We’ve set our targets on reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but we need to go further.
There is a term burned into the brains of every person remotely worried about the future of the planet: net zero. The idea is that we need to collectively reach carbon neutral status, which means we’d be removing the same amount of carbon from the environment as we are emitting. While achieving this by the year 2050 has been the stated goal of most climate plans, including the Paris Agreement, there’s something more ambitious — and potentially necessary — that experts, activists, and some world leaders are setting their eyes on: carbon negative.
Given that we’re largely struggling to get on path to net zero, setting the sights even higher may seem misguided. But there are some companies and countries that have already achieved carbon negative status, or at the very least have plans to do so in the near future. Even the United States, one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, has made an effort to target this goal.
So what is carbon negative, how do we get there, and who is there already? Read on.
Carbon negative vs. carbon neutral
Carbon neutral, often used interchangeably with net zero, means that whatever carbon we continue to produce, we offset it. This is typically done by purchasing carbon offsets or funding efforts that will sequester carbon, like planting trees. Carbon neutral is sometimes mistaken as meaning that no carbon is emitted at all, but that typically isn’t possible. There is almost always some carbon emitted. But by capturing carbon elsewhere, the end result is no additional carbon emissions entering the atmosphere.
Carbon negative takes this process one step further. Instead of merely offsetting emissions, going carbon negative means that you are actively removing more carbon from the atmosphere than you are creating. This can be done by the same means of carbon sequestration that are used to accomplish carbon neutral status — but carbon negative is increasingly tied to new and somewhat controversial carbon removal technologies that some believe could take existing carbon emissions out of the atmosphere.
Some experts have argued that while net zero and carbon neutral get all the buzz, carbon negative is actually what we need to aim for. In fact, falling short of that and continuing to produce emissions, even while offsetting them, may leave us short of our goals for combatting climate change. This is large part because net zero is broadly defined and leaves a lot of wiggle room for bad actors and major polluters to continue their harmful practices without much accountability, simply offsetting their damage instead of doing anything to mitigate it. Carbon negative would require more drastic action both in capturing carbon emissions, and in reducing the amount produced to begin with.
The path to carbon negative
There are some easy things we can do to get to carbon negative, as well as some absolute reaches that we’ll still need to try for. The easy stuff — though it may be closer to easier said than done — is reducing emissions produced and funding carbon capture efforts. This is the stuff that we should already be doing. Corporations, especially those that are responsible for the vast majority of the planet’s emissions, and countries should be seeking to shrink their carbon footprint by shifting to clean energy technology and cutting back on emissions-heavy practices wherever possible.
This is, luckily, starting to be more common practice. Major corporations, including some big oil firms, have set goals for reaching net zero status in the coming decades, and most countries have now set out at least a vague plan for reaching carbon neutral status by 2050. Clean energy technology is getting more affordable and getting major investments from governments, including the U.S. Carbon offset projects like planting trees and supporting other ecosystems that suck up the emissions are increasingly popular and accessible, though sometimes rather dubious and poorly managed. The stuff we absolutely need to do is doable, we just have to, you know, do it.
Then there’s the tough stuff. Getting to carbon negative will likely require functional carbon removal technology, which is more of a theory than a reality at the moment. There are some carbon removal projects out there, though. The technology, which is sometimes called direct air capture, uses giant fans to draw in air, along with the carbon dioxide that is contained within it. That air is mixed with bonding chemicals known as sorbents, which are used to recover liquids through absorption. Once saturated, the mixture is heated until the carbon dioxide is released.
So far, all we have are a few small projects that suggest that this technology is possible. The most significant one is a plant in Iceland operated by a company called Climeworks. So far, this plant is capable of removing about 4,000 metric tons of carbon from that atmosphere every year. That’s about the equivalent of taking 870 cars off the road.
It’s a modest accomplishment, especially given the company’s goal of removing 1% of all emissions by 2025 — and a pricey one. It costs about $600 per metric ton removed. Considering there are 50 billion tons of carbon emissions created each year, we’re looking at a price tag of about $30 trillion to get rid of it all.
We don’t yet have the technology deployed at scale to make that happen, even if the funding was there to support it. And it would seem nearly impossible to get the world on board with spending that much. We’d still have to figure out what to do with all that captured carbon, too. In the case of the Icelandic facility, the carbon is injected into basalt rock deep underground, where it turns into a solid carbonate mineral that is essentially harmless. Perhaps the best available option is to convert it into fuel, which is basically the equivalent of carbon recycling. While that doesn’t remove the carbon from the atmosphere, it does utilize it in a way that provides fuel without us extracting more fossil fuels. Instead, we’d be burning carbon that was already in the atmosphere. Carbon recycling is still carbon neutral rather than carbon negative, but it’s an improvement, at least.
America’s carbon negative moonshot
Perhaps the most promising development for the hopes of the carbon negative movement came last week, when the United States decided to throw its weight behind the idea. At this year’s United Nations climate conference, COP26, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced the U.S. would take a number of moonshots — or, in this case, Earthshots — that would inject funds into research and technology that could help us reduce our impact on the planet. One of those initiatives is the “Carbon Negative Shot,” which will seek to bring down the cost of carbon removal to under $100 per ton.
But there are a lot of problems that need to be solved in order to run carbon removal projects at scale. For one, it’s important to make sure that the removal process itself isn’t producing more carbon emissions. Studies have warned that direct carbon capture could use as much as one-quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2100 — and given we’re still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, that would mean creating more greenhouse emissions while we’re attempting to remove them. That would obviously be self-defeating. (The U.S. project Granholm announced calls for assurances that “emissions created when running and building the removal technology are accounted for.”)
Then there’s the question of where that captured carbon is going. While storing it underground or converting it into a fuel source is an option, that likely won’t be able to account for the amount of carbon we’ll need to deal with. That might mean building facilities that simply sequester the stuff until we need to use it, or until experts deem it safe to release some. How that will be done remains to be seen, but with U.S. funding now focusing on solving these problems, there’s at least a shot at figuring out something workable.
The early adopters of carbon negative status
While the U.S. is now getting on board with the carbon negative movement and carbon removal technology, it’s actually late to the game. Bhutan, a small nation of under 800,000 people located in the mountains of the Himalayas, has already achieved carbon negative status. It’s in part the beneficiary of circumstance: Bhutan is tiny and covered in forests that naturally sequester lots of carbon. But it has also committed itself to keeping its carbon footprint small. The nation produces a total of 4 million metric tons of emissions each year, while removing more than double that amount.
A number of other countries are also expected to join Bhutan in going carbon negative. Suriname, located in South America, has been carbon negative since 2014 and has pledged to continue down this path. Panama is also expected to officially become carbon negative in the near future.
Corporations, too, have started to pursue carbon negative status despite the cost. Microsoft has pledged to start removing more emissions than it produces by 2030, and remove more emissions from the atmosphere than it ever contributed by 2050. Ikea has likewise set a goal of 2030 to achieve carbon negative status. Other companies are sure to join them in this goal as the technology to achieve it becomes more readily available.
Carbon negative may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s closer than we think. Proof of concept projects are out there, and the demand for the technology is starting to build. But more than that, it’s absolutely necessary that we accomplish this goal. Carbon removal is becoming essential to the ultimate goal of preventing climate disaster. It’s the closest that we’ll ever be able to get to undoing our history of destroying the planet, which makes it worth taking the shot.