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Carbon Removal Can Help Your Company Reach Net Zero — Here’s How It Works

Curbing emissions will get you close to Net Zero. Carbon removal will get you to the finish line.

Two smoke stacks billowing smoke into the sky
[DuKai photographer / Getty]

Companies all over the world are trying to figure out how they can put less carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. And for good reason: reducing emissions is the most important priority in reaching net zero. To compensate for the remaining emissions, they’ll need to remove carbon they still emit into the atmosphere. 

By adding carbon removal and storage, also known as carbon sequestration, to their emissions efforts, businesses can take the final step to reach their net zero goals. To start, here are some clarifying definitions:   

  • Carbon removal happens when carbon dioxide is captured from the atmosphere, through various emerging technologies and natural carbon sinks.
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS) captures carbon at its source, such as a smokestack at a coal-fired power plant, and stores it underground. 
  • Carbon capture and use (CCU) occurs when captured carbon dioxide gets used in commercial products.

While companies should place their largest focus on reducing carbon emissions — in addition to investing in sustainable technologies like wind and solar energy — carbon removal is the next part of the carbon management equation. Most cannot remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere themselves, but they can invest in or buy credits from other companies that are developing technology to do so. Investing in new technologies to scale carbon removal will help better position the world for a time after reaching net zero. This is not a substitute for reducing emissions, but rather a potential complement to it at a time when companies need more solutions.

Global leaders at COP26 issued a harsh warning: the world faces a climate crisis if we can’t slow the warming of the planet by reaching net zero. This means reducing emissions first by half by 2030 and to near zero and removing any residual emissions by the middle of the century. Humanity needs to then focus on getting net negative, where people remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they add. 

The only way we’re going to stabilize the climate and start reversing climate damage is by capturing and storing carbon effectively.

Diana Fox Carney, Eurasia Group

In the preindustrial world, the atmosphere was in equilibrium and carbon dioxide levels were relatively stable, where carbon emissions were balanced with carbon removed by and sequestered in trees and oceans. Since the industrial revolution, humans have liberated carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from fossil fuels and increased atmospheric carbon levels at an alarming rate, which the natural environment cannot balance on its own. This leads to a warming of the planet and climate change. As a primary step, humans need to reduce their emissions, but more can and has to be done.

“The only way we’re going to stabilize the climate and start reversing climate damage is by capturing and storing carbon effectively,” said Diana Fox Carney, a global climate and energy policy expert and senior advisor at Eurasia Group. “We’re putting too much out there so we have to find more deliberate ways to pull the carbon back and store it.”

How carbon removal can aid your company’s sustainability 

This isn’t just about carbon removal, but a total change in how companies, governments, financial institutions, and frankly all humans operate. A recent Salesforce survey showed 64% of respondents believe emissions reductions should be a top priority for companies and that 77% of companies aren’t doing enough to address the climate crisis. 

A recent Salesforce survey showed 64% of respondents believe emissions reductions should be a top priority for companies and that 77% of companies aren’t doing enough to address the climate crisis.

Salesforce Survey

In addition to reducing overall carbon emissions through efficiency improvements, corporations can proactively invest in and use renewable energy like wind and solar while also working with companies in their supply chain that use eco-friendly methods like electric-based shipping. Once you’ve decarbonized your operations as far as possible, carbon removal credits will be a critical tool to offset your remaining emissions. Today, carbon avoidance credits are ready to deploy at scale like renewable energy and ecological conservation. Carbon removal credits focus on scaling other classes of solutions so they remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere later in the century.

“You can pay those who are doing this [work],” Fox Carney said. “Basically you need to pay the amount of money it takes to pull the unit of carbon out of the air.”

All of this work actively can move us to achieving net zero and getting the world to net negative, but it takes removing and storing carbon to do that. 

“Given we need to continue to produce carbon dioxide,” Fox Carney said, “we need something to pull that carbon out if we’re going to hope to get to net zero or net negative.”

So, what is carbon removal and storage?

Carbon removal and storage are the processes by which carbon dioxide gets extracted from the atmosphere and held through various methods. These can include turning it into rocks through mineralization, injecting it into concrete, or using it to carbonate soda. In other words: long term storage of carbon dioxide, which involves making large investments in new storage methods, Fox Carney said. 

“We need to invest heavily in it now,” Fox Carney said. “We’re past the point of having just one solution. Unless we invest in it now, we won’t