Will California lead the way to carbon neutrality — and beyond?

A new report from the Lawrence Livermore National Lab shows how California can scale carbon removal solutions locally to help it achieve its climate goals.

by Noah Deich, executive director

Experts have long agreed that we need to remove carbon from the air in order to have a shot at meeting our climate goals. California got the message: Executive Order BB-55–18 commits the state to achieve economy-wide “net-negative” emissions starting no later than 2045.

With a landmark new report published today by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), California policymakers now have a detailed resource outlining the carbon removal strategies available to support the state in getting to net-zero emissions — and then beyond to net-negative emissions. The report, titled “Getting to Neutral: Options for Negative Carbon Emissions in California” provides a comprehensive analysis of the costs and availability of leading natural and technological carbon removal solutions in California.

Here are my main takeaways from the report:

Scale: The potential for carbon removal inside California’s borders is substantial. In total, the report identified the potential to cost-effectively remove 100M tons of CO2 annually within the state — roughly equivalent to 20% of the state’s total GHG emissions today.

Breadth: There is no silver bullet carbon removal strategy. In-state opportunities for carbon removal are spread across natural solutions (~20% of total CA removal potential), waste biomass used to produce clean fuels, power, and storage (~70% of the removal potential), and new technology-based approaches like direct air capture.

The carbon removal resource potential in California is large and spread across many solution pathways.

Climate Impact: In addition to removing historic carbon pollution, the carbon removal strategies identified in the report align with the state’s broader climate priorities. Natural solutions can drive adaptation by reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improving the water holding capacity of soils in times of drought. Waste biomass and direct air capture solutions offer a two-for-one climate benefit. Not only can these solutions remove carbon from the atmosphere, but they can also displace fossil fuel use in the transportation and industrial sectors—reducing in-state emissions an additional ~40M tons of CO2 per year).

Co-benefits: This portfolio of potential carbon removal solutions offers significant economic and non-climate environmental benefits. The natural and biomass-based solutions can help improve air quality and bring investment to California’s rural communities. The infrastructure needed for engineered carbon removal solutions — including biomass supply chains and carbon capture and storage hubs — will help the state achieve its targets for diverting waste from landfills and eliminating other short-lived climate pollutants. Furthermore, California is blessed with significant carbon storage capabilities at the northern and southern ends of the Central Valley, which could create a new generation of California job opportunities.

Researchers estimate that California has ample geologic storage resources for safely storing captured CO2, focused in two main areas.

So what should policymakers in the state do with this wealth of new information on carbon removal?

1. Codify an ambitious carbon removal target into legislation. Such legislation will enable the state’s relevant agencies to begin crafting regulations to unlock this carbon removal potential. And while the LLNL report discusses carbon removal as an option for the state to meet a carbon-neutral 2045 target, the scale of the opportunity in California justifies the legislature accelerating this target, and even directing the Administration to develop a plan to erase its entire historic climate footprint in the coming decades.

2. Open dialogues with civil society about equitable project development. California laws and regulations appear to provide strong regulatory control over carbon removal (from CEQA on geology and water quality to the Air Board’s LCFS controls), but the pathway for unlocking existing incentives has not been established. To deploy carbon removal projects in a way that not just meets climate objectives but also builds a more prosperous and equitable California, it will be essential for policymakers and carbon removal developers to work with frontline communities to site and regulate projects effectively.

3. Pass new incentives to catalyze early carbon removal projects in the state. Small changes to existing policies could have a large impact on the economics of early carbon removal projects. For example, the state can set new procurement contracts for waste biomass, expand initiatives like Buy Clean to include a wider range of carbon removal pathways, and enable more carbon removal pathways to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade programs. The state can also work with business and civil society on public-private partnerships to accelerate progress: companies with large presence in the state like Stripe and Microsoft have announced carbon-negative goals; the state’s largest oil and gas producer Chevron has invested in direct air capture startup Carbon Engineering; and ClimateWorks Foundation has a philanthropic effort to support civil society groups building carbon removal efforts.

4. Leverage the state’s diplomatic might to accelerate global climate action. The technology innovation and policies that the state sets today will be “exportable” to other state and national governments, enabling the rest of the world to follow California and move beyond carbon neutrality more rapidly. With the absence of US federal leadership at the UNFCCC COP26 this fall, Governor Newsom can pick up the torch of American climate leadership and emphasize carbon removal as a critical piece of global climate ambition. This leadership will help other governments in the US (where there is a lot more carbon removal potential) and abroad set equitable and effective policies for scaling carbon removal to the levels needed to meet climate goals.

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