The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal

The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal

June 27, 2024
A comprehensive report led by University of Oxford offers pathways to scale CDR in the future.

A report, led by the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and issued earlier this month, offered an assessment of the current state of global carbon dioxide removal.

In the forward, Jennifer Wilcox, Presidential Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania makes the following remarks:

“This report establishes the building blocks needed to responsibly estimate the scale of CDR achievable, in the timeframe needed, and that will exist along with other decarbonization efforts. The question of scale for requirements in 2050 is fundamentally unknowable.

“Therefore, we should plan for a range of scenarios over the next decade and identify the pathways that will lead to the best options to scale CDR in the future. These pathways should include as many “no regrets” activities as possible: bringing technology to commercial demonstration, creating robust MMRV standards and technology, developing community and workforce benefit models, creating policies to incentivize demand at small but meaningful scale.

 “At the end of the day, CDR at scale needs to include projects that take care of people, that include benefits from that flow to community members in the form of workforce development and growth, air pollution reduction, climate adaptation and mitigation, and resilience building.”

The research had seven main conclusions, a few of which are excerpted here.

Some CDR deployment is occurring, albeit at a low level.

CDR is human activity that captures CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it for decades to millennia. There are many CDR methods, which cover a variety of ways to capture and store CO2. These methods have different levels of readiness, potential and durability. Each method has sustainability risks that could limit its long-term deployment. When deployed alongside measures to explicitly address sustainability risks, some methods can provide benefits beyond climate change mitigation.

 Around 2 GtCO2 per year of CDR is taking place already. Almost all of this comes from conventional CDR methods – those methods that are well established and widely reported by countries as part of land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities – principally through afforestation/reforestation. These methods have delivered a relatively stable rate of CDR over the past two decades. Novel CDR methods – which are generally at an earlier stage of development than conventional CDR – contribute 1.3 million tons (0.0013 Gt) of CO2 removal per year.

That is less than 0.1% of total CDR, but novel methods are growing more rapidly than conventional methods, despite a downward revision in our estimates compared with The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal 1st edition. Of these 1.3 million tons, less than 0.6 million tons per year involves geological storage of CO2, which represents some of the most durable forms of CDR.

To scale up CDR, innovative activity needs to intensify, of which we see robust evidence.

Innovation here is broadly construed: a sequence of interconnected activities, characterized by technology push and demand-pull factors, all influenced by policymaking and public perceptions. Innovation is key to scaling up CDR, as well as to improving its sustainability, for example through increasing removal efficiency.

Indicators of innovation show that activity is generally intensifying, although with some recent slowdowns:

Research: Steady growth is seen in grant funding for CDR research projects (14% per year) and publications (19% per year). Both cover an increasingly diverse portfolio of CDR methods.

Inventions: After a period of rapid growth, patents in CDR have declined since 2010. However, patents have become more diverse and novel methods play a larger role.

Demonstrations: Some major demonstration programs have launched recently, in the US (the Regional Direct Air Capture Hubs program) and at the international level through Mission Innovation.

Startups: Investment in CDR startups has grown significantly over the past decade, outpacing the climate-tech sector as a whole – although it declined in 2023, and CDR accounts for just 1.1% of investment in climate-tech start-ups.

Company announcements: Companies show ambition to reach, by mid-century or sooner, levels of CDR consistent with meeting the Paris temperature goal, albeit with little grounds for credibility at present.

Market activity: The voluntary carbon market is a nascent but growing source of demand for novel CDR. Conventional CDR from afforestation saw a drop in issuances and retirements in 2023, while purchase agreements grew sevenfold for future delivery of CDR via novel methods.

Monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) protocols are varied, proliferating and essential for scaling up CDR.

Robust MRV provides CDR activities with credibility and transparency, which are crucial to effective voluntary carbon markets, government-created markets, regulations and national reporting. However, at present the MRV ecosystem consists of many overlapping protocols, making comparison and oversight difficult.

MRV policymaking differs among jurisdictions. For example, the EU and the UK have prioritized developing CDR standards and guidelines; the US, meanwhile, has focused on scaling up market-ready CDR and developing MRV tools for specific applications, such as marine CDR. The voluntary carbon market has played a leading role, with projects developing methods for monitoring, reporting and verifying CDR projects.

We identified 102 MRV protocols for CDR. Sixty-three percent of these are for conventional CDR, 65% are for voluntary markets, and 58% are for international activity. Forty percent were developed since 2022.

Read the full report.