US government signals interest in investing in carbon removal

The Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act includes crucial funding for CDR

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Photo: Luca Bravo

By Dr. Shuchi Talati, senior policy advisor

As a scientist by training, I rarely make sweeping statements without careful examination of the evidence. Today I can say with confidence that the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, which passed the House last Thursday, would be by far the most significant step on carbon removal in the United States to date. Over the course of my career, I’ve worked on many different aspects of climate change mitigation, from the indisputable science to policy we desperately need. And while we are already seeing and grappling with the impacts of climate change across the country, this 900-page energy and innovation legislation package is a cause for cautious optimism.

Support for critical climate technologies

This bipartisan package contains a myriad of smaller bills that have been introduced over the course of the congressional session to address climate change across the energy and industrial sectors. It encompasses measures to support energy efficiency, renewable energy deployment, workforce training, and environmental justice. What is most exciting to me is that this package includes support for critical technologies in dire need of federal attention.

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is one of those technologies. CDR includes both land-based and tech-driven removal methods. A technological approach to carbon removal engineers the physical removal of carbon directly out of the atmosphere for use or storage, potentially leading to negative emissions. There is almost no pathway to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees without CDR, according to the 2018 IPCC Special Report. In fact, we will need CDR on the scale of 10 gigatons per year by 2050 to reach this goal — an amount almost twice that of current US emissions. Direct air capture (DAC), the most scalable technological CDR approach, presents a massive opportunity but remains expensive, especially in a market that doesn’t price carbon or value climate action, and needs dedicated federal funds to enable sustainable and responsible growth (just like solar and wind energy did several years ago).

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A rendering of direct air capture fans used to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Photo: Carbon Engineering

Dedicating billions to carbon removal

Enter the House’s innovation package: this bill would create a first of its kind Carbon Removal Program at the Department of Energy. This new research, development, and demonstration program would:

  • Invite a range of carbon removal approaches, from direct air capture to enhanced mineralization and some land-based methods
  • Fund direct air capture test centers
  • Create prize-based programs for successful direct air capture demonstration projects
  • Overall, authorize more than a billion dollars for these initiatives over the next 5 years.

This is an unprecedented level of funding that could change the landscape of carbon removal in incredible ways.

This House innovation package also provides over $3 billion for geologic storage and testing and over $150 million to the expansion of carbon use through 2025. Using captured carbon as a key ingredient in materials such as concrete — known as “carbontech” — is a nascent industry with immense potential. Concrete made of captured carbon performs just as well (or better) than its high emission counterpart while also locking up carbon from the atmosphere for the long haul. Captured carbon could also be used in chemicals, plastics and fuels, but these processes require more investment and research to better understand the costs and benefits.

There is a wellspring of support building — and we need federal government to support and fund carbon removal research, development, demonstration and deployment.

Another major part of this package? Funding for carbon capture at industrial sources, such as concrete or steel production sites — moving beyond the traditional focus on coal in the power sector. The industrial sector makes up about 25% of our greenhouse gas emissions and is incredibly hard to decarbonize because emissions are a product of chemical reactions or fossil fuel combustion. Investing in carbon capture at these sources, alongside improving energy efficiency, is an essential part of any decarbonization portfolio.

Let’s keep this momentum going

Over the past several weeks we’ve seen major corporations make promises about their emissions: Amazon, Shopify and Walmart have made concerted nods to carbon removal. Before that, we saw the House Energy and Water appropriations bill include more funds in the 2021 fiscal year than ever before: $95 million to the Department of Energy research and development of negative emissions technologies, an increase of over $40 million compared to FY20. There is a wellspring of support building — and we need federal government to support and fund carbon removal research, development, demonstration and deployment.

To date, the Department of Energy has spent tens of millions on technological carbon removal approaches, yet according to a National Academies of Sciences report, such a program will need hundreds of millions more over the next ten years. This was a cornerstone report on how the US government should move forward in the sector, laying out a roadmap for what a comprehensive program should look like. This week’s bill is a step forward in that direction.

The path forward

So, what happens to this energy package now? The Senate is also considering a companion energy package that has yet to receive floor time. If both pieces of legislation pass, the differences between the two will need to be settled, but I’m hopeful that carbon capture, removal, and carbontech will remain priorities.

I’ve been working on climate change for over 11 years across the science, engineering and policy sectors. Until relatively recently, CDR was considered outside the mainstream and a strategy to which we wouldn’t need to turn. Recent reports like those from the IPCC and NAS have made it clear that this is work we must do now. Over the last week, I was proud to see the recognition of its role in reaching our climate goals and to hopefully watch the federal government take significant steps towards building CDR at scale.

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