The following core concepts and terms, organized by topic area, are essential to understanding and discussing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and should serve as a useful guide for readers. This primer aims to support the broader community with a common language for framing CDR as one of many approaches that will be required to meet our climate goals. See the complete glossary at the end of the primer for a comprehensive list of terms and definitions.
Greenhouse gas (GHG)
Those gaseous constituents of the atmosphere, both natural and anthropogenic (human-caused), that absorb and emit radiation at specific wavelengths within the spectrum of terrestrial radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, by the atmosphere itself, and by clouds. This property causes the greenhouse effect, whereby heat is trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. Water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4), and ozone (O3) are the primary GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere. There are also a number of entirely human-made GHGs in the atmosphere, such as the halocarbons and other chlorine- and bromine-containing substances, managed under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol). Besides CO2, N2O and CH4, the Kyoto Protocol deals with the GHGs sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).
Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq)
Describes the impact of a given GHG (CO2, CO, CH4, N2O, etc.) by converting its mass to the equivalent mass of CO2 that would have the same global warming effect. The mass of a GHG is converted to the mass of CO2eq based on the GHG molecule’s potential to affect global warming, or its global warming potential (GWP). The GWP takes into account both the radiative forcing effect of the GHG and the gas’s lifetime in the atmosphere, and is dependent on the time horizon, which is most commonly 20 years (GWP20) or 100 years (GWP100). These values are different because the GWP is time-integrated and the GWP of CO2 is always 1, regardless of the time horizon. (See Chapter 4, Supplement 4.1.)
Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer
A 1987 international treaty that regulates the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals referred to as ozone-depleting substances. (UNEP)
A 1997 agreement that operationalizes the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with agreed-upon individual targets. (UNFCCC)
A 2016 agreement formed by Parties to the UNFCCC to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low-carbon future. (UNFCCC)
Carbon Dioxide Removal
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR)
Activities that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and durably store it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products. CDR includes enhancement of biological or geochemical sinks and direct air capture (DAC) and storage, but excludes natural CO2 uptake not directly caused by human intervention.
Refers to methods, which may not be complete CDR systems, that can achieve carbon dioxide removal. For example, DAC in the absence of permanent storage is a CDR approach, but is not on its own a CDR system.
(Potential) CDR system
A system with the capacity to generate net-negative emissions, but which will not necessarily do so under all conditions. A comprehensive life cycle analysis (LCA) and other analyses are required to conclusively demonstrate that a “potential” CDR system is, indeed, a CDR system. For example, in the absence of an LCA, a CDR system that barely achieves net-negative emissions could look the same as one that achieves far greater net climate benefits per tonne of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide removal on the order of or approaching gigatonnes of CO2 removed per year.
Gigatonne of carbon dioxide (GtCO2)
Refers to a billion metric tonnes (metric tons) of CO2, which is equivalent to 1015 g. It is also helpful to know that 1 GtCO2 is equivalent to 0.273 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC). This unit of measurement is used most frequently when discussing the scale of CDR required to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to keep warming below 1.5° C (i.e., gigatonne-scale CDR).
Any process, activity or mechanism that removes a greenhouse gas, a precursor of a greenhouse gas, or an aerosol from the atmosphere.
Any process, activity, or mechanism that creates a greenhouse gas, a precursor of a greenhouse gas, or an aerosol.
Occur when a particular source — created or enhanced by human activity — adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Occur when a sink — created or enhanced by human activity — removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. (In this primer, only CO2 is considered.)
Achieved when more greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere than are emitted into it.
Achieved when the total emissions entering the atmosphere are balanced by the total removal of emissions from the atmosphere. It is sometimes used interchangeably with the term carbon-neutral.
Life cycle analysis (LCA)
An analysis of the balance of positive and negative emissions associated with a certain process, which includes all of the flows of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, along with impacts on other environmental or social impacts of concern. This analysis also includes greenhouse gas emissions that result from the materials used to construct a given process (commonly referred to as embodied emissions), as well as from the energy resources used to meet the energy demands of the process.
Emissions that result from the production or use of any good, or the provision of any service. For example, the embodied emissions of steel used for a reactor will include emissions associated with the acquisition of raw materials, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and the energy used in steel production.
