In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Gregory Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, about technologies and natural processes that can remove carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. Nemet discusses efforts in the public and private sectors to deploy new technologies, benefits and costs of different methods of carbon dioxide removal, and the risks and challenges of using carbon dioxide removal to reach global climate goals.
Listen to the Podcast
- Carbon dioxide removal can pack away emissions for the long term: “Carbon dioxide removal involves capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it durably, either on land, in the ocean, in geological formations, or in products … We define carbon dioxide removal as capturing [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere and storing it away for decades or as long as millennia.” (3:20)
- The deployment of new carbon dioxide removal technologies has been slow to date: “Trees today are removing about two billion tons [of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere]; novel technologies are removing 0.1 percent of that. In our models, these novel technologies grow to become bigger than land-based, conventional carbon dioxide removal … We look at a growth factor of 1,300 as the median scenario for these novel technologies. The scale-up and speed is the real challenge with these novel carbon dioxide removal technologies.” (9:19)
- Reducing emissions remains a priority: “The number-one priority is to reduce emissions deeply and immediately. We’re talking about reducing emissions by 90 percent over the next 30 years to be on track with the Paris Agreement, which is to keep warming below 2°C and make efforts to keep it below 1.5°C. We’re already at 1.2°C. There’s not a lot of room, so our number-one priority is to reduce emissions. Whether we have lots of or little carbon dioxide removal does not change that imperative; we still need to reduce emissions.” (27:46)
Top of the Stack
- “The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal” by Stephen M. Smith, Oliver Geden, Jan C. Minx, and Gregory F. Nemet
- Scrubbing the Sky: Inside the Race to Cool the Planet by Paul McKendrick
- Purple Mountains film
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi.
Today we talk with Gregory Nemet, a professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison about a new report that he has coauthored called the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal. Greg will help us understand the different ways that carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere and stored safely, along with what the public and private sectors are doing to scale up different types of removal technologies. We’ll also talk about what scaling up these technologies might look like on the ground, as well as the technologies’ risks and challenges—including the concern that relying on carbon removal could reduce the motivation for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Stay with us.
Greg Nemet from the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, welcome back to Resources Radio.
Gregory Nemet: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Daniel Raimi: Greg, we’ve had you on the show before. You spoke with my cohost, Kristin Hayes, about your book How Solar Became Cheap, which is a great book. That was a couple years ago. Could you remind our listeners how you became interested in environmental and energy topics?
Gregory Nemet: I grew up in Canada. My favorite places on the planet are lakes in northern Ontario. I learned how to play pond hockey up there, and I still play pond hockey. But around here in Madison, Wisconsin, we have a month less of lake ice than we had decades ago. That shortens what we can do outside. I went on to get an undergraduate degree in geography, which brought environmental studies from an academic discipline into my purview. I took a course in energy and a course in meteorology and climate back then. That stayed with me.
I ended up working in Silicon Valley for a few years at a think tank doing a study comparing innovation in different sectors—information technology, healthcare, and consumer products; we did energy, too, as a comparison. It was striking to me that I’d learned in my undergrad training about how important energy issues are, and yet the investment in research and development, the number of scientists and engineers involved, and the number of patents that were coming out were all much lower than these other areas by an order of magnitude. That motivated me to go back to grad school and work on the question, How can policy stimulate innovation in low-carbon technology? That’s what I’m working on now.
Daniel Raimi: Today we’re going to focus on the subset of technologies that we broadly call carbon dioxide removal. You were a coauthor on this recent report called the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal, the first edition of what hopefully will be many editions in the years to come. Before we dig into the details of that analysis, can you start off by defining the term “carbon dioxide removal” for us and explaining what it means in this context?
Gregory Nemet: Carbon dioxide removal involves capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it durably, either on land, in the ocean, in geological formations, or in products. For the report, we define carbon dioxide removal as capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it away for decades or as long as millennia.
