The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal: Where We Are and Where We Need to Go

Just how much carbon are humans removing from the atmosphere? Will it be enough to keep global temperatures from rising too much?

The recent release of a landmark report provides some answers, and a path forward. “The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)” represents the first ever global measure of the amount of carbon emissions we’re collectively sucking out of the air.

Its findings should be of urgent interest to any person or organization (or planet, for that matter) aspiring to reach net zero.

What is CDR and why does it matter?

To get a bit more technical, CDR is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as: “Human activities capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it durably in geo-logical, land or ocean reservoirs, or in products.”

CDR is not the same as reducing emissions. The ultimate goal is to stop emitting carbon entirely, and reducing emissions as much as possible in the short term remains vital to that transition.  

But as the report — along with mounds of other research — makes abundantly clear, it’s only by both reducing and removing carbon emissions that we have any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goal to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

This chart shows how a typical company’s path to net zero must include a mix of reductions and removals. They’ve reduced emissions as much as possible by 2040, but still emit ‘residual’ emissions that cannot be avoided. CDR picks up the slack to offset those remaining emissions — essentially, it puts the ‘net’ in ‘net zero.’

Are we removing enough carbon overall?

The short answer is ‘No.’ Or, more optimistically, ‘Not yet.’

In order to meet future demand, we need to start now — urgently — to scale up efforts to remove carbon from the air, because it’ll take time to achieve the required growth in CDR.

The report finds that we’re currently removing about 2 billion metric tonnes of CO2 every year, almost all of which comes from nature-based solutions (NBS) such as planting trees or managing soils. It concludes the amount of NBS removals needs to double by 2050 to keep warming below 1.5°C.

Aspiration has been at the forefront of NBS carbon programs for a decade and we’re proud to be contributing to those 2 billion tonnes. We’re also ready to play our part in pushing that figure way, way up — by providing turnkey nature-based carbon/reforestation programs at scale, forward purchase opportunities, advanced monitoring, project identification and contracting, and automated carbon measurement solutions.

Technology as nature’s ally

To complement the required increase in nature-based removals, the report also identifies the need for the rapid growth of ‘novel’ CDR: developing and leveraging technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it permanently.

It concludes that novel CDR, while still in its infancy, will need to grow by a factor of 1300 by 2050. That’s a tall order, but it is possible if we have the means and the will.

The increase in investment and support for novel CDR must begin now. Aspiration is already deeply involved, conducting rigorous vetting of investment projects that use novel technologies such as biochar and mineralization. Further developing and scaling such technologies will be essential to reaching net zero.

All told, our experience in (and ongoing commitment to) nature-based carbon removal projects, combined with our ability to navigate the world of technological carbon removal, puts Aspiration in a unique position to offer a wide array of high-quality carbon credits.  We can provide the type of expansive and diversified CDR portfolio this report identifies as crucial for companies (and the world) to help meet the most ambitious climate goals. But everyone needs to get on board the CDR train.

History is calling. If we heed this report’s advice and approach the role of CDR with the urgency it demands, a net zero future becomes possible.

Dougal Heap is the Senior Manager, Carbon Research at Aspiration. He works with partners worldwide to design and fund novel carbon removal solutions and technological CDR projects. Prior to this he has worked across CO2 mineralization, industrial decarbonization and direct air capture in Europe and North America. He graduated from Lancaster University with a BA in Geography.