Emissions that are either physically extremely difficult to eliminate within a certain timeframe (e.g., because of dependence on a particular infrastructure with a long lead time for carbon-free substitution, or because avoidance would require a technology that relies on a scarce resource) or which would be unacceptable to avoid from a social justice perspective (e.g., if mitigation would deprive people of the means to satisfy their basic needs, like food security).
Permanently storing what would have been a CO2 emission in order to avoid an increase in atmospheric CO2. Note that this is distinct from CDR because the source of CO2 is a potential emission rather than the atmosphere. The climate benefit of such an intervention depends on the counterfactual scenario – what would have happened without our action? – which can only be estimated, not observed. If a project claims to avoid emissions that weren’t going to happen anyway, and other emissions are allowed to continue in exchange, then an avoided emission project can do more damage to the climate than doing nothing at all.
A human intervention to reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions. Some publications have used the broad term “mitigation” to refer exclusively to emissions mitigation, whereas others have used mitigation (or “climate change mitigation”) to include emissions mitigation, CDR, and any other strategies for combating climate change.
Refers to the place where a greenhouse gas is stored. Examples include geological formations, alkaline-containing minerals, forest biomass, and soils.
A carbon reservoir that exchanges carbon with the atmosphere over relatively short timescales (e.g., less than 100 years), including the terrestrial biosphere and shallow oceans. By comparison, other reservoirs, such as geologic formations and the deep ocean, exchange carbon over much longer timescales (e.g., 1,000 years).
Storage (or Sequestration)
Two terms that can be used interchangeably to describe the addition of CO2 removed from the atmosphere into a reservoir, which serves as its ultimate destination. For example, some CDR strategies store carbon in biological systems, such as forests or soil ecosystems, whereas others inject CO2 deep underground or chemically transform CO2 into stable, mineral forms.
Permanence (or Durability)
The duration for which CO2 can be stored in a stable and safe manner. Storage duration can differ significantly, depending on the type of reservoir. For example, concentrated CO2 stored in geologic formations deep underground is effectively permanent (thousands of years), whereas forest carbon stocks can release carbon back into the atmosphere due to wildfire or tree harvesting.
Refers to initially-stored CO2 (or other GHG) that has left its storage state and returned to the atmosphere. Examples include combustion of a fuel made from CO2, burning of biomass, and migration of CO2 from underground storage.
The rate of movement of greenhouse gases between reservoirs (e.g., capturing CO2 through the chemical reactions of photosynthesis, resulting in carbon storage within a plant’s biomass.
The residence time and flux of carbon — in various chemical states — between the ocean, land, terrestrial biosphere, atmosphere, and geological formations in the Earth.
Climate and CDR Theory, Policy, and Practice
Evaluates the degree to which an intervention (e.g., a CDR project) causes a climate benefit above and beyond what would have happened in a no-intervention baseline scenario. By definition, this counterfactual baseline scenario cannot be directly observed (because it did not happen), so can only be estimated or inferred based on contextual information. Additionality can be assessed at the level of individual projects or protocols that define categories of projects. In policy regimes such as cap-and-trade programs, where emissions are permitted in exchange for reduction or storage elsewhere, failures of additionality result in increased emissions.
Programs or policy regimes in which companies or individuals pay for activities that result in emissions reductions or CDR. In voluntary offset programs, individuals or companies pay project developers (or similar) directly to implement some activity that results in emissions reductions or CDR. In compliance offset programs, such as cap-and-trade programs, companies that are responsible for large amounts of emissions are allowed to continue to emit above a certain cap in exchange for projects taking place elsewhere that reduce emissions or remove carbon. In a compliance regime, an offset has no effect on total emissions in the best-case scenario and will result in more emissions than would have occurred otherwise if the project is ineffective in any way (e.g., due to failures of additionality or permanence).
Climate tipping points
Abrupt and irreversible climate events, such as ice sheet loss and ecosystem collapse.
