New in Foreign Affairs: We Can’t Reach Our Climate Goals without Technologies that Remove Pollution from the Atmosphere

In a newly published piece in Foreign Affairs, Environmental Defense Fund leaders Fred Krupp, Nathaniel Keohane, and Eric Pooley argue that the world has waited so long to act boldly on climate change that we must now include strategies that remove climate pollution from the atmosphere. Amidst a rebirth of climate activity in Washington – a series of congressional hearings, a new special committee in the House of Representatives and bold proposals for 100% clean energy and a Green New Deal – Krupp, Keohane, and Pooley describe a largely overlooked side of the climate solutions story.

Drawing from a recent National Academy of Science study, they argue “negative emissions technologies”—from simple solutions to the most advanced technologies —that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are needed if we’re going to protect our economy and society. NETs are different from conventional approaches to climate mitigation in that they seek not to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere but to remove carbon dioxide that’s already there.

“Acting swiftly to cut carbon pollution, including by moving to clean energy across the global economy and protecting tropical forests, is absolutely central to protecting our health, economy, and future. But removing carbon from the atmosphere must also be part of any comprehensive ‘Plan A’ for solving the climate crisis,” said Krupp, president of EDF. “The world has waited too long to act – we need both clean energy and carbon pollution removal now.”

Environmental Defense Fund has long been a thought-leader on climate change solutions, including developing market-based mechanisms which now limit climate pollution in California, Europe, China, and elsewhere. The effort by EDF’s leaders to catalyze an important discussion on carbon removal is a step toward developing a comprehensive policy to meet the challenge of climate change.

NETs range from replanting and vitalizing forests and adopting sustainable farming practices that put more carbon into the soil, to technological CO2 removal such as direct air capture plants that can suck pollution directly out of the air and store it or recycle it into fuel, fertilizer, and concrete. Direct air capture is already in the pilot stage.

Carbon markets, which typically reward people for reducing carbon emissions, could also be a powerful way to reward them for developing effective NETs. Airlines, which account for about two percent of global emissions today and are set to triple or quadruple such pollution by mid-century, have agreed to cap emissions from international flights at 2020 levels, with the help of a global carbon credit program. This program could catalyze a global carbon market that drives investment in low-carbon fuels and technologies such as NETS.

Some observers are concerned that NETs are too speculative or will make a contribution only in the distant future. But while the technological approaches do require further development, and there will inevitably be dead ends, other methods are ready to be deployed at scale today. We cannot afford to dismiss strategies that could make the difference between limiting warming to bearable levels and failing to do so.

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