That includes many different types of removal—some natural and some using chemical processes. It intentionally does not include a couple of things that are often commingled with carbon dioxide removal. One is carbon capture and sequestration, which is avoiding putting CO2 into the atmosphere by capturing it. We’re not including that. We’re also not including storing CO2 in short-lived products such as in depleted oil reservoirs or using it for beverages. That involves capture but doesn’t involve storing it away for decades. We are intentionally strict on the definition that we use, but even within that strict definition, there are many different ways to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store it durably.
Daniel Raimi: The report states that the next 10–15 years are a particularly important time period for the long-term potential of deploying carbon dioxide removal technologies—and particularly novel carbon dioxide removal technologies. Can you explain why that is?
Gregory Nemet: This comes from work by me and others about other historical technologies. One thing that you start to understand as you look at many different technologies is that there is this early period where the technology exists and works but is not well proven. There’s a lot of skepticism. It hasn’t been scaled up. You don’t have supply chains and you may not have clear markets for it.
This period is sometimes called the formative phase. There’s a strict definition of the formative phase, where a technology goes from the first commercial plant until 2.5 percent of the ultimate saturation level for that technology. In general, the formative phase lasts about 10–20 years. That’s where we are with a few of the novel carbon dioxide removal technologies today.
If you look at historical technologies and think about where we are with carbon dioxide removal technologies, the next 10–15 years are the period to derisk the technology, get the costs down to start to build markets, and develop reliable monitoring and verification. We’re going to need to do a lot of the things that have been needed for other technologies for carbon dioxide removal. Even if we look at scenarios where most of the big deployment of carbon dioxide removal occurs midcentury and in the later part of the century, that doesn’t mean we can wait around until we need it. We need to craft a purpose of investment in policy now to scale up the technology so that it’s ready to grow and play a role for climate change.
Daniel Raimi: As you’ve alluded to, all of the energy-system models that are used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process indicate that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C or even 2°C by the end of the century will likely include carbon dioxide removal at a large scale. When you look at those particular models, what are the types of technologies that they assume play the role of carbon dioxide removal, and what is the maturity level of those technologies that the models are telling us might be needed?
Gregory Nemet: One of the most fun things about doing academic research is learning. We learned quite a bit in this report, and one of the things that we learned was how much carbon dioxide removal exists today. Several of us on the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report worked for IPCC in the assessment report that came out last year, but we didn’t have a statement about how much carbon dioxide removal there is today in that report. That’s one thing we did a careful job of doing in this report. That leads us to say, “Okay, there’s actually two categories of carbon dioxide removal.”
One category, which we call “conventional,” is already well established. It mostly has to do with removing carbon dioxide using land and especially using trees. We’re currently doing about two gigatons, or two billion tons, per year today.
If we look at the scenarios that you talked about for 1.5°C or 2°C, we see that we need to double that removal by 2050—going from about two billion tons of removed carbon dioxide to four billion tons by 2050. That’s doing more with trees, doing more with land, and storing more CO2 via photosynthesis in those places.
We call the second category “novel” carbon dioxide removal. Included in this category are technologies that are not well established but are proven and exist commercially, just not at scale. There are three, maybe four, that I would mention.
One is biochar, which involves taking biological material and pyrolyzing it—burning it in the absence of oxygen. Another is bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration. That’s the process of taking biological material, putting it into a power plant to combust it, and then capturing the CO2 after it has combusted. It’s a negative-emissions technology.
A third one is direct air capture—using a chemical process to absorb CO2, compressing that CO2, and putting it underground. We have other technologies that are smaller that involve the oceans or using silicates, which are small particles with a lot of surface area, to absorb CO2. These make up this group of what we call “novel technologies.” Those don’t exist at scale; they’re tiny. Altogether, they remove about one million tons. Trees today are removing about two billion tons; novel technologies are removing 0.1 percent of that. In our models, these novel technologies grow to become bigger than land-based, conventional carbon dioxide removal. That’s the real scale-up challenge. We look at a growth factor of 1,300 as the median scenario for these novel technologies. The scale-up and speed is the real challenge with these novel carbon dioxide removal technologies.
