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Carbon Management Will Play Critical Role in Addressing Climate Crisis

Carbon Management Will Play Critical Role in Addressing Climate Crisis

People in all corners of the planet are experiencing the harmful impacts of climate change. The Earth’s long-term weather patterns and temperatures are rapidly shifting. In 2022 alone, severe weather conditions emerged throughout the planet.

Europe experienced its hottest summer that dried up portions of its prime rivers, including the Danube. Extreme rainfall caused disastrous flooding in Pakistan. California entered its third year of drought, and Hurricane Ian ravaged the west coast of Florida in the same year. The year also ranked as the fifth or sixth hottest on record, according to five scientific organizations.

While this is alarming, there’s good news, too—we have the solutions to fix this. We need to deploy a broad suite of solutions, and every individual can play a role. You can advocate for a better future by pushing for climate action as an individual and community member.

Additionally, you can stay up to date with the Carbon Action Alliance. The Action Alliance is working to support the deployment of carbon management technologies and decarbonization to reduce planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. You can find out more about decarbonization and get involved with our work on our website.

Why is our climate changing?

Humans have burned fossil fuels for energy and released greenhouse gases—such as CO2 and methane—into the atmosphere in increasingly large amounts since the 1800s.

The release of these emissions results in the greenhouse effect; greenhouse gases act like a thick blanket that envelops the planet and traps the sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. The effect causes an increase in severe weather and long-term temperature changes. The planet’s average surface temperature has already increased by nearly 2° Fahrenheit (about 1° Celsius) since pre-industrial levels, according to NASA.

How can carbon management help us address the climate crisis?

In 2015 world leaders committed to aiming to limit the Earth’s warming to an average of 2.7° Fahrenheit (1.5° Celsius) by 2100. That target isn’t random. Warming over 1.5° Celsius would increase the risk of severe weather events, such as heavy precipitation, extreme droughts, and flood hazards, according to a special report from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Average warming above the target would also affect people and ecosystems. Greater proportions of people would be exposed and susceptible to poverty, particularly in regions of Asia and Africa. The report indicates there would also be an increased risk of loss of local species and extinctions, greater sea level rise, and increased damage to ecosystems such as coral reefs.

The window to reduce emissions and prevent warming above the target is small. It’s now. Unless we act urgently, we’ll miss the timeline, climate scientists warn. Thankfully, we have an array of technologies and tools to diminish the emissions that cause the harmful impacts of climate change.

Wind and solar energy are quickly expanding as power sources for electric grids. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted renewables will account for more than 90 percent of global electricity expansion in the next five years. Renewables will overtake coal as the largest source of electricity by 2025, the agency reported. Yet this still won’t be enough.

Half of the emissions in the globe today have been released since 1990. These historical stores of emissions will remain in the atmosphere even if we transition completely to renewable energy sources. We need to remove billions of tons of carbon emissions that have been amassed for 200 years.

We will also continue to add to these stores even with clean energy because of process emissions. These emissions are produced during some industrial processes that are challenging to decarbonize, such as cement production. The production of cement causes chemical reactions that result in carbon pollution, meaning these emissions will still exist even if we electrify industrial processes.

To achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050, nearly 8.4 billion tons (7.6 billion metric tonnes) of CO2 are captured and about 2 billion tons (1.9 billion metric tonnes) removed annually, according to IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 report. Natural strategies such as afforestation can pull some carbon down into the ground, but to meet the scale of our goals, we need a suite of technologies called carbon management. Carbon management refers to the removal, capture, transport, reuse, and storage of carbon emissions.

On a local scale, carbon capture benefits communities located near industrial sites. Carbon capture projects maintain and create good-paying jobs, and they may have the potential to provide air quality benefits, too. Current research is examining how carbon capture facilities may remove criteria air pollutants—which are associated with negative health impacts—from the air alongside carbon.

What are carbon capture and carbon removal?

Carbon capture and removal include trapping carbon emissions released from industrial facilities before entering the atmosphere or by removing carbon already in the air. This can be done with two types of technology: point source carbon capture and direct air capture.

