Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent

Principles for Thinking about Carbon Dioxide Removal in Just Climate Policy

David R. Morrow, Michael S. Thompson, Angela Anderson, Holly J. Buck, Kate Dooley, Oliver Geden, Arunabha Ghosh, Sean Low, Augustine Njamnshi, John Noel, Olufẹ́mi O. Taıwò, Shuchi Talati, Jennifer Wilcox
August 2020 | Technology Futures

Suggested citation: Morrow, David R., Michael S. Thompson, et al. 2020. "Principles for Thinking about Carbon Dioxide Removal in Just Climate Policy," One Earth 3, pp. 150-153. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.015


This paper examines the rising importance of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in the climate-policy agenda. CDR or negative emissions is the practice of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it for long periods to reduce climate risk. As the world works toward meeting the Paris Agreement goals for limiting global warming, CDR could provide a useful supplement to emissions abatement. However, there is a lack of clarity on CDR, about which approach to adopt, the policies needed to govern it, and how to connect it to other elements of climate policy. The principles outlined in this paper could help civil society organisations, funders, and government agencies arrive at informed decisions for fair and effective implementation of CDR as part of a robust, abatement-focused long-term climate strategy.

Key Highlights

  • Lowering carbon concentration significantly would require removing hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide.
  • In order to reach that scale by the end of this century, action needs to be taken now and policies need to be developed for research, development, and rollout of CDR.
  • Not devoting enough time and resources to developing and deploying CDR would mean higher carbon dioxide concentrations. Meanwhile, pursuing CDR at too large a scale or adopting the wrong approach could lead to social and environmental downsides.
  • CDR is only one part of a long-term climate strategy. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions must remain at the center of that strategy.
  • Not all carbon removal is created equal in terms of social, economic, and environmental impacts, and nuanced positions are needed to distinguish better technologies, practices, projects, and policies.
  • The social, economic, and political contexts in which people implement CDR will affect its acceptance and impacts.
  • Robust, flexible and precautionary climate policy requires fine-grained analyses of carbon-removal projects, programs, or policies to avoid throwing the good out with the bad or allowing the bad in with the good.

Key Recommendations

  • Start research and development on CDR now so that future generations might benefit from large-scale CDR in the second half of this century.
  • Focus on reducing emissions and adapting to climate change in the near term since it would be slow, expensive, and technically uncertain to replace these with CDR completely.
  • Factor in the environmental and social impacts of CDR in addition to assessing the cost and sequestration potential at a technological level.
  • Understand the extent to which the costs and the social and environmental burdens associated with any CDR undertaking would fall on those who bear the largest responsibility for the problem.
  • Ensure transparency in assessing the social, economic, and environmental impacts of any undertaking.
Playing ‘‘wait and see’’ with CDR could leave us with several extra decades of global heating that could have been avoided and an increased risk of crossing climate tipping points.

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