Carbon Capture Must Quadruple by 2050 to Meet Climate Targets

By 2050, humanity must significantly increase its efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to meet the crucial target of keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius, researchers reported on Tuesday. Specifically, the amount of carbon dioxide removed must quadruple from current levels.

However, relying heavily on expanding CO2-absorbing forests—currently responsible for 99 percent of carbon removal—could encroach on land needed for agriculture and biofuel production.

Additionally, the feasibility of scaling up new carbon capture technologies remains uncertain, according to the second edition of the University of Oxford’s report on the subject.

The report projects that between seven and nine billion tonnes of CO2 will need to be captured annually by 2050.

This is a steep increase from the current two billion tonnes removed primarily through reforestation, a small fraction compared to the 40 billion tonnes emitted globally in 2023.

The report emphasizes that while rapidly reducing emissions remains the primary strategy for mitigating climate change, eliminating CO2 from the atmosphere is also essential to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

Over 50 researchers contributed to the report, some of whom are also part of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC acknowledges the need for carbon capture but assigns it a limited role in achieving carbon neutrality.

Despite recent growth in research, public awareness, and start-up activity in carbon removal, the report warns of a slowdown due to political challenges and insufficient public funding.

The researchers urge governments to create supportive policies to boost the industry’s development. The market for carbon capture has been expanding, driven by corporate demand for carbon credits—a tool that allows companies to offset emissions by funding carbon-reduction projects.

One notable beneficiary is Climeworks, a start-up with an extensive underground storage facility in Iceland. Climeworks’ two plants currently capture and store 10,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, funded by private investments and carbon credit sales.

To scale up to a million tonnes, Climeworks estimates it will need several billion euros, highlighting the uncertainty of such funding.

Currently, the United States is the only country with a dedicated carbon capture plan, valued at $3.5 billion.

The Center for Environmental Law (CIEL) expressed concern over the increasing focus on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies as a solution to climate change.

CIEL expert, Lili Fuhr, argues that this emphasis distracts from the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels quickly and equitably.

While CO2 removal can be achieved through natural methods, such as reforestation, and technological methods like direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS) or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), these represent less than 0.1 percent of current removal efforts.

Techniques like DACCS, which involve capturing CO2 from the air and storing it underground, pose significant risks to ecosystems and communities.

The report acknowledges these risks, noting that some carbon removal methods have high environmental and ecosystem risks, while others could offer co-benefits.

Poorly executed carbon removal projects could threaten biodiversity and food security. The researchers stress that the development of carbon capture technologies should not detract from efforts to reduce emissions.

William Lamb, one of the report’s authors, stated that failing to significantly reduce emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation would make it impossible to achieve the Paris temperature goal, regardless of advances in carbon removal.

In summary, to meet climate targets by 2050, it is imperative to increase CO2 removal efforts significantly. However, this must be balanced with sustainable practices and should not divert attention from the critical need to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

The development of carbon capture technologies, while promising, faces substantial funding and scalability challenges that need to be addressed through supportive policies and international cooperation.

Jessica Bayley

Jessica Bayley is an international author and journalist. She covers global affairs, hard news, lifestyle, politics, technology and is also the author of "The Ladies of Belgium."