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The tricky plan for “negative emissions”

Will carbon dioxide removal work? It has to.

Joss Fong is a founding member of the Vox video team and a producer focused on science and tech. She holds a master's degree in science, health, and environmental reporting from NYU.

In recent years, over 70 countries have committed to net-zero carbon emissions, aiming to become carbon neutral by mid-century. The 2015 Paris Agreement aimed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally limit it to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Despite global efforts, emissions are still rising, and achieving the 1.5-degree goal has become increasingly difficult.

Most pathways to keep warming below 2 degrees and eventually return back to 1.5 rely on negative emissions, which involve pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods like enhanced weathering and direct air capture.

However, these techniques are still in early development stages, and they require land, energy, and money. Critics argue that relying on CDR implicitly encourages governments and companies to postpone necessary emissions reductions because counting on CDR now means relying on future generations of leaders to deliver on those promises. Preventing emissions is broadly less costly than cleaning them up after the fact. But even with dramatic cuts to emissions, experts say some amount of CDR will still be necessary.

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