CO2 removal ambitions falling well short of need for 1.5°C warmer world

With the world fast burning through the global carbon budget, efforts by nations to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are falling well short of what’s needed to keep the preferred target of the Paris Climate Agreement alive.

An analysis led by Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute (MCC) involving European, UK and US-based scientists released today in the journal Nature Climate Change demonstrates the “ambition gap” between the amount of carbon dioxide countries say they will remove and what is actually being taken out of earth systems.

Overall, it finds nations “fall short by hundreds of megatons in 2030 and hundreds of megatons to multiple gigatons in 2050, depending on the benchmarked scenario”. Those scenarios include ones that focus on energy demand reduction, renewable energy or carbon removal.

If commitments for CO2 removal were met, up to 1.9Gt of the major greenhouse gas could be removed by mid-century – although 5.1Gt in carbon savings required in climate scenarios consistent with 1.5°C of global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels.

Such scenarios require the “rapid” construction of new renewable electricity infrastructure and reductions to fossil fuel emissions.

In another scenario, where policy drives energy consumption down, 2.5Gt would be extracted, but this would be closer to carbon removal targets implemented by nations.

Further, the research group finds that despite most countries having a net-zero carbon target, few have outlined how they intend to remove carbon.  They also acknowledge the risk of carbon dioxide removal being included in national climate plans as a way to “exploit the fact that [carbon dioxide removals] can compensate for emissions, overplaying the quantity of removals that may be achieved at some later point in time”.

“This much is clear: without a rapid reduction in emissions towards zero, across all sectors, the 1.5ºC limit will not be met under any circumstances,” says William Lamb, the study’s lead author from MCC’s Applied Sustainability Science working group.

He says the value of the study lies in isolating carbon removal requirements from the net emissions bucket.

“The usual benchmark for climate protection pledges is net emissions, that is emissions minus removals. We are now making transparent the specific ambition gap in scaling up removals.

“This planetary waste management will soon place completely new requirements on policymakers and may even become a central pillar of climate protection in the second half of the century.”

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