The international gear-up to a renewables-driven global energy system will need to be supercharged by the removal of vast volumes of CO2 alongside “deep decarbonisation” for the planet to stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to a new report from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC).
The London-based think-tank calculates cutting coal use by half and ending 70% of deforestation by 2030 need to be acted upon as “particularly important priorities” but that “even the fastest feasible path” of emissions reductions would call for 70-220 gigatons (Gt) of carbon removal by mid-century to meet climate goals set as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“We have said in the past that the world needs to meet 65-70% of energy demand by 2050 from renewables, plus a roughly 10% tranche from [green] hydrogen,” ETC director Faustine Delasalle told Recharge, ahead of the launch of Mind the Gap: How CO2 Removals Must Complement Deep Decarbonisation to Keep 1.5°C Alive.
“But what this report found is that seeing 70-220Gt of carbon removals between now and 2050 to limit cumulative net emissions to a level compatible with globally agreed climate objectives will need a combination of ‘natural climate solutions’ [NCS], including reforestation and enhanced soil management; engineered solutions such as direct air capture of CO2; and hybrid solutions such as bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage.”
The ETC report said a “feasible scenario” points to CO2 removals reaching 3.5Gt a year by 2030, at a cost of some $200bn per annum, from “close to zero today”, which would deliver 165Gt of cumulative sequestration between now and 2050.
“No single [CO2 removal] solution can be deployed in significant enough volumes to deliver the emissions removals required, and each entails different costs and risks. A ‘portfolio approach’ is therefore required, with solutions playing vital and complementary roles. This would give [civilization] a 50:50 chance,” said Delasalle.
Over the decades to 2050, sequestering this value volume of carbon would cost around $15trn, equal to around 0.25% of projected global gross domestic product (GDP) over this period, said the ETC, contrasting this spend with investment in clean power that is calculated to be around 1.5% of GDP to mid-century.
“Initially the bulk of investment must be focused on reforestation and delivering other NCS, alongside early scale-up support for engineered and hybrid solutions. In the 2030s and 2040s the portfolio is likely to shift towards hybrid and engineered solutions as these newer technologies scale, bringing down costs and increasing availability,” said Delasalle.
To achieve these ambitions, a “massive ramp-up of financial support from both governments and corporates” is needed to scale removals in the coming decades, given that today funding for emissions removal is “very limited”, by ETC figuring less than $10bn a year, with the voluntary carbon markets delivering just 10 megatons (Mt) per year of emissions removals.
“This is equivalent to less than 0.1% of global emissions,” noted ETC chair Adair Turner, in a statement as the report was published.
“Unless we develop CO2 removals rapidly and on large scale – closing the gap in both ambition and funding between today’s minimal level and what we need – it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
“It’s not either or – deep decarbonisation or CO2 removals. Both are essential, rapidly and at scale, if we are to avoid enormous harm to people across the world.”
Voluntary carbon markets are set to play a key role in scaling up CO2 removal “but even under ambitious projections are only likely to meet one-third of the 2030 volume required”, said Delasalle.
“Further action will be required with governments supporting via market creation, for example, emissions trading schemes, via direct finance and purchase of removals, and by redirecting agricultural subsidies and funding of nature restoration.”
Corporations, she added, should support the global acceleration to net-zero “by meeting their obligations in compliance markets such as the EU emissions trading scheme, and “rise to the challenge by committing to 1.5°C-aligned science-based pathways to reduce emissions, “with any remaining emissions fully neutralised via carbon credits”.
Delasalle said the agreements struck at the most recent COP climate action conference, held in Glasgow, Scotland, last year, were “positive signals”, including on coal-fired power production reduction and reforestation, but that “the levels of commitment are still insufficient”.
She added that she remained “optimistic” that the global energy transition could be accelerated in time to minimise the worst impact of climate change: “We can reach net-zero by 2050 but if we don’t take significant steps toward this… in the next four years, it will be too late”.