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Climate change and energy

Fossil-fuel emissions are over a million times greater than carbon removal efforts

Carbon emissions that cause climate change are on track to hit a record high this year, while efforts to remove them from the atmosphere are still minuscule.

December 4, 2023
tiny vacuum hoovering up dark clouds
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Envato

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are on track to reach a record high by the end of 2023. And a new report shows just how insignificant technologies that pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere are by comparison. 

Worldwide, those emissions are projected to reach 36.8 billion metric tons in 2023, a 1.1% increase from 2022 levels, according to this year’s Global Carbon Budget Report, released today. As delegates gather in Dubai for this year’s UN climate summit, a record-setting year for emissions underscores the need to make dramatic changes, and quickly. 

“There has been great progress in reducing emissions in some countries—however, it just isn’t good enough. We’re drastically off course,” Mike O’Sullivan, a lecturer at the University of Exeter and one of the authors of the report, said via email. 

Europe’s emissions dropped around 7% from last year, while the US saw a 3% reduction. But overall, coal, oil, and natural-gas emissions are all still on the rise, and nations including India and China are still seeing emissions growth. Together, those two nations currently account for nearly 40% of global fossil-fuel emissions, though Western nations including the US are still the greatest historical emitters.

“What we want to see is fossil-fuel emissions decreasing, fast,” said David Ho, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a science advisor at Carbon Direct, a carbon management company, via email. 

However, one technology sometimes touted as a cure-all for the emissions problems has severe limitations, according to the new report: carbon dioxide removal. Carbon removal technologies suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to prevent them from further warming the planet. The UN panel on climate change has called carbon removal an essential component of plans to reach international climate targets of keeping warming at less than 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above preindustrial levels. 

The problem is, there’s very little carbon dioxide removal taking place today. Direct air capture and other technological approaches collected and stored only around 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2023. 

That means that, in total, emissions from fossil fuels were millions of times higher than carbon removal levels this year. That ratio shows that it’s “infeasible” for carbon removal technologies to balance out emissions, O’Sullivan says: “We cannot offset our way out of this problem.”

The report also had bad news about nature-based approaches. Efforts to pull carbon out of the atmosphere with methods like reforestation and afforestation (in other words, planting trees) accounted for more emissions removed from the atmosphere than their technological counterparts. However, even those efforts are still being canceled out by current rates of deforestation and other land-use changes.

“The only way to solve this crisis is with major changes to the fossil-fuel industry,” O’Sullivan says. Technologies like carbon removal “only become important if emissions are drastically cut as well.”

There are many tools available to start making more progress on emissions in the near term, as a UN climate report released earlier this year laid out: deploying renewables like wind and solar, preventing deforestation and cutting methane leaks, and increasing energy efficiency are all among the low-cost solutions that could cut emissions in half by 2030.  

Ultimately, carbon removal could also be part of the answer, but there’s a lot of work left to do, Ho says. Now is a good time to study and develop carbon removal technologies, figure out the risks and benefits of different approaches, and determine which ones can be scaled up while avoiding ecological and environmental-justice issues, he adds. 

None of that is likely to happen fast enough to achieve the progress needed on emissions cuts this decade. In the Global Carbon Budget report, researchers estimate how close we are to sailing past climate limits. The researchers estimate that there’s about 275 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide left to emit before we exceed 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) of warming. At this rate, the world is on track to blow that budget within about seven years, around the end of the decade. 

“We have agency, and nothing is inevitable,” O’Sullivan says. “The world will change and is changing—we just need to speed up.”

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