With point source carbon capture, equipment is retrofitted onto industrial facilities and power plants to capture carbon emissions before they are released into the air. This process is already underway at a range of facilities across the United States, including ethanol, fertilizer, and gas processing plants. More and more companies are proposing new carbon capture projects throughout the US. In 2021 alone, companies announced 51 new carbon capture projects, according to S&P Global.

Carbon capture refers to a variety of technologies that capture carbon emissions from industrial and power facilities before they are released into the atmosphere.

Direct air capture (DAC) facilities pull carbon directly from the air in the atmosphere like a vacuum. The first facility of this kind, Orca, launched in 2021 in Iceland. The Orca facility operated by Climeworks has the capacity to capture 500 tons of CO2 each year. The technology is quickly advancing, but there’s still a long way to go to reach the IEA’s estimated 2 billion tons of CO2 we need to remove annually by 2050 to reach net zero.

There are currently 18 DAC facilities operating in the world. In the US, the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) allocated $3.5 billion to fund a new program for four regional DAC facility hubs in the country. OCED requested full applications for this program by March 13.

DAC facilities pull carbon directly from the air like a vacuum, removing it from the atmosphere.

We will very likely need DAC technologies. A 2021 IPCC report states, “for virtually all scenarios assessed by the IPCC, CDR is necessary to reach both global net zero CO2 and net zero GHG emissions.”

The IPCC’s 2022 report modeled seven pathways to keep average warming to 1.5° or under 2° Celsius. All but one of the models required carbon capture to reach the target. The outlier model required worldwide energy demand to halve in the next three decades, which is highly unrealistic given the growing demand for energy and the lack of access to modern energy sources for many people today.

What happens to captured carbon?

CO2 pipelines transport the captured carbon to permanent storage sites (located deep underground in geologic reservoirs or under the ocean) or to facilities to be reused. Trucks may transport the carbon over short distances. Currently, CO2 pipelines span a little over 5,000 miles in the United States. One recent study estimated the country will need about 66,000 miles of CO2 pipelines by 2050.

These pipelines have a proven track record spanning back to the 1970s with zero fatal incidents. Operators must meet rigorous safety regulations and monitor their pipelines regularly.

The carbon may be reused to produce lower carbon intensity fuels, chemicals, fibers, materials, and products like concrete. The carbon can also be injected into existing oil fields for resource extraction and long-term storage in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. New opportunities for the beneficial reuse of carbon are on the rise.

Carbon can also be returned back to where it originated: the ground. The CO2 can be stored permanently in underground geologic reservoirs that are, in some cases, located a mile or more below the surface. In many of these reservoirs, the carbon would be injected through wells into saline rock formations that are capped on either side by impermeable rock.

Well-selected and managed geologic sites can retain more than 99 percent of the injected CO2 for over 1,000 years, according to an IPCC report. The ability to inject and safely store CO2 deep underground is regulated and monitored by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control program.

Geologic sites in North America have the potential to store up to 2.4 trillion metric tons of CO2, which could store hundreds of years’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates from the US Department of Energy.

What’s next for carbon management?

Carbon management opportunities are taking off in the business sector thanks to legislation passed in the last couple of years by Congress. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2021 and 2022, respectively, passed unprecedented amounts of funding for climate action, including carbon removal. The Inflation Reduction Act also increased the tax credits available for carbon storage as part of Section 45Q.

Momentum is building for carbon management and will continue to build in the immediate years to come. We can and must invest in this technology to meet midcentury climate goals.

What can you do as an individual?

You can educate yourself on carbon management technologies and look to see what your federal, state, and local representatives are doing to support carbon storage. You can write to your representatives the importance of supporting this technology. Your area may already have pending carbon management projects, such as a proposed carbon pipeline to be built. You can attend meetings to find out more about these projects and voice your perspective.

If you’d like to find out more about carbon management and what states and the federal government are doing to support the build-out of the technology, check out the Carbon Action Alliance’s website. Find out more ways you can get involved on our website.