Daniel Raimi: You mentioned that there are almost two gigatons of removal happening with conventional technologies. Are those intentional forestation projects, or are those afforestation or reforestation activities that have happened naturally, because the land has stopped being used for some other purpose?
Gregory Nemet: This is all intentional. It’s managed land. It might not be intentional to get carbon credits or to do it for the climate, but it is human-managed land that the forests are growing on. This is a bit technical, but there’s even more removal happening—maybe six billion tons—that has to do with the atmosphere becoming more saturated with CO2.
There’s a fertilization effect with biomass, where all the biomass that already exists is growing even more because there’s more CO2 in the air. We don’t count that as part of a sustainable carbon removal approach because, over time, we rapidly need to reduce our emissions, and that will take away from this fertilization effect. Instead, we focus on managed land that involves more trees.
Daniel Raimi: I have one last question on these conventional technologies. When we think about the scale-up of conventional carbon dioxide removal through trees or other technologies, what are some of the biggest downsides of scaling up that approach? You mentioned that we might need twice as much land to achieve our climate goals.
Gregory Nemet: The amount of land required is the main risk, plus additional risks associated with that amount. We can think about genetically engineering trees to be more carbon intensive or to have deeper root systems; that’s a way to intensify how much carbon you could store on a given amount of land. But there are limits to how much we could do with that. We’re limited by photosynthesis itself, and we’re also limited by how much land is available to us.
Eventually, food production starts competing for land. That’s when we start to think that there really are limits to this. One of the useful aspects of working with people that run integrated assessment models, which we use extensively in our report, is that their models simulate land in competition for growing food, for producing electricity, and for removing CO2. All that provides a limit to how much conventional carbon dioxide removal we do on land.
There are ancillary issues with the land impact as well. There are issues with biodiversity. You could have a forestry project that removes a lot of CO2 with a very healthy mix of trees and forest that is well managed, but you could also do it in a monoculture way where you figure out the tree that’s most efficient at removing CO2 the quickest and you plant only that. Then, your monoculture forest is vulnerable to disease or has some of the other issues that we have when we don’t have as much biodiversity. There are issues. Even though we think of photosynthesis as something we know well and trees as something that are familiar and non-industrial, when we start to scale it up, we do get limits. We can’t do this all with trees.
Daniel Raimi: My recollection is that there are concerns about water consumption with afforestation and reforestation. Is that another thing that’s on your radar?
Gregory Nemet: I don’t think about it that much with forestry. For some of the other bioenergy technologies, we’re growing crops where you might need irrigation. With these technologies, water can become an issue.
Daniel Raimi: Let’s transition now to the more novel technologies that you and your coauthors analyze in the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report. You alluded to numerous technologies that could theoretically scale up and play a big role in the future. Can you give us a sense of what governments or the private sector are doing today to bring down some of the costs for technologies like direct air capture or biomass energy with carbon capture?
Gregory Nemet: On the government side, we’ve seen government agencies involved in research and development. That wasn’t the case before, but it’s starting to be so, and that’s helpful to see. We also surveyed the research and development programs from governments around the world. What we’re seeing on the demand side by governments is encouraging, although still rather small.
In the US, we’ve had this tax credit called “45Q” that was giving $50 a ton for carbon removal, but it didn’t lead to much carbon removal. Now we have a much higher tax credit with the Inflation Reduction Act. The carbon removal tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act is going to make a market for removing CO2. In the past few years, we have had the Low Carbon Fuel Standard from California, where credits are trading at $200 per ton.
If you take the $50 45Q and the $200 Low Carbon Fuel Standard credits and put those together, you could compensate your CO2 removal with $250 per ton. An oil company called Occidental Petroleum has licensed technology from a company called Carbon Engineering and is building the first megaton-scale direct air capture plants in Texas based on those incentives. There is a demand on the policy side that has been growing. To get beyond this formative phase, we’re going to need more than that. We’ll need stronger, more durable policies.
There are a couple other things I’ve mentioned that are going in the right direction. One from governments is a proposal in the US Department of Energy to create direct air capture hubs, and there’s a plan for four of those hubs with $3.5 billion of investment behind them.
