March 6, 2023

TIME CO2 Framework for Climate Action

The scientific evidence is conclusive: human activity is significantly increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to global warming and disrupting the Earth's climate system. We are now faced with a critical choice: either take action to mitigate (reduce and remove greenhouse gases) and adapt (build resilience to climate change impacts such as floods, fires, storms, and droughts), or suffer the dire consequences.

Success is within reach, but we must act urgently, collectively, and decisively. Here, we lay out our concise mitigation framework for what the world needs in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

We must limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C

Science has not only sounded the alarm, but also clearly defined humanity’s climate goal. We must do everything we can to prevent the planet from warming beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Exceeding this threshold will result in catastrophic loss of life, biodiversity collapse, and economic ruin. We have already reached warming of 1.2°C, and are currently on track to exceed 2.7 °C warming within the century.

According to the recent IPCC report (6th Assessment report, WG3, “Mitigation of Climate Change), limiting this global temperature rise requires us to not only achieve “net zero emissions” by 2050, but to start immediately and make continuous progress every year. This can be achieved through the implementation of “the carbon law,” which requires us to reduce emissions by half every decade for the next thirty years. The carbon law applies to all sectors and all scales—governments, companies, and even individuals.

Rockström, Gaffney, Rogelj, Meinshausen, Nakicenovic, Schellnhuber. Science. 24 March 2017

The climate needs a portfolio of solutions

In the simplest terms, the climate crisis requires a diverse portfolio of solutions to effectively mitigate the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is a complex and daunting task that demands both emission reduction and carbon removal strategies.

Climate change is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can accomplish this task. Each approach has its own unique set of benefits and limitations, ranging from scientific certainty, cost, scalability, geopolitical risks, durability, susceptibility to wildfires, secondary impacts, and more.

Nature-based solutions are scalable, affordable, and can provide immediate but short-lived carbon reduction benefits. Many newer carbon removal technologies, on the other hand, show potential for permanent carbon removal but are very expensive, technologically risky, and not yet available at scale. Therefore, we need to invest in a diverse range of solutions, and continuously assess their efficacy and feasibility to achieve our climate goals.

Exponential Emission Reduction Pathways to Limit Global Warming to 1.5°C, Exponential Roadmap Initiative Version 2.0, 2022.

We must get to net-zero and nature-positive through four approaches

While climate change is often framed as solely an issue of greenhouse gases and temperature change, there is growing recognition that it is inextricably linked with both the integrity of natural ecosystems and environmental justice.

Natural ecosystems absorb half of all human CO2 emissions. Even if we stopped all emissions today, a stable climate can't be achieved while we continue to destroy nature. Meanwhile, the poorest humans in the world will suffer the most from climate change despite being the least responsible for causing it. Therefore, a just transition to a net-zero, nature-positive world is essential.

There are four concrete approaches to achieve our climate goals. We cannot afford to choose among them—we must support them all.

  1. Reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses. Also known as decarbonization, this requires transitioning away from fossil fuels, the main source of CO2 emissions.

  2. Remove CO2 that has already been emitted from the atmosphere, either through natural or engineered carbon sinks. Even with full decarbonization, we will still need to remove 6-10 Gt of CO2 per year by 2050.

  3. Protect the integrity of the world’s natural (land and ocean) carbon sinks, which continuously absorb approximately half of the CO2 emitted by humans.

  4. Innovate to accelerate existing approaches and create better conditions for reduction, removal and protection programs.

We cannot afford to choose among these approaches—we must support them all.

Approach 1: Reduce emissions

Addressing climate change requires a global transition to a low-carbon economy, and an opportunity to transform every industry to be modern and sustainable. This encompasses where and how we live, travel, farm, manufacture, consume, and trade. There are ample, well-understood mechanisms for change—every business has multiple operations that can be redesigned to be low-carbon, both internally and across their supply chain. Policy changes, tactical investments, and strategic changes can dramatically reduce emissions while also creating cost and performance improvements with outsized returns in relatively short time frames.

Every business needs a plan to systematically invest in these changes. However, businesses acting on their own will generally not be able to fully decarbonize due to a lack of supporting infrastructure and enabling technologies at scale. Therefore, in addition to internal corporate efforts, collective resources are needed to make progress at an infrastructural, industry-wide level in key areas. These six focus areas reflect both the major sources of global emissions and the greatest opportunities for reductions:

  1. Electrify everything. Upgrading tools and infrastructure to electric will allow us to power them using renewable energy. Electrifying the transportation sector will achieve the largest gains.

  2. Decarbonize the grid. We must move from an electricity system powered by fossil fuels to one powered by renewable energy. Grid capacity must grow to supply more electricity to power all the newly electrified cars, houses and industries.

  3. Improve industrial processes. Making plastics, steel, iron, aluminum and cement consumes a lot of energy. Reimagining these industries via circular models, low-carbon materials, and efficient production processes will drastically reduce our energy needs.

  4. Build more sustainably. Urbanization has caused a rise in construction-related emissions. Heating and cooling buildings also requires enormous amounts of energy, typically from fossil fuels. We need to make our buildings more energy-efficient and build walkable cities with sustainable shared spaces.

  5. Grow food more sustainably. Food production is the largest driver of land use change and emissions from deforestation. We must drastically reduce food waste, shift to plant-based diets, and increase the productivity of land. This includes combatting mangrove loss caused by aquaculture and coastal development.

  6. Address non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions. Up to 25% of global warming is caused by gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases, which can have incredibly potent or long-lived effects. We must address the release of these gases by improving agricultural and industrial processes.

Approach 2: Remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

We can’t achieve net-zero by reducing emissions alone. The clear scientific consensus is that we must also remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as possible. Although the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is high enough to cause climate change, CO2 is still only 0.04% of the atmosphere. This makes it challenging to remove.

