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Getting to net zero: New policy insights on the role of carbon management strategies

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Blog Environmental Defense Fund

EDF's energy experts discuss how to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. Guided by science and economics, EDF tackles urgent threats with practical solutions. Founded...

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By Natasha Vidangos

This blog was originally co-authored with Jake Higdon, former Manager for U.S. Climate Policy at EDF.

This summary for policymakers, based on new modeling from Evolved Energy Research, shares insights on the potential role of carbon removal and carbon capture strategies in reaching net-zero emissions in the U.S.

Emerging technologies to capture carbon are gaining traction at the federal level – evidenced by the new innovation investments in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Department of Energy (DOE)’s re-organized Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, and DOE’s Earthshot initiative to substantially cut the cost of carbon dioxide removal. However, it is hard to predict what role these technologies will play in reaching President Biden’s net-zero emissions goal when they are currently at different stages of development and vary widely in cost.

While harnessing widely available, cost-effective solutions we have at our fingertips right now is the unquestionable priority for tackling climate change, there are aspects of our carbon pollution problem that cannot be addressed with clean energy and efficiency solutions today. This is where technology-based carbon management,” which refers to strategies that use technologies to capture carbon pollution from both heavy industrial facilities and the atmosphere, can help us close this emissions gap. Importantly, carbon management also addresses what happens after carbon is captured, whether it’s stored in geologic formations underground or utilized to help produce low-carbon materials or synthetic fuels.

Carbon Capture vs. Carbon Removal

To better understand these technologies’ potential and inform federal innovation policy, EDF commissioned Evolved Energy Research, a leading energy systems modeler, to explore a series of carbon management scenarios.

First, here’s what to know about the modeling

Evolved tested over 20 alternative scenarios in its modeling to understand a broad range of potential outcomes for carbon management strategies in a net-zero emissions economy. There are two key points to keep in mind.

  • First, models are not a prediction of the future, but rather, simulations of how the energy system could evolve under a set of assumptions on emissions limits, available technologies and energy costs. In the case of carbon management, many assumptions carry high levels of uncertainty.
  • Second, the model seeks pathways that minimize economic costs and does not take into account non-economic factors, such as crucial equity and justice considerations with these technologies or the political viability of these approaches.

The bottom line: the modeling can’t provide us with a definitive picture of the future, but it can offer insights on the key factors – and the potential policies – that could enable the most positive outcomes and avoid the greatest risks.

Key policy insights for carbon management

1. Invest in carbon management now because it is likely to be a necessary ingredient to achieve a stable climate. Even after deploying significant levels of energy efficiency, clean electricity and electrification, there exist a number of hard-to-abate sectors (e.g. industry, heavy-duty transportation, aviation and shipping) where additional tools are needed to decarbonize. Evolved’s modeling suggests that between 400 and 1,100 million metric tons of carbon will need to be captured annually by 2050 (between 7%-20% of gross U.S. emissions today). While the analysis does show it may be possible to reach net-zero without carbon management at all, excluding it greatly increases the risk of missing our target because it demands extremely high levels of renewables and biomass deployment – levels that may be practically or politically infeasible. The model also suggests that, in the long run, CDR options such as direct air capture may be deployed more widely than point-source carbon capture, assuming that there is a substantial increase in clean power. Given its potential role, policymakers should invest in CDR research, development and demonstration now so it can be part of a diverse set of climate solutions in the next few decades.

2. Start long-term infrastructure planning that aligns with net-zero goals. Carbon management will create new demands for infrastructure – from transporting captured carbon via pipelines to ensuring that it’s safely stored underground. According to the model, the majority of the captured carbon from CCS and DAC may go to underground geologic storage, which will demand significant levels of research, planning and investment today. The model also finds that nearly all carbon storage and utilization occurs intra-regionally, suggesting that the need for long distance CO2 pipelines may require additional research and analysis. It’s also critical to make sure any infrastructure development is done right: policymakers should put guidelines in place that ensure environmental integrity and prevent leaks, earthquakes or other preventable negative impacts from underground storage. This infrastructure planning should also be carried out in partnership with communities and address their priorities, including environmental protection and the development of economic opportunities that benefit them.

3. Don’t forget to monitor, regulate and address non-CO2 pollution. Since carbon management does not necessarily directly reduce non-CO2 pollution, like methane, it will be important to address these co-pollutants, which have a disproportionate impact on climate warming. Policymakers need to ensure leakage of these pollutants does not negate carbon management’s near- and long-term climate benefits. More analysis on leakage, including deeper consideration of non-CO2 pollution, would also help provide a more complete understanding of policy options.

4. Prioritize efforts to curb climate pollution now. Advancing energy efficiency, clean electricity and electrification this decade remains Job One for getting on a pathway to a stable climate – and the major package of climate and clean energy investments currently in the U.S. Senate could help spur this progress. Maximizing these no-regrets strategies minimizes the cumulative build-up of carbon pollution in the atmosphere and the degree to which the U.S. may need to rely on carbon management strategies to lower pollution in the future.

There are many policy opportunities at hand that can help carbon management become a valuable addition in a suite of strategies needed to reach net zero, including stimulating innovation in key areas, planning for infrastructure needs and swiftly deploying climate solutions that can slash pollution right now.

As we ramp up these strategies, it will be equally important that policymakers work hand-in-hand with communities to ensure that these new solutions are deployed in a responsible, just and fair manner. Beyond the climate benefits, carbon management strategies should be carried out in a way that improves communities’ lives and livelihoods, by bringing good-paying job opportunities, and reducing harmful air and water pollution.

Read the policy summary here.

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