How Negative Emissions Can Help Organizations Meet Their Climate Goals

How Negative Emissions Can Help Organizations Meet Their Climate Goals
Sep 2021 , by , in Interviews

As governments and businesses take up the urgent task of reducing carbon emissions, they should also consider another essential means of limiting the rise in global temperatures: removing carbon from the atmosphere through the creation of negative emissions.

As is now well known, keeping warming below 1.5°C by stemming the build-up of atmospheric CO2 is critical to limiting the world’s exposure to the physical hazards resulting from climate change and to averting potentially catastrophic feedback loops in the Earth’s climate that lead to permanent warming. It’s also well-established, though less well-known, that keeping warming to 1.5°C will now be possible only with significant negative emissions achieved by solutions that remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it over the long term.

Scaling up negative emissions

There are a wide range of negative emission solutions. For example, “natural climate solutions” (NCSs) such as reforestation use biological mechanisms. “Engineered removals” such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture and storage (DACS) sequester CO2 geologically—for example, in sealed rock formations underground.

Negative emissions are needed for three purposes: to offset residual, hard-to-abate emissions in industries such as cement; to lessen atmospheric CO2 if emission reductions aren’t delivered quickly enough; and to remove historical emissions from the atmosphere on a path to a stable long term climate. Many major scenarios for a pathway to 1.5°C, including McKinsey’s, include a substantial scale-up in negative emissions (Exhibit 1). In those scenarios, negative emissions complement extensive efforts to reduce emissions rather than replacing or detracting from such efforts.

Negative emissions offer significant opportunities for businesses that purchase them, as well as those that participate in creating carbon-removal industries. On the purchasing side, some companies have set themselves the goal of becoming not just carbon neutral but carbon negative in the coming years. 

Microsoft, for example, is committed to purchasing a portfolio of negative emissions as part of its effort to become carbon negative by 2030 and to remove by 2050 all the carbon it has emitted, directly or from electricity consumption, since the company’s founding in 1975.

The companies that are the first to use negative emissions can realize environmental ambitions that can’t be achieved through emission reductions alone, which could enhance their standing with customers, investors, and other stakeholders. Purchasing negative emissions also allows companies to neutralize complex supply-chain or in-use emissions until they can reduce such emissions.

Meeting the need for negative carbon emissions in a sustainable way

On the supply side, there aren’t clear standards on what constitutes a high-quality negative emission. Therefore, suppliers often self-certify, which undermines buyers’ confidence and creates confusion. On the demand side, companies and governments are unsure whether negative emissions hold benefits for them and what role they can play in supporting negative emissions. More generally, these institutions are deterred by the complexity of carbon markets.

Addressing the current shortfall in negative emissions is vital to averting extreme and irreversible global warming. As it becomes clear just how urgent the need for action is, negative emissions could become a priority, along with rapid emission reductions, on the global climate agenda.

Excerpts from the article by Peter Cooper, Emma Gibbs, Peter Mannion, Dickon Pinner, and Gregory Santoni, representing views from McKinsey Sustainability.

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