While plants, trees, and algae already remove CO2 through photosynthesis, it is not enough. We need to both enhance nature's ability to absorb CO2 and develop new industrial-scale removal technologies. The following six solution sets show the greatest potential:

  1. Trees. We must reforest degraded land and restore forest ecosystems at a scale never seen before. Effective reforestation requires efforts to scale natural regeneration, ensure native species diversity in planted areas, resilience to future climate impacts, and the involvement of local communities.

  2. Soil carbon. A large portion of Earth’s land-based carbon is contained in soils. While new technologies are helping quantify soil carbon storage potential, it is clear that converting land-based ecosystems to farmland has played a significant role in climate change. To reverse course, we must scale up regenerative agricultural and grazing management practices.

  3. Ocean-based carbon removals. As the world’s largest carbon and heat sink, the oceans are a marvel, canceling out ~25% of annual CO2 emissions. While we take this gift for granted, it may not last. We must restore the health of our coastlines and oceans and carefully test new ocean-based carbon removal technologies (adding substances to ocean water to enhance the natural carbon sink via fertilization or alkalization).

  4. Biochar and bio-oil. Heating organic waste at very high temperatures without oxygen (called pyrolysis) produces biochar and bio-oil, which can be distributed onto soils or pumped underground to provide long-term carbon removal. There is significant promise in converting agricultural and forestry waste into biochar and bio-oil at scale.

  5. Enhanced rock weathering and geologic sequestration. Rocks that contain high concentrations of iron, calcium, magnesium, and other metals naturally react with CO2 in the atmosphere over long periods of time to form stable minerals and permanently sequester carbon. We can dramatically speed up the process by crushing these cheap and abundant rocks into powder and spreading it over land or water, or otherwise to inject concentrated CO2 into these rocks. We need to develop strategies for doing so safely at scale.

  6. Direct Air Capture (DAC). Using chemical and physical processes, DAC plants capture CO2 from the air and inject it deep underground. These technologies are promising but extremely expensive, and require a lot of electricity and heat. We need further technological innovation to make DAC scalable and efficient.

Approach 3: Protect natural carbon sinks

Certain ecosystems on our planet are so vital, so densely packed with life, that their loss would be particularly catastrophic. These ecologically intact old growth forests, peatlands, and mangroves contain huge amounts of ‘irrecoverable carbon’. If we were to lose these areas to deforestation, degradation, or disturbance, the carbon stored there would be effectively irrecoverable. These habitats are fragile, at risk, and struggling to obtain necessary funding for protection. However, carbon markets have not not supported the protection of most of these lands, as they have been designed instead to fund programs that stop deforestation where damage is actively being done.

As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It is absolutely imperative that we protect existing troves of irrecoverable carbon to avoid making the challenge of climate change much harder. The good news is that we know where these hotspots are—75% of all irrecoverable carbon on the planet is contained within less than 14% of Earth’s land area, and this same land supports 91% of all vertebrate species. The bad news is that nearly three quarters of them lie outside of existing protected or managed areas. To protect these natural carbon sinks, we need to:

  1. Set up and scale programs that identify the local threats to these areas and put in place adequate counter-measures. These may include education, financial incentives such as payments for ecosystem services, and livelihoods programs, to name a few.

  2. Support Indigenous guardianship. Indigenous Peoples perform comprise only 6% of global population, but protect over one-third of all irrecoverable carbon. We must value and support Indigenous stewardship and the cultural legacy of reciprocity with the natural world.

Approach 4: Accelerate climate innovation

Halving CO2 every decade requires that major changes are made to how we live and work. In many areas, we will need to rely on new technologies that are still being researched or commercialized. We not only need innovation to arrive as quickly as possible, we need to ensure that we engage with it responsibly. Financing vehicles like venture capital play an important role in accelerating progress, but only fund particular types of companies. We also need to support a broader ecosystem to create the conditions that foster greater innovation. This includes:

  1. Improve capabilities for monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV). In order to ensure that a climate project has the impact expected, it must be monitored, reported on, and verified by third parties. This is challenging to do well, and requires so much time and resources that it can prevent smaller projects from launching. The entire MRV process needs to be faster, more accurate, and cheaper. Advancements in remote sensing and technology are key.

  2. Pilot more projects. There’s no lack of good ideas. What’s needed is the proof that they can work, be deployed, and adopted. We must speed up the piloting of regenerative agriculture and circular economy models.

  3. Provide advance market commitments. New technologies and approaches are often costly at the start, and become cheaper at scale. Providing commitments to purchase early on provides innovators with the security they need to continue development. For example, Germany’s substantial commitments to purchase solar panels early on drove innovation up and prices down across the industry. This also happens at a micro level. We need to create greater upfront market demand for promising, yet early technologies.

  4. Level the playing field. Many communities, especially in the developing world, are unable to turn their activities into climate related programs. This is largely because they lack access to the necessary data, mapping tools, and project financing. We must democratize data and better support the innovation potential of underserved and underrepresented communities.

We must urgently advance all of these approaches in parallel. With TIME CO2’s portfolios, companies of all sizes can now contribute to a comprehensive mitigation plan that leaves no solution or lever behind. Our goal is to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere by preventing emissions, removing it from the atmosphere, protecting natural carbon stores, and accelerating innovation that supports all pathways. These four approaches are not mutually exclusive nor are they a menu of options. Only a holistic approach that maximizes impact across all these areas will lead to a net-zero, nature-positive future.

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Shyla Raghav

Co-Founder, Chief Portfolio and Partnership Officer, TIME CO2. UC Irvine & Yale grad. Has shaped climate programs at World Bank, UN, and Conservation Int'l.