Opinion

CA tech crucial in reaching national greenhouse gas goals

A California power plant at sunset. (Photo: David Crockett, via Shutterstock)

President Biden campaigned on a goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But this goal will not be achievable without deploying technologies and practices that can pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – or from smokestacks of industrial facilities that have few viable alternatives – and securely store it underground or use it in long-lived products like concrete.

These processes include carbon capture and sequestration from hard-to-mitigate industrial facilities, waste biomass conversion with carbon capture and storage (which is also critical for wildfire mitigation efforts), and direct air capture of atmospheric carbon, among others. These approaches are mostly still in the early development stages.

California is well positioned to help the United States meet President Biden’s nationwide carbon neutrality goal.

Why do we need these engineered solutions? While most of the required greenhouse gas reductions will come from clean technology and traditional emission reduction programs, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear that meeting these targets will also necessitate actively removing substantial amounts of carbon already in the atmosphere, as well as preventing new carbon emissions from reaching the atmosphere.

Furthermore, a 2020 report by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded that California’s carbon neutrality goals will require the state to reach negative emissions through a combination of engineered technologies and nature-based solutions like sequestration in soils and plants.

California is well positioned to help the United States meet President Biden’s nationwide carbon neutrality goal by deploying the technologies cost-effectively and at scale.

First, the state has a long history of setting – and achieving – ambitious climate goals, including emission reduction and renewable energy targets met in 2020, and more recently a goal of achieving statewide carbon neutrality by 2045. Second, California has led the deployment of similar emission reduction technology to great success.

California and federal leaders can adopt a suite of high-priority policy solutions to boost this early deployment of engineered carbon removal

For example, state mandates and incentives for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles have helped bring those technologies to or close to parity with fossil-fueled alternatives. But this progress was not accidental nor inevitable. It took decades of careful policy support to maximize private sector innovation, much of which happened in California.

Now we need that same policy support for engineered carbon removal. The challenge, however, is that these projects face significant questions about carbon removal capacity, duration of sequestration, optimal locations, support infrastructure, high costs, and long-term financing. Additionally, these technologies must be advanced in a way that does not perpetuate or exacerbate the inequality and environmental injustices that continue to harm many California communities.

Given these open questions and the need to accelerate the build-out of carbon removal facilities in California, federal and state leaders face an urgent opportunity to develop policies and programs that support rapid deployment, particularly of early demonstration projects.

California and federal leaders can adopt a suite of high-priority policy solutions to boost this early deployment of engineered carbon removal:

–Establish a statewide single point of contact for engineered carbon removal project incentives, permitting, and oversight.

–Identify project and infrastructure corridors best suited for new development to conduct pre-permitting environmental, land use, and community review.

–Develop environmental review guidelines specific to carbon removal projects.

–Consider adjusting the Low Carbon Fuel Standard’s carbon capture protocol to support project financing by increasing the program’s carbon intensity requirement beyond 2030, among other changes.

These steps will help facilitate early-stage deployment of the most promising and innovative solutions. In the process, California can harness its deep bench of private sector, university, and research laboratory innovators. As with renewable energy and electric vehicles, it may take several years to reduce the cost and demonstrate success for engineered carbon removal. Given the urgency of climate change, however, state leaders should act now to begin the process and expand the conversation on how these technologies can best be deployed, ensuring California’s national leadership position on this next generation of climate-fighting technologies.

Editor’s Note: Ethan Elkind is the director of the Climate Program and Katie Segal is a research fellow at UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. They co-authored Capturing Opportunity: Law and Policy Solutions to Accelerate Engineered Carbon Removal in California (UC Berkeley/UCLA Law).


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