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IEA warns against betting on carbon removals to reach net zero

The International Energy Agency (IEA) confirms that delayed emissions cuts will leave us overly dependent on the panacea of carbon removals, which will deepen the climate crisis and make it costlier to humanity.

On 26 September, the IEA published its ‘Net zero roadmap: A global pathway to keep the 1.5°C goal in reach’, a revised version of the 2021 ‘Net zero by 2050: A roadmap for the global energy sector’. The new report outlines an updated pathway for the global energy sector to contribute to the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global heating to 1.5°C.  

There are many good reasons for speeding up the clean transition today, such as 2023 on course to become the hottest year since records began, record emissions levels in 2022, and clean energy technologies becoming increasingly available and affordable. 

Despite this, countries’ current climate ambition is insufficient to achieve global net zero emissions by 2050. Crucially, postponing emissions cuts would create “additional climate risks” and make us “dependent on the massive deployment of carbon removal technologies which are expensive and unproven at scale,” according to the IEA. And yet confidence in carbon removals as a cure-all for the ills of excessive emissions is growing among policymakers and the private sector.

Zero other options

According to the IEA, there is no way out: for the world to reach a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the atmosphere and the amount removed from it by the second half of this century, we need to rapidly shrink our carbon footprint. By 2035, emissions need to decline by 80% in advanced economies and 60% in emerging and developing economies compared to 2022, according to the IEA analysts. If this is delayed, it will be impossible to achieve the 2050 net-zero emissions goal and, as a consequence, to avoid exceeding the 1.5°C limit, with serious consequences for humanity, ecosystems and our climate. It will also mean that future generations will be left with the tough job of cleaning up the mess we left them. 

The IEA estimates that, if we reduce our emissions by just over one-third by 2035 the world will reach net-zero emissions only in the middle of the 2060s. This would bring global warming up  to 1.7°C around 2050, and then back below 1.5° C only by 2100, and only if humanity succeeds in deploying carbon removals at a scale far beyond current capabilities.

The price of inaction

In addition to the fact that a prolonged average temperature increase beyond 1.5°C would be costly for life on Earth, bringing it back below that threshold would require a huge amount of carbon removals  from the atmosphere, double of what would be required if we cut two-thirds of emissions by 2030. According to the IEA analysts, delayed action would require the removal of over 5 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 per year after 2050, which is the equivalent of the total emissions from the energy sector (including power and transport) in the United States today. This amount would be split between bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), that would need to remove 2 Gt per year in 2100, and direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), that would need to remove 3.3 Gt per year in 2100, with huge implications in terms of energy and resource use, not to mention the economic costs.

In the case of BECCS, around 135 million hectares (Mha) of land – which is just a bit less than the total land area of Peru –  would be needed to produce biomass. While the IEA does not comment on this, this demand for additional land risks fuelling further tension between nature and agriculture, with harmful consequences for ecosystems, deforestation, food prices and local communities. As for DACCS, the analysts project that around 30 exajoule (EJ) – or approximately  the current total energy consumption of  EU, Japanese and the US industry combined – would be necessary. If the energy to DACCS was to be provided by solar photovoltaics (PV), this would require 4.5 Mha of land – about the land area of Denmark – according to the IEA.

Removing this amount of carbon from the atmosphere would be everything but cheap: $1.3 trillion per year, which the analysts estimate as 50% more than total investments in fossil fuel production, transport and processing in 2022.

We can reduce emissions now

Once again, it is clear from the IEA’s analysis that using removals to compensate for delays in emission reductions is counterproductive from any perspective. The IEA reminds us that “removing carbon from the atmosphere is costly and uncertain” that is why “we must do everything possible to stop putting it there in the first place”. 

Slashing greenhouse gas emissions is not only necessary, but also achievable. This involves ramping up renewables by tripling the global installed capacity, improving energy efficiency, cutting methane emissions and increasing electrification with the technologies already available today. For the analysts, these actions together can deliver more than 80% of the emissions reductions needed by 2030. Ending investments in fossil fuels and rethinking wasteful business models, while increasing those in clean energy in developing countries and fostering international cooperation, will take us across the goal line. 

In other words, we have the means and opportunity to accelerate emissions reduction. Let’s focus on that instead of ignoring our responsibilities while chasing the chimera of carbon removals.

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