In September last year, the Metronome clock in Union Square, Manhattan, US, was replaced with a climate clock, projecting the time left until the earth completely consumes its carbon budget. According to the clock, we have less than seven years to take significant action to keep warming under 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Such a temperature rise would result in extreme heatwaves, droughts, and flooding.

The consensus for widespread action has never been greater. The Paris Agreement, signed by 190 countries, pledges to reduce emissions to limit global temperature rises. Just last month, 61 top business leaders across various industries committed to a set of ‘Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics’ developed by the World Economic Forum. The metrics provide a set of sector-agnostic standards focused on people, planet, prosperity, and governance, on which companies can report. They further promote the convergence towards a unified environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards framework.

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As part of their environmental commitments, both governments and companies are dedicating significant funds towards green ventures. For example, India plans to be a 100% electric-vehicle nation by 2030 while Apple plans to invest $100m into improving its suppliers’ energy efficiency as part of its partnership with the US-China Green Fund. The company aims to be carbon neutral across its entire business by 2030. There is a significant focus on sustainability, but are we doing enough?

Initiatives undertaken to combat climate change are varied, ranging from renewable energy to biotech food production methods. For ordinary businesses, looking to reduce their carbon footprint, minimising waste, reducing energy consumption, and using more efficient equipment is increasingly the norm. Carbon removal has emerged as a means of offsetting emissions. Those with sufficient resources have invested in air capture plants while others have opted to partner with start-ups developing these technologies.

What is carbon removal?

A nascent technology, engineered carbon removal involves using large fans to directly capture carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the air and store it. It includes planting trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Tech-based methods would offer a longer-term solution to offsetting emissions.

Storage methods for captured carbon include underground sequestration where carbon is injected into porous rocks or underground salt deposits. Swiss start-up Climeworks, a company that builds and operates direct air capture machines, can permanently remove CO₂ from the air. Collected carbon is mixed with water, and then, pumped underground. Over the course of a few years, the CO₂ reacts with basalt rock and turns to stone.

For industries where cutting emissions is difficult, carbon removal and storage present a solution. Cement production, aviation, and shipping are all industries where carbon capture could help offset emissions. The use of biofuels and efficient equipment in these sectors is unlikely to reduce emissions significantly.

The barrier to widescale adoption of carbon capture is cost. Nonetheless, growing attention in recent years has led to further investment in these technologies. Climeworks has around 50 corporate clients, including Stripe, Shopify, and Audi. Microsoft is another Climeworks partner, which established a $1bn fund in 2020 dedicated to carbon capture and removal technologies. Elon Musk has also committed to donating $100m towards a prize for the best carbon capture.

Even governments are getting involved. China recently completed construction on its largest carbon capture and storage plant. The recently passed US Congress Energy Bill allocates more than $6bn in funding over five years towards similar projects.

As we saw with renewable energy, the heavy investment will make carbon removal increasingly accessible. Yet, lower costs increase the danger that companies will rely too heavily on removing carbon rather than cutting emissions to meet their pledges. As carbon removal technologies inevitably scale up, it is also important that the necessary frameworks are in place to ensure it is used as a last resort or that it is a means of reaching carbon negativity rather than just neutrality.