That would make a big step. We’ll need another set of hubs after that first set of hubs, and we’re going to need other countries to be doing their own demonstration projects, as well. If we start to see that, then we are on the pathway to getting a technology like direct air capture out of this formative phase and into the scale-up phase.
We’ve done calculations on previous technologies that say we need to get from one plant in 2024 to something like 100 plants by the time frame between 2035 and 2040. That’s a big scale-up that requires a lot of investment both public and private, but it’s doable.
The last thing I’d say is governments have played an important role for previous technologies by doing something called public procurement. By intentionally purchasing solar panels, semiconductors, or other technologies the government can use, they’re able to use their buying power to stimulate production in the industry and get the cost down.
So far, we haven’t seen governments doing that, but we have seen the private sector doing that. There’s a payment company called Stripe that’s tried to play this role and create a market for CO2 credits that their customers can pay for while getting direct air capture and other carbon removal companies to supply the removal. That’s been scaled up recently to an initiative called Frontier. These are typically activities that governments would do through public procurement, but private companies are stepping up and playing an important role, in part because governments haven’t, but also in part because these are real existing companies.
Having this technology development happening in the private sector has some credibility to it, and we don’t have to worry about this crowding-out effect or moving from government into the private sector. It’s already there. This and what Frontier and Strip are doing are both promising.
Daniel Raimi: When we think about government procurement, oftentimes we think about purchasing concrete or steel—things to build physical infrastructure. In the context of carbon dioxide removal, what would the government theoretically be procuring? Would it be negative-emissions fuel? Would it be the carbon capture and storage or the direct air capture facilities themselves? What would the government actually be paying for?
Gregory Nemet: They could be paying for products such as sustainable aviation fuel or something that’s produced through direct air capture or other carbon removal technologies. That would be one way to do it, but the other way to do it is to set up contracts where governments purchase a certain amount of removed and stored CO2.
We’ve seen that before; there was an effort in the 1980s called the US Synthetic Fuels Corporation where the government was going to buy quantities of these fuels in tranches. The first amount is a high price but a limited quantity; later, you have a lower price at a bigger quantity. We’ve seen similar patterns for solar, first in Germany and later in California, where there were guaranteed contracts saying, “We’ll pay you 50 cents per kilowatt-hour for the next 20 years if you build a solar plant in Germany in 2005” or something similar with different numbers in California a few years later.
You could imagine governments doing that type of contract, too, where we say, “We will buy 10 million tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere that is stored durably with all the verification that’s needed, and we will be willing to do that at $100 or $150 per ton. Next year, we’ll have the same contract, and it’ll be available at $125 or something less.” There’s a precedent and a pathway to create markets that way.
Daniel Raimi: You mentioned the idea of direct air capture hubs. We did an episode recently on Resources Radio on hydrogen hubs, how that’s working, and the process the US Department of Energy is going through to select hydrogen hubs. Can you give us a flavor for what a direct air capture hub would look like? What are the sets of infrastructure you would need, and why would it be beneficial to have a concentrated set of infrastructure rather than something that’s more dispersed?
Gregory Nemet: Direct air capture, which is the removal of CO2 through chemical processes, is technology that has been in place for a long time. We’ve had it in submarines and space shuttles to remove CO2 from human breath, and here we’re talking about doing it on a much bigger scale. There are a couple of approaches. One branch of approaches is to build a removal facility the size of a coal power plant that would work in reverse to remove one million tons of CO2 a year.
We have another approach that’s smaller: modular shipping container–sized units that you aggregate together. That looks more like wind power or solar power. There are two kinds of approaches. One is small scale and granular; the other is large scale and centralized. With the direct air capture hubs, we’re talking about doing it the large-scale, centralized way.
