John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, warned Thursday that mounting global commitments to reach net-zero emissions by the middle of this century will not be enough to avert catastrophic warming.
To preserve a safe and recognizable global climate, the world will need to start removing the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed into the atmosphere over the last 200 years, which has created an insulating layer around our planet, the former secretary of state said during the first day of the White House’s two-day climate summit.
“Even if we get to net zero, we still need to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” Kerry said. “This is a bigger challenge than a lot of people have really grabbed on to yet.”
It was an unusually candid remark on a politically sensitive subject, made ― strangely enough ― at the tail end of a conversation about climate financing with Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser.
Getting rich countries to reduce consumption of oil, gas and coal has proven difficult enough, despite mounting billion-dollar climate disasters and the proliferation of cheap, zero-carbon energy and transportation alternatives. That has made many climate activists see discussions of carbon removal as threatening efforts to cut emissions.
There is also no clear pathway to carbon removal; it’s less straightforward than replacing coal plants with wind power or gas-fueled automobiles with electric vehicles and public transit.
Natural means of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, such as forests and farming techniques, are difficult to measure and carry significant risks of displacing people from conserved lands or losing emissions progress to wildfires. Technological innovations like direct air capture, or machines that pull CO2 particles out of the atmosphere, remain expensive and energy intensive. Some of its biggest investors have been oil companies that aim to use it so they can keep burning fossil fuels.
Yet a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letter found that, even under optimistic scenarios for slashing emissions through renewable energy and eliminating harmful industrial farming, the world would need to remove 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to prevent disastrous heating.
The centerpiece announcement on Thursday was President Joe Biden’s pledge to slash U.S. emissions at least in half by 2030. The target, submitted to the United Nations as a summary outlining the U.S. contribution to the 2015 Paris Agreement goals, carved out multiple pathways to make the cuts, and did not offer specific details. But the president’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, unveiled last month, included calls for more research into direct air capture technology.
Kerry’s statement echoed what he said earlier this month during a visit to India.
“At some point we’re going to get to zero,” he said, according to Bloomberg Green. “Once we have the ability to, we need to be net negative.”
Still, Kerry’s remark marked the first time one of the top two U.S. climate officials acknowledged the need for carbon removal at a high-profile public event like Thursday’s summit, said Noah Deich, the president of Carbon180, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on carbon removal.
“It’s a really exciting statement because it shows the door is open,” Deich said. “The challenge that Kerry is really putting forth to the community that works on climate policy is: Let’s not pretend that 50% by 2030 or 100% by 2050 is enough. The end zone is quite a bit further than that.”
Hardly any world leaders mentioned the need to remove carbon from the air during nearly three hours of opening statements from three dozen heads of state on Thursday.
Wealthy countries with bigger carbon footprints, such as Canada and Japan, touted new goals to stop adding as much heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. Poorer countries, such as the Marshall Islands and South Africa, lamented the climate hardships they’re already enduring and asked for more money to help develop cleanly and adapt to a hotter world.
“It’s a really exciting statement because it shows the door is open.”
One exception was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who deflected from his country’s weak commitments to cut planet-heating pollution by touting the carbon forests across the territorially vast nation suck up every year.
“Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years,” Putin said. “So it’s not enough to tackle the issue of new emissions. It is also important to take up the task of absorbing the CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere.”
He added: “Let me say that, without exaggeration, Russia makes a gigantic contribution to absorbing global emissions, both ours and elsewhere, due to the great absorption capacities of our ecosystems.”
The historic wildfires that blazed across Siberia in 2020 and 2019 undercut that claim. But the statement demonstrates the role wealthier countries should play in researching ways to permanently clean up carbon and remove it from the atmosphere, said Arvind Ravikumar, an assistant professor of sustainable energy development at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
“We have to invest in carbon removal technologies,” he said. “How we use it, who’s responsible for it, and who governs it are questions we have to answer as we go forward with this technology. But we have to start.”