Do We Need To Go Beyond Zero Emissions?
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Do We Need To Go Beyond Zero Emissions?

By Rachel Jaeger

Without going beyond zero emissions, it is now nearly impossible to reach the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. To reach zero emissions, we would need to globally eliminate carbon emissions—and at this point, even that’s not enough. Not only are there some sectors where it would be very difficult to completely eliminate carbon emissions, there is simply too much carbon already in the atmosphere for our planet to return to normal.

To go beyond net-zero emissions, we need to continue using carbon removal. Carbon removal involves using technological or natural means to remove excess carbon that has already been emitted into the atmosphere. With this technology, we can counteract current and past carbon emissions to save our planet.

The Worst-Case Scenario

Since 2010, average global greenhouse gas emissions have been at their highest ever. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that in order to stop global warming, we need to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To stay at this level involves the United States removing about 2 gigatons—a gigaton is 1 billion metric tons—of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. To put this into perspective, that is 30% of the United States’ emissions in 2019.

If we succeed in this goal by 2050, we are well on our way to stopping global warming. But it can’t stop there! Scientists predict that by the year 2100, we need to be globally removing up to 20 gigatons of CO2 per year.

Without reaching this goal, we face rising sea levels, increased forest fires, erratic weather patterns, destruction of animal habitats, and even human sickness and deaths due to air pollution.

Carbon Removal Options

There are two main categories of carbon removal—natural and technological.


Natural solutions are the most readily available form of carbon removal and includes processes like reforestation and afforestation. Where reforestation involves replanting trees where they had previously been cut down, afforestation is planting trees in a new place where there had not previously been a forest. As the trees take in and store carbon dioxide, planting more trees removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

Both reforestation and afforestation are cheap, easy carbon removal solutions. However, this is not a completely permanent solution. Trees can be easily cut down or burnt in a forest fire, which would then release that CO2 right back into the atmosphere. There is also limited land space for large forests.


One new form of long-term technological carbon removal is direct air capture. As the name implies, direct air capture involves catching the CO2 while it is in the air, where it is then “permanently disposed of in geological formations or turned into rock.” This type of technology offers more permanent storage than reforestation, as carbon can stay locked within rocks for thousands of years.

Other methods of technological carbon removal include soil carbon sequestration, which locks carbon in soil using agriculture; biochar, which captures CO2 in charcoal; and enhanced mineralization, which absorbs CO2 from the air by spreading crushed rocks over large pieces of land.


Though we have made great progress with carbon removal in recent years, there are still several major roadblocks in our path to zero emissions. One of the main ones is with technology. These technology processes are still in development, and most are very small scale. As zero emissions is a recent goal, our technology is not very advanced, and to reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, we need to advance our technology quickly. Doing so would require full global commitment from governments and a willingness to fund experimental projects.

This leads into another issue—cost. Direct air capture “costs $250-600 per ton of CO2.” If the United States needs to remove 2 gigatons of CO2 per year, that comes to 500 billion dollars, at the low end. Obviously, we need to work on creating better technology to drive prices down to more reasonable costs.

Finally, organizations are struggling to come up with climate reduction techniques that the public universally agrees with. Many people disagree with some current technological techniques. As the plants created for carbon reduction also emit carbon, they don’t seem helpful on the surface. The public also doesn’t appreciate large plants built in their area, as they use their tax dollars and may be risky to the surrounding area if there are ever leaks within the plant.

Current Efforts

Although there are many challenges with going beyond zero emissions, climate organizations are working hard to overcome these challenges and reach their climate goals. As previously mentioned, direct air capture is one of the most promising efforts. There are currently 18 operational DAC plants across the United States, Europe, and Canada. Most of these plants are very small scale, and instead of storing the carbon in the ground, they use it for things like carbonated drinks.

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Map of Direct Air Capture Plants

In 2021, the world’s first large-scale DAC plant launched in Iceland. Created by Climeworks, the plant uses a brand-new technological design that allows the operators to control the plant from a distance. It can also capture up to 4,000 tons of CO2 per year, which is significantly higher than any other plant built so far.

While private organizations are developing their own climate reduction tactics, governments are also banding together to help go beyond zero emissions. Examples of this can be found all over the world in the ways governments are backing climate reduction organizations and creating their own projects. The United States recently funded a huge plan to create new DAC plants, and Sweden announced a massive campaign for increasing BECCS technology—another form of carbon capture similar to DAC.

What Next?

With all of these efforts, what work remains to be completed? Currently, we are globally removing about 2 billion tons of CO2 per year. While this is not where we need to be, this number has significantly increased in recent years. This number is mostly reached through natural means right now. As natural carbon reduction technology is much cheaper and easier and less controversial, many countries are prioritizing this technique.

This is good for right now, but to fully reach our climate goals and stop global warming, we need to be removing 20 billion tons of carbon globally per year by 2050. To do this, governments need to band together and back technological projects, which have the capability to reduce carbon significantly more than natural technology. If we continue to improve, we will be able to meet our goals and save our planet.

And you can help! One way to help is simply by adjusting your lifestyle slightly. Recycling, using LED light bulbs, and lowering your thermostats are all simple ways to lower your carbon footprint. Another way is to drive less and bike to work, or grab a friend and create a carpool group!

Pull to Refresh is working to combine nature and technology to remove excess CO2. By sinking seaweed to the bottom of the ocean, we are able to lock the carbon in the seaweed at the bottom of the ocean, stopping it from cycling back into the atmosphere.

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