Part of the reason that you would do a hub is that there is infrastructure associated with it. With direct air capture, one of the biggest inputs is energy. You need electricity to run pumps and fans, and you need heat to regenerate the solvents. You need substantial amounts of energy, so infrastructure might be helpful to have centralized and accessible electricity to see how that works and see what the timing is like for running these plants. You have really large plants themselves, and there may be economies of scale to do more than one plant in one place and get the permitting and the public acceptance for using that land. These facilities are on a non-negligible amount of land because of all the space that’s needed to contact the air. This is bigger than a coal power plant, even though it removes the same amount of CO2 as a coal plant would emit. Then there’s the removal infrastructure where we compress the CO2, put it into a pipeline, and transport it where it’s going to be stored. There are certainly economies of scale in developing that network.
The main point to answer your question is that we’re talking about large-scale, centralized technologies with large economies of scale. There’s more to gain from doing this in a centralized way with large investment versus small, decentralized bets where you put facilities around the country, because we’re talking about a large-scale technology. It’s not the only way to do direct air capture, but it is the model for these direct air capture hubs.
Daniel Raimi: When we think about the deployment of direct air capture technologies or biomass energy with carbon capture, can you help us understand what the potential downsides are of scaling up these technologies? You mentioned energy use with direct air capture, and we’ve already mentioned water use with biomass energy. What are other concerns that we might be keeping an eye out for as we scale up these technologies?
Gregory Nemet: I separate the issues—first, into land issues, which is number one for any of the carbon removal technologies that involve photosynthesis. We have to be careful about which land we use, so that’s going to be an issue, and it might limit scale-up. It could also be a way to do it poorly. Avoiding competition with food as much as possible is important for biodiversity.
We talked about access for direct air capture—that’s access to energy, heat, and electricity. For a lot of these technologies, materials are going to be an issue. We are talking about building equipment—pipelines in most cases—in direct air capture for these large-scale plants. There’s a chemical solvent that’s used to absorb the CO2 that needs to be managed, moved around, regenerated, recycled, and formulated. There are inputs there.
The last two issues that I would raise are not technical ones. One is monitoring, reporting, and verification, which translates to, “You say you removed CO2 from the atmosphere. Prove that you removed it, and then prove that you’ve put it somewhere where it’s going to stay for a really long time.” In some cases, that’s relatively easy to do.
There’s a small plant in Iceland right now where CO2 is removed, and it comes out as a slurry with water. The slurry is then injected into these rocks that mineralize. Within a couple of years, the CO2 is in the form of solid rock far underneath the ground, which is permanent. If we think about using soils to absorb CO2, we have to measure that flux of CO2 into the soil, measure the flux out of the soil, and then, over time, assess how much CO2 is in that soil.
So, the monitoring, reporting, and verification are nontrivial. The further along we get into that, we are having issues where the credits that people are getting for doing some of this turn out to look not as verifiable and as durable as people might think. If skepticism creeps in, it’s going to be detrimental to investment and to making markets for these technologies. There are efforts now to standardize reporting, and we need to get to principles for accounting that people generally agree on. We need something like that for CO2. We also need monitoring; it’s nontrivial to measure these fluxes. So, monitoring is an issue.
The last one is called “moral hazard.” If we have the ability to remove CO2, does that take away from our urgency to stop emitting CO2? That’s another issue that comes up with these technologies. To sum it up, it’s land, energy, materials, monitoring, and then this moral hazard issue.
Daniel Raimi: That’s a helpful list—and a quick logroll for my wife: My wife has written several papers on moral hazards associated with carbon dioxide removal and geoengineering, and I noticed she was cited several times in the state of the carbon dioxide removal report. Maybe we’ll have to get Kaitlin on the show sometime to talk about that.
I have one last question, Greg, before we go to our Top of the Stack segment. There is a substantial number of folks in the environmental advocacy community who are skeptical of all flavors of carbon dioxide removal, maybe partly because of this moral-hazard risk, but maybe even in larger part because they see it as a tool that could enable continued fossil fuel use at scale. What do you think about that issue, what do you say to people when they raise it with you, and how should we think about carbon dioxide removal in its context as a substitute or a complement for emissions reductions?
