Misusing Carbon Removal as a Climate Response

Carbon removal is an alluring idea. That also makes it a tempting façade for bad policies.

It seems clear that in some form, carbon removal is going to be an important component of climate policy, especially later in the century to deal with carbon levels that overshoot the targets in the Paris Climate Agreement. The problem is not with the concept but with its misuse.    One of the risks that comes with such good ideas is that they provide cover for poorly conceived and badly executed policies. A trio of recent articles in the leading research journal Science highlights that risk.

The most recent article of the three focuses don a specific carbon removal strategy, forest restoration.  Forest restoration seems like an unambiguously good idea. It promises to undo the damage to ecology and the climate done by logging and other human activities.  The problem is not with the basic idea but with its implementation.  In this February 10 article, a group of English and South African researchers examine an initiative called AFR100. This initiative seeks to reforest 100 million acres in Africa. Thirty-five countries have pledged 133 million hectares (329 million acres), an area almost twice as big as Texas.

That sounds terrific. But appearances can be deceiving.  Eight of the countries  actually have no forested areas at all, and other countries are promising to restore forest acreage well in excess of their actual forested lands.  In addition, not all forests are in need of restoration. Altogether, researchers estimate, only about half of the pledged lands actually qualify for forest restoration. The other half of the lands would be forested for the first time, potentially eliminating savannah and other intact ecosystems.  And of course, mass tree planting may not be successful: there could be good reasons why forests are not already present in those areas.

The other two articles focus more broadly on CO2 removal as a mitigation strategy.  A article in November spotlighted how much some countries are counting on carbon removal in their climate strategies. Wealthy countries are relying on over 2 billion tons of carbon removal — 18% of current emissions. About a quarter of the long-term climate plans submitted to the UNFCCC rely on burning biomass and capturing the carbon, and 13% rely on direct air capture as an option, while admitting that neither is yet feasible.

There could also be other serious problems with implementation, including the possibility that carbon removal might not permanent and that deployment may have other serious problems, such as ecological impacts.  Relying on techniques that may turn out not to work, at least at the projected scale, would then require heroic efforts to cut emissions overnight in order to compensate — at best a very costly response, and one that might not be feasible.

A February 2 article shows that such issues are not limited to forest restoration. The researchers hale from Australian, England, France, Germany, and the U.S. — a truly international team.  They focus on nature-based solutions like reforestation and on burning biofuels with carbon capture.  Those strategies are heavily emphasized in national climate plans. The researchers agree that restoring degraded ecosystems is an attractive strategy, but they raise important concerns about the sustainable scale for other approaches.  Taking into account issues such as food security, ecological impacts, Indigenous rights, and water availability, they estimates that low- and medium-risk strategies could produce around eight billion tons of carbon removal globally — less than the amount of carbon removal that rich countries alone are counting on.

Carbon removal clearly has important potential.  But as these articles show, over-reliance on carbon removal methods such as forest restoration poses real risks.  They may not work at the scale that countries are predicting, and overly aggressive implementation could pose serious costs. Carbon removal is well and good, but it should not distract us from the urgent need for emissions reductions.


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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Misusing Carbon Removal as a Climate Response”

  1. Dan – I agree with everything you say about the weaknesses of reforestation, but the intro to your article inadvertently restates a widely held misconception about where we are on the “IPCC Curve”. If we look at the damage that has been and will be done over the next 4 decades, most of which is irreversible (disappearing glaciers, species extinction, declining agricultural yields, destructive new weather patterns, and resulting human migration and loss of life, etc.), it doesn’t matter what we do in the this period to stop emissions and capture carbon. Despite the neutral to optimistic views presented in my novel, The Plot To Cool The Planet, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, we experts are not preparing our people or our governments to acknowledge what is ahead. Left unprepared, we can expect that people and governments will blame each others’ polieies for the recurring disasters, dislocations, and disruptions, creating the chaos that will make it even harder to do what little can be done to bring down the emissions levels and offset the effects through this century.
    I’m sorry to paint such a dark picture, but if don’t explain it to people, the future will only be worse than we expect. Sam

    1. Hi Sam – Thanks for both of your thoughtful comments today. I should have said something like “even in the best case scenario”. Like you, I’m very worried about escalating climate impacts and their disruptive effect on society.

  2. Hi Dan, The impacts of forest management on greenhouse gas emissions is complex and site specific, so one should be careful impuning terms like “forest restoration.” In the Sierra Nevada the problem with the forests is there are too many trees which causes the forests to be unhealthy and prone to high-intensity wildfires. Plus with increasing droughts these forests are no longer sequestering much carbon. Wildfires release tons and tons of greenhouse gases among the many problems they cause. My favorite solution is to thin the forests and make something out of the wood removed so that the carbon sequestered by photosynthesis can be more or less permanently stored in forms humans can use. In the Sierra, “forest restoration” means correctly thinning them to improve forest health and restore a more natural fire regime. Then forests are more effective at sequestering carbon and when they burn they release fewer GHG. Bioenergy with carbon capture is useful, too. I agree with the criticism of reforestation projects in places where no forests grew. I am a Regional Water Board Member and you can see my credentials on the Lahontan Water Board website.

  3. I’m definitely in favor of forest restoration! But I worry that countries are making unrealistic assumptions about the magnitude of the likely carbon savings and using that as an excuse to relax efforts to cut emissions.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more