CDR Primer: Carbon Removal 101

Physics

By: Hannah Pell

“Go out and make the world a better place.”

So ends the foreword to CDR Primer, an online, freely available digital booklet co-authored by more than a dozen climate scientists, social scientists, engineers, and writers in dialogue about carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology and its important role in addressing our climate crisis.

CDR technologies — including carbon capture use or sequestration (CCUS), reforestation, carbon-friendly soil management, among others — are used to remove carbon dioxide pollution, transport it to a storage site, and deposit it in such a way that it cannot reenter the atmosphere. Carbon removal processes are usually characterized by three different methods: biological, using forests, agricultural systems, or marine environments to capture carbon; geologic methods, capturing and storing carbon underground or in rock formations; and carbon-utilization, capturing carbon and using it to produce products like plastic or cement.

Carbon Engineering’s design to capture about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Image Credit: Carbon Engineering.

Carbon removal is crucial because 15-40% of the carbon dioxide we emit will remain in the atmosphere for nearly 1,000 years. Additionally, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, all possible pathways to limit warming to 1.5 ºC require CDR “to neutralize emissions from sources for which no mitigation measures have been identified and, in most cases, also to achieve net negative emissions to return global warming.”

As we see more ambitious, long-term goals for neutral emissions make headlines (President Joe Biden’s clean energy plan aims for a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050), we have to wonder how we’ll manage to attain them. CDR is one piece of the puzzle, however, according to the authors of the primer, “misconceptions and uncertainties continue to hamper the design of equitable CDR implementation strategies.” Clearing up such inconsistencies in vocabulary, concepts, and framing regarding CDR technology was important for scientists and policymakers to achieve meaningful progress toward our clean energy goals.

The CDR Primer discusses not only the technicalities of CDR systems and quantifying emissions (Chapters 2 and 4), but also CDR’s current state of affairs (Chapter 5), how CDR is intertwined with social justice (Chapter 1), and global opportunities for increasing CDR (Chapter 3). It’s clear that seeking effective ways to mitigate and even reverse the effects of our climate crisis is a complex and interdisciplinary task; unraveling the environmental, technological, societal, and economic consequences requires collaboration across many different fields. The challenges of our climate crisis are firmly rooted in that it is a global issue hinging on localized efforts, policies, and actions, as well as the particular equity challenges that will be necessary to navigate a truly just energy transition.

CDR Primer is a discussion on CDR technologies, not a consensus; this work is very much ongoing and changing. It is an invaluable resource for those of us who want to learn more about what we can do to help the environment but don’t know where to start. “Educating ourselves about such issues can help ingrain this understanding into our global consciousness,” the authors write.

So go take a few minutes (or many more!) to learn about CDR with this accessible resource — and try to make the world a better place, too.

Reference: J Wilcox, B Kolosz, & J Freeman (2021) CDR Primer

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