Gregory Nemet: The first thing I say is that the number-one priority is to reduce emissions deeply and immediately. We’re talking about reducing emissions by 90 percent over the next 30 years to be on track with the Paris Agreement, which is to keep warming below 2°C and make efforts to keep it below 1.5°C. We’re already at 1.2°C. There’s not a lot of room, so our number-one priority is to reduce emissions. Whether we have lots of or little carbon dioxide removal does not change that imperative; we still need to reduce emissions.
If we look at carbon dioxide removal, and if we’re successful at doing all of this scale-up and dealing with the monitoring issues and getting the policies right, we’re talking about doing 10 gigatons of removal in 2050. Today, we’re emitting 40 gigatons of emissions into the atmosphere. We need to get from 40 to 0, and maybe we get 10 of that 40 as carbon dioxide removal. That’s a pretty big number, though.
That means that 75 percent, or maybe it’s more like 80 or 90 percent, of our effort has to be on reducing emissions. Just because we have carbon dioxide removal doesn’t take away this need to reduce emissions.
Because these technologies are just becoming commercialized, it takes time for them to scale. We need to work on them now, invest in them now, have policies, have direct air capture hubs, and have people going into this industry. If we’re going to get to a gigaton scale by the time of net zero, which is in about 30 years, we need to be investing in them now.
There are a few scenarios where you don’t have novel carbon dioxide removal. I work on that in other projects where we try to figure out how we could reduce emissions by getting more efficient and careful about emissions and our lifestyle. I think that’s exciting work, and it seems promising. Even those scenarios that don’t require novel carbon dioxide removal like direct air capture, biochar, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, still require lots of conventional carbon dioxide removal, like the forestry initiatives. Even if we get aggressive on reducing emissions by reducing energy demand, we still need carbon dioxide removal.
I’m sympathetic to this issue because I’ve heard it. I’ve heard companies say, “We don’t need to reduce our emissions, because we’re going to offset them.” The idea is that there are residual emissions; maybe 10 percent of the emissions are going to be really hard to get out. To me, that means 90 percent of the work is to reduce emissions, and there’s a little bit left over at the end. To some companies and even countries, those are their emissions. We’re all in the residual, so we’re going to directly capture carbon dioxide through air capture and removal.
That’s when you start to see that there really is an issue with this moral hazard, but from a societal viewpoint, we need carbon dioxide removal. If we’re going to have it on a large scale, we need to start work on it now. There’s an imperative to reduce emissions, and it doesn’t take away from that. You can see how smaller companies or countries with narrow interests might focus on carbon dioxide removal as the answer to their own emissions. From a global view and a societal view, the number-one priority is to reduce emissions.
Daniel Raimi: Greg, this has been a fascinating conversation, and we encourage people to check out the report and dig deep, because there’s fascinating material in it. Let’s close it out now with our Top of the Stack question, where we ask you to recommend something that you’ve read, watched, or heard that you think is great and would recommend to our listeners. So, Greg, what’s on the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Gregory Nemet: Two things I’ve read and watched in the last couple of weeks are relevant here. One is a book that’s just coming out, called Scrubbing the Sky by Paul McKendrick. It goes into how these technologies of carbon removal are being developed by interviewing founders of these companies and politicians and understanding how the technologies are getting scaled up and where they’re coming from. I think it’s interesting to see the human side of how a new technology gets developed and the comingling of market signals with intrinsic motivation. It’s a really good read, well reported, and an interesting read if you want to hear more about carbon dioxide removal.
The other is a movie I watched in the last couple days called Purple Mountains. It’s a movie done by a professional snowboarder named Jeremy Jones about how to get different types of people on board with climate change. He’s someone who spent his whole life in the mountains, assessing snow, and seeing the changes. He started an organization called Protect Our Winters with this idea of getting people who enjoy the outdoors to get engaged on climate change. One of the most exciting things from watching that movie is seeing the different types of people that are interested in the outdoors that have different political persuasions. There’s a real potential to broaden the coalition of people to support climate change mitigation and carbon dioxide removal.
Daniel Raimi: Those both sound great. Thank you so much for the recommendations, and thanks for joining us once again, Greg Nemet from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, on Resources Radio.
Gregory Nemet: Great. Enjoyed talking with you.
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