 under the UNFCCC process, must align with the principles of sustainability and avoid overreliance on carbon dioxide removal.
The paper also emphasizes the need for the scientific community to inform the upcoming cycle of IPCC reports. The authors argue that the next set of reports should provide a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of carbon dioxide removal strategies, considering their potential consequences for both the climate and biodiversity crises. Carbon dioxide removal alone cannot solve these interconnected problems; instead, a holistic and sustainable approach, including emission reductions and ecosystem preservation, is necessary.
The dangerous bet on carbon dioxide removal as a solution to climate change reveals an incomplete and misleading understanding of its consequences. Relying on the potential of carbon dioxide removal while disregarding the urgent need to reduce emissions and transition away from fossil fuels poses significant risks to food security, human rights, and natural ecosystems. Governments and businesses must reassess their climate strategies, setting separate and transparent targets for emission reductions and removals. By adopting a holistic approach that prioritizes sustainability and ecosystem preservation, we can strive towards a more resilient and prosperous future for both our planet and its inhabitants.