La Follette faculty, students co-author landmark report on carbon dioxide removal

The cover of the 2024 State of Carbon Dioxide Removal Report next to headshots of Greg Nemet and Morgan Edwards

Researchers affiliated with the La Follette School and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies helped author the 2024 State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report that finds that around 7–9 billion tonnes of CO2 per year will need to be removed from the atmosphere by mid-century if the world is to meet the 1.5°C Paris Agreement target.

The new edition of the annual report acknowledges that reducing emissions is the primary way to achieve net-zero, but also emphasizes that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) has a critical role to play in the global efforts to limit warming.

Professor Gregory Nemet and Assistant Professor Morgan Edwards from La Follette served as lead authors on the report. La Follette alumni Jenna Greene (MPA ’22) and Andrew Zaiser (MIPA ’24) contributed to the report as co-authors along with Zachary Thomas, a PhD student with the Nelson Institute.

According to the report, CDR techniques must increase fourfold by 2050. They currently remove just 2 billion tons per year, mostly through conventional methods like tree planting. Novel methods currently remove 1.3 million tonnes per year, less than 0.1 percent of the total. These include technologies such as direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), which uses chemicals to capture the heat-trapping gas directly from the air, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which captures and stores CO2 from processes where biomass is converted into energy.

“Regardless of how much carbon removal we deploy, we still need to make rapid and deep reductions in emissions,” Nemet says. “But we can only avoid dangerous global temperatures if we scale up carbon removal to very large scale over the next two decades—and meeting that level requires active policymaking in the near term.”

The report indicates that a diverse range of CDR methods must be rapidly scaled up to address climate change in line with the Paris Agreement, which recommends that the world limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Although the CDR industry has grown quickly in research, public awareness and start-up companies, there are now signs of a slowdown in development.

This slowdown is aided, in part, by a lack of governmental commitment to CDR technologies, according to the report. Government policies are almost exclusively focused on reducing emissions and currently lag on the carbon dioxide removal needs that are becoming increasingly clear as emissions continue to outpace net-zero efforts. Meanwhile, government funding accounts for just 1.1 percent of investment in climate-tech start-ups.

“There are many highly innovative CDR companies that are committed to scaling up CO2 removal capacity to meet the Paris Agreement goal,” Edwards says. “However, their ability to make a dent depends on governments sending a strong demand signal going forward.”

Much of today’s demand for CDR comes from voluntary commitments by companies to buy carbon removal credits. Instead, the report urges that governments should implement policies to increase demand for carbon removal strategies and standardize the emergent industry.

The annual State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report is the world’s leading scientific assessment of how much carbon dioxide removal will be needed to limit climate change, and whether the world is on track to deliver. It is a combined effort of more than 50 leading experts from around the world and in multiple disciplines.

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