By Holly Jean Buck and Roger Deane Aines

We are living in a climate crisis. Whether this lasts for decades, or indefinitely, depends on the actions that governments, companies, and communities take today. It is well understood that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition to new systems of energy, food, and waste management. However, to limit warming to ambitious 1.5° C or 2° C targets, we also need to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, transforming landscapes to store it in ecosystems and developing industrial means of storing it underground. This is the legacy of being slow to act.

Follow the science is a mantra of the times. But science is neither a religion nor a prescription.  Policy choices are made based upon values, optimistically; or optics and public pressure, pessimistically. We need science to guide us, though – and in a post-truth era, it’s more important than ever to have neutral, fact-based assessments that draw from multiple fields and multiple studies. That is why this primer is so critical now – we need sober best estimates, not hype, as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies enter the mainstream climate policy arena.

In recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis, many countries, cities, and companies have set forth net-zero targets. But to reach net-zero emissions, we need CDR to balance out emissions. Delivering on the idea of net-zero hinges on the development of sustainable CDR technologies and practices. Net-zero, though, is not a resting point; it is imperative to remove all the carbon dioxide we can – and then find new ways to remove more.  

We are two scientists who have very different experiences with carbon dioxide removal, and yet we arrive at the same conclusions about the necessity to clean up the atmosphere. Roger, a geologist and technologist, has worked in the field for 20 years. Holly, a social scientist, is a relative newcomer.

Holly became interested in CDR by looking at the climate math from her viewpoint as a writer and social scientist. She attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP-15) and was alarmed by politicians’ inaction and preference for making statements about their faith in young people as a source of climate hope – rather than making commitments to solving the issue themselves. Protests in the streets called out the failures in carbon offsetting and forest carbon schemes, and yet, side events within the conference highlighted that the technologies we need to decarbonize, including CDR, were largely possible. Our global failures to decarbonize and to remove carbon from the atmosphere are also tragic failures of political will. But while there are reasons to be cynical about realizing decarbonization and carbon removal on the time scales we need, cynicism is not going to lead us out of chaos. 

Roger took up CDR research as a full-time job after watching decades of inaction, particularly by the coal industry, despite its promises that carbon would be dealt with. He realized that the time for simply reducing emissions had passed and that humanity will need to clean up the mess we have made in the atmosphere. Fortunately, much of the technology needed for carbon capture and storage already exists, and we understand the costs and impacts of the required technologies. Years of research and development in carbon capture and storage technologies will not go to waste, though now that expertise needs to be applied to removing CO2 from the air, not from the combustion of fossil fuels. The world has been throwing its trash into the air for too long, and even after we stop, we can’t count on Mother Nature to clean up our mess – at least, not if we want a planet at all similar to the one we have now.

The key challenges to large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the air are both technical and sociological. They include: 1) lack of knowledge – about the technologies needed, or how much capital will be necessary to pay for vital infrastructure; 2) fear – of unintended consequences, and that a reimagining of our global energy system will result in another wave of industrial greed, insensitivity, and colonialism that widens the wealth gap between a few developed nations and the rest of the world; and 3) indecision – whether about the choices that must be made about the best use of required funding, or analysis paralysis, the constant search for a best answer, even when we know we need to test and explore more than one strategy. These are just some of the major issues facing CDR deployment. All that, and then the question of time: When do we act on cleaning up the atmosphere? The rollout of renewable electricity seems straightforward by comparison. 

When we consider these challenges, it’s clear that developing CDR capacity is not a matter of simply selecting the technologies that look best when viewed through a science-informed lens. Rather, how we develop CDR matters. It matters whether these approaches take place in disadvantaged communities without offering benefit, or whether they are designed in ways that offer communities good employment and revenue. It matters whether they decrease biodiversity or restore it. It matters whether polluters are paying for it, or if those who can least afford it are bearing the cost. These are choices. Interdisciplinary, empirical science can help us articulate these choices.

Carbon dioxide removal at a climate-significant scale is one of the most complex endeavors we can imagine, interlocking technologies, social systems, economies, transportation systems, agricultural systems, and, of course, the political economy required to fund it. This primer aims to lower the learning curve for action by putting as many facts as possible in the hands of the people who will take on this challenge. This book can eliminate much uncertainty and fear, and, we hope, speed the process of getting real solutions into the field.

Yet it would be a mistake to see the CDR science, technology, and engineering described in this primer as “the solutions” on their own. The true solutions will be the community-to-global-level social, political, and organizing actions for the future of our climate, and the collaborative effort to design, finance, and create carbon dioxide removal projects that work in harmony with sustainable energy, agriculture, forestry, and waste systems. We must acknowledge the goals that communities have beyond the all-encompassing need for climate restoration – like restoring their health and economic vitality, regenerating ecosystems, and promoting social and environmental justice – and what role CDR has in achieving those goals. In short, carbon dioxide is just one piece of the climate solutions puzzle, but it’s a critical piece. 

For those who share the goal of decarbonization – decarbonization through mitigation, supplemented by carbon dioxide removal – we hope that this primer can provide common language and basis for making judgments about the biophysical effects of these technologies and practices. We also hope it will be a source of support and guidance to those who realize that designing technical options for decarbonizing the planet and cleaning up our atmosphere is a massive job, and one that absolutely needs to be done in conversation with other areas of expertise. We expect the primer to find its place on many desktops, well-thumbed and index-tabbed, as proposals and white papers are written. Your imagination and perseverance, with this book’s expertise, can make the difference.

Go out and make the world a better place.