There’s a lot to parse through with emissions management — carbon removal, carbon capture, carbon sequestration, carbon conversion. Can you help walk us through the key distinctions between these? Are some more important than others?
Emissions management, or carbon management, encompasses a suite of technologies and approaches that reduce the flow of CO2 to the atmosphere or the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide removal is exactly what it sounds like, and there are a variety of approaches. Today, the most common carbon removal solutions are nature-based, such as reforestation. But to remove carbon at commercial scale, we need to continue to innovate and improve on engineered and hybrid solutions, such as direct air capture and mineralization.
Carbon management is one of many efforts needed to tackle climate change. We simply need lots of everything — efficiency, renewable power, nuclear, hydrogen, biofuels, agricultural intensification — to reach key goals. That includes carbon capture from industry (broadly) and power (mostly in Asia), CO2-to-products (including concrete and fuels), and CO2 removals (including forests, direct air capture, and mineralization).
While emissions reduction and abatement are still the top priorities for climate change mitigation, it’s still imperative that we continue to invest in and scale carbon dioxide removal. According to the most recent IPCC report, even in the best-case reduction scenario, an enormous carbon removal enterprise will be required to hit climate targets. To build these solutions to the scale that will be required, we need to start investing in companies, projects and technologies now.
If we are slow or fail at any kind of reduction or abatement, we need more carbon management to hit the same climate targets.
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You’ve worked on both the public and private sides of this issue. What insights do you have on how these different sectors can work together to decarbonize?
Tackling climate change is a team sport. Mitigating climate change is going to require concerted participation from all sectors — finance, industry, commerce, government, academia, and individuals.
Governments — at the local and national level — need to continue to enact regulations and institute policies that incentivize decarbonization. Provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are a good example of the role the government can play in accelerating private sector investment through incentives. Provisions of the CHIPS Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law do the same for funding climate innovation. Newly proposed SEC rules requiring greenhouse gas emissions disclosures for public companies demonstrate how the government can play a role through climate transparency.
Municipalities like Boulder County, Colorado, are also demonstrating the impact that can be made at the local level with investments in carbon removal projects uniquely suited to the local economy, community, and environment. Internationally, actions like the EU proposed Carbon Border Adjustments platforms like COP28 and the Major Economies Forum have no private sector parallel and are important to climate progress.
Like the government, the private sector has important roles to play in climate change mitigation, starting with developing and executing on a plan to equitably deliver on climate commitments. Reductions across emissions are the top priority, but the private sector also needs to actively start investing in removals. The IPCC stated in its most recent report that both reduction and removal are now required to hit climate targets. The private sector needs to start investing in carbon removal to make sure that the commercial scale is available to meet the demand starting in 2030.
Big IdeaAddressing the climate crisis will be the biggest enterprise in all human history, so there is a tremendous opportunity to do it well and make sure that local communities benefit meaningfully. Collaboration and transparency are the core elements of avoiding mistakes of the past.Julio Friedmann
Let’s talk about hydrogen. What is “green hydrogen” and how can it help us reach climate targets? Is there anything we need to be cautious about?
Green hydrogen is made with water and zero-carbon electricity (including hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal). It can be used as a fuel or to make a fuel (like methanol, ammonia, or jet fuel) when electrification is not an option. Many parts of our modern economy, including steel, shipping, aviation, and fertilizer production require hydrogen of some kind to decarbonize quickly and cheaply.
Some applications may not make sense in many geographies, like for cars or home heating where electrification is likely to be faster, cheaper, and safer. Similarly, we don’t want hydrogen or synthetic fuels to leak any more than we want methane or gasoline to leak — there are climate, environmental, and health concerns that merit attention. These can be managed easily, but must be managed well to avoid trouble.
How can we ensure that the benefits and burdens of carbon removal programs are distributed fairly?
First and foremost, local communities must be engaged meaningfully as we deploy and learn. To be impactful, cheap, and accepted by communities, we must deploy CO2 removal systems in a transparent manner that addresses community needs as we simultaneously learn how to make them better.
Second, we need to work collaboratively around the world to deploy where communities, stakeholders, and governments want CO2 removal. There is real potential for re-wilding, wealth creation, and other benefits when CO2 removal systems are designed and implemented equitably. Addressing the climate crisis will be the biggest enterprise in all human history, so there is a tremendous opportunity to do it well and make sure that local communities benefit meaningfully. Collaboration and transparency are the core elements of avoiding mistakes of the past.
About climate pledges and net-zero commitments, you’ve said, “Behind these promises is simple climate math: to stabilize climate change at any level, all sectors everywhere, including electricity, transportation, food, and manufacturing, must effectively reach zero and stay there forever.” How far away are we from that reality?
Today, the world’s people emit 52 billion tons of greenhouse gasses. This is about 100 times the mass of all people on Earth!
To avoid the worst aspects of climate change, we must reach net-zero emissions worldwide by 2050 and cut emissions everywhere 50% in 2030. Today, we’re not even close. We’re heading to a 2.3-2.9°C increase above pre-industrial levels, and the ecosystem impacts to date have generally been larger than predicted, so this is a pretty bad trajectory.
On the plus side, we now have everything we need. We have all the technology we need, including carbon management tools. We have global awareness, broad acceptance, and ambition by global leaders in business, government, and civil society. We have market-aligning policies, including regulations and incentives. We have increased willingness to invest and innovate.
The last piece we need is cooperation and generosity. We must cultivate those values with the same commitment and intensity we have the other parts.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas