A local forester planting trees on a hillside in the Jaguari watershed near Extrema, Brazil. ©Scott Warren

Quick Take: How we can afford carbon capture right now

I recently came across a thought-provoking piece by Thor Benson on The Verge, in which he argues that carbon removal strategies may be too expensive to be effective.

I can relate to that sentiment first hand.

During my years working on low-carbon innovation in the energy sector, I was struck by the time, effort and many millions of dollars the industry was investing to explore how to engineer a way to capture and store carbon dioxide below the earth’s surface.

Meanwhile, as with many things, nature had already figured out a scalable, cost effective solution —natural carbon storage.

The global community continues to underestimate the opportunity we have right now to harness nature’s carbon storage capacity.

While Benson makes mention of trees’ and soil’s ability to store carbon (linking to a Yale Environment 360 piece on soil carbon), the piece does not explore nature’s ability to cost-effectively help us remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Benson cites cost estimates for “open air carbon capture” at anywhere from $200 to $1000 per ton of CO2. And the cost of carbon capture and storage (CCS) from stationary sources such as coal power plants has been estimated at anywhere between $90 and $150 per ton.

Meanwhile, the cost of improving land use to absorb more carbon is often less than $20 per ton – potentially more than 80 percent cheaper than power plant CCS estimates.

And the co-benefits—improved and expanded forest community livelihoods, greater food and water security, and critical biodiversity protection—are equally profound.

Nature, in short, is the ultimate carbon sequestration machine. But we have to do more to seize the opportunity.

If we get it right, The Nature Conservancy estimates that natural systems could mitigate approximately 25 percent of total annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions each year.

We can get there by focusing on:

  • Restoring large swaths of degraded land – we estimate the current potential at 2 billion hectares – into new forest area as well as productivity for food;
  • Improving land management, such as increasing extended rotation logging efforts, reducing fertilizer use on crop lands, and increasing the adoption of silvopastoral rangeland practices;
  • Promoting larger landscape-scale planning to better avoid harmful land conversion and optimize the value of standing forests and other systems to communities and economies; and
  • Increasing the corporate community’s pace in eliminating deforestation and unsustainable activity in supply chains — already a positive trend.

We are already seeing significant examples of success in Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, among other countries.

There is opportunity therefore both to increase the ability of our natural systems to absorb and store carbon and simultaneously to reduce emissions arising from poor land use.

Benson’s piece reasonably identifies cost as “the biggest hindrance to carbon capture.” But nature presents us with an affordable opportunity right now to provide a crucial bridge to a more sustainable low-carbon future.

Credit to Benson for exploring this critical issue. Nature deserves to be a central part of the discussion.


Justin Adams is the Global Managing Director for Lands at The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Justin on Twitter @JustinCMAdams.

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  1. What if every home in America planted just one tree in their yard, how much carbon could we absorb?

    1. Hi Becka, All of the variables involved make this a very difficult question to answer. I recommend looking at the US Forest Services iTree (https://www.itreetools.org/) to get a sense of the services, including carbon storage, that trees and forests provide.

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