What is Sustainable Carbon Removal?

Recent reports and scientific assessments, including the UN’s Emissions Gap Report and the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5˚C from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have placed a spotlight on carbon removal. Large-scale carbon removal now seems an essential tool, in tandem with emissions reductions, to meet ambitious climate goals. Early discussions surrounding carbon removal tended to be polarized: supporters viewed the technology as a means to reverse climate change and critics voiced concerns over false promises and possible human rights violations associated with food insecurity and land grabs.

Thus, even though the need to consider carbon removal options is clear, it's also clear that carbon removal is far more than a technical challenge. To make a noticeable difference in meeting the Paris targets or reversing warming, carbon removal would need to scrub billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year for many decades. What would it take to make such a massive undertaking not just operational, but sustainable?

Carbon removal turns the famous definition of sustainable development on its head. Sustainable carbon removal is carbon removal that meets the needs of the future without compromising the ability of current generations to meet their own needs.

To scale up sustainable carbon removal, societies will need to find approaches that balance their social, environmental, and economic goals, including not only the long-term climate benefits of carbon removal, but also the near-term social, environmental, and economic risks and co-benefits.

To learn more, read our report on Sustainable Carbon Removal [PDF].