Occurs when CDR activities displace emissions to other locations, times, or forms. For example, leakage occurs in forest carbon offset credit programs when a reduction in timber harvesting at a project site, incentivized due to its potential for emissions reductions and/or CDR, causes timber harvesting to increase somewhere else to meet demand. Similarly, if an engineered CDR approach coupled to CO2 utilization results in higher costs, alternatives that emit more CO2 may become economically favorable.
Climate stabilization scenarios in which emissions trajectories exceed their concentration or temperature targets (e.g., 1.5º C or 2º C) early in the century, but use substantial amounts of CDR later to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels and achieve the original targets. See Chapter 1 for a discussion of moral hazards and other challenges associated with these scenarios.
Social and Ethical Considerations of CDR
The principle of fairness in access to opportunities, power-sharing, and burden-sharing. Equity is crucial to determining how to deploy strategies to address climate change, including CDR, that minimize harm to marginalized people and frontline communities. From the World Resources Institute: “Climate change poses the greatest threat to those that are the least responsible – generally people that are already vulnerable to deep-rooted challenges such as poverty. Conversely, those who have contributed the most to climate change have much better capacity to protect themselves from its impacts. As the effects of climate change mount, so does the urgency of addressing this equity challenge.”
Just or fair relations within society that seek to address the inequitable distribution of wealth, access to resources, opportunity, and support and remove discriminatory systems and structures that block marginalized groups from accessing these benefits on the basis of race, gender, economic status, or any other factor.
Some climate justice advocates have described these as communities that experience the “first and worst” consequences of climate change. These are often communities of color and those with low income levels that have insufficient infrastructure (such as well-maintained roads and up-to-date flood protection) and that will be increasingly harmed as our climate deteriorates. These may include (for example) Native communities whose resources have been exploited, or communities of laborers whose daily work or living environments are polluted or toxic.
An ethical concern whereby skeptics of potential CDR systems worry that emission reduction will be reduced or delayed on the promise of future CDR deployment. Experts agree that most temperature-stabilization scenarios require ambitious efforts both on greenhouse gas mitigation and CDR, and that the potential for large-scale deployment of CDR does not justify slowing down the pace of mitigation.
Avoided Terms — The following terms are not used in this primer, but are used in other publications, and are shared here for additional context.
This term has been used as an alternative to CDR approaches in other publications.
This term refers to the concept of manipulating the climate system in order to reduce the impacts of climate change. It usually refers to solar radiation management (SRM), a controversial strategy that involves the injection of material into the atmosphere, which directly affects radiative forcing to reduce warming, but does not change concentrations of greenhouse gases. CDR has been inaccurately conflated with geoengineering in some literature.
Distinctions Between Related Terms — The following are key nuances to help readers distinguish between terms that may appear similar.
Storing C vs. storing CO2
Some CDR methods capture and store CO2 (carbon dioxide) directly, whereas others remove CO2 from the atmosphere but store only C (carbon). For example, in biological CDR approaches involving plants and trees, CO2 is fixed through the chemical reactions of photosynthesis, and is then broken down into C stored in the plant body and roots and O2 released back into the atmosphere. The relationship between stored C and stored CO2 is given as a ratio of the molecular weights (MW), i.e., GtCO2 = GtC×(MWCO2/MWC) = GtC×(44/12) = 3.67×GtC.
Active emissions vs. legacy emissions
The first term refers to the GHG being actively emitted by an entity/technology, while legacy emissions are emissions associated with previous emissions that contribute to the accumulated pool in the atmosphere.
CDR vs. geoengineering
Unlike geoengineering, CDR removes excess CO2 from the atmosphere, thereby reducing CO2’s warming effect on the Earth. Geoengineering such as SRM focuses only on the symptoms of climate change, without changing concentrations of greenhouse gases.
CDR vs. carbon capture
Unlike carbon capture, the siting of CDR is not fixed to a point source. Point-source carbon capture targets higher-purity streams of CO2, capturing them from emissions sources like smokestacks before they reach the atmosphere. By contrast, CDR approaches target the CO2 that is already in our atmosphere. While removing this diluted CO2 from the atmosphere is more challenging, CDR has the potential to compensate for emissions from non-point sources (e.g., transportation) and hard-to-abate sectors like heavy industry and agriculture.