IPCC WGIII Report Affirms the Necessity for CDR to Meet Goals of the Paris Agreement

Two opposing mega-trends are highlighted by the IPCC Working Group III report, one a cause for grave alarm, one a cause for hope. This report finds we are currently heading very fast towards global warming of 1.5°C. And the current pledges by countries would take us significantly well beyond the 1.5°C target. 

A major takeaways from this report indicate that we must dramatically phase down fossil fuels and stop new fossil-fuel infrastructure.  However, at the same time as we phase down fossil fuels, the IPCC report finds that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is required to counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors of the economy and to limit warming to 1.5°C. The IPCC report affirms that carbon removal is especially important to counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors, like steel production and long-haul aviation. 

For a more extensive look into the finding of this report, please see our “Key Findings for Carbon Dioxide Removal.”

Here is a summary of some key points:

The IPCC Working Group III report affirms that carbon removal will be critical to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, in tandem with deep cuts to emissions, and highlights the scaling that needs to happen to realize this goal. 

  • CDR can counterbalance hard-to-abate sectors: The report finds that CDR has an important role to play in reaching net-zero emissions by counterbalancing residual emissions in sectors of the economy like food production, long-haul aviation, and steel production (C.11.4). CDR is required both globally and nationally (Technical Summary, page 94).
  • Carbon removal cannot be an excuse to overshoot 1.5: The Working Group II report found that scenarios that significantly overshoot 1.5°C, including ones where large-scale CDR is used, bring catastrophic costs and other risks. The Working Group III report acknowledges the current limitations of CDR as well as the risks and impacts (C.11.2; C.11.5), stating that upscaling the deployment of CDR at very large scales depends on developing approaches to address feasibility and sustainability (C.11).
  • Responsible deployment is key: The report warns that poorly done CDR can have varying socio-economic side effects, depending on the method, site-specific content, implementation, and scale of CDR deployment (C.11.2). As a result, it is crucial to responsibly scale-up CDR. 
  • Multiple CDR solutions can work in tandem with one another: The report does not make a recommendation on which CDR approach is best. The estimates of carbon removal available from each CDR approach vary in the report. In addition, all approaches have limits and trade-offs. The report finds that CDR in the land sector alone presents challenges for competing demands on food security, conflicts with livelihoods, and the nuances of land ownership and management systems (C.9). The report finds that regarding mitigation generally, a broad portfolio is best and that portfolios of technological solutions reduce feasibility risks (Technical Summary, page 138) In this light, investing in multiple CDR approaches may be required to reach the gigaton scale of removal needed. This portfolio of options includes technological approaches like Direct Air Capture, which requires significantly less land area than nature-based solutions.   
  • Carbon removal is distinct from carbon capture: The IPCC places CDR and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in two distinct sections of the report. The terms often get conflated. CDR and CCS are two diverse approaches to climate mitigation that use similar and overlapping vocabulary but undertake very different activities, often with radically different approaches. Carbon removal can address legacy emissions, which makes it a unique tool for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Conversely, CCS stops carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere. 
  • Scaling up CDR is crucial: The report finds that scaling up CDR responsibly requires accelerated research and development, improved tools for risk assessment and management, targeted incentives, the development of agreed methods for measurement, and robust reporting and verification of carbon flows (C.11.5). Modeling in the report does not fully account for the falling costs of CDR, but general economic cost forecasts by prior IPCC reports failed to fully capture cost reductions that subsequently occurred for solar and wind power (Technical Summary, page 25). The report finds that modular small-scale technologies tend to improve faster and be adopted more quickly – a technological profile that may match DAC units (Technical Summary, page 25). 

It is critical to responsibly scale up carbon removal to removal in order to balance the carbon budget and limit warming at 1.5°C.

  • The world is close to exceeding its carbon budget: A significant but very small carbon budget remains to limit warming to 1.5° and the path to limit warming to 1.5° is extremely narrow. Pollution from hard-to-decarbonize sectors must be counterbalanced.
  • Carbon removal is needed to help close the gap: Carbon removal, which can counterbalance emissions in hard-to-abate sectors, with nature-based and technological solutions, can help ensure the world does not exceed its carbon budget if (and only if) it is paired with aggressive pollution reduction.  
  • We need to embrace all climate solutions: As the world gets close to exceeding our carbon budget, there is no silver bullet to solve the climate crisis. We need to double down on urgently reducing new climate pollution. This can happen in tandem with carbon removal and other climate technologies. Investing in carbon removal today can help answer questions on responsible carbon removal deployment, such as how to reduce costs and ensure that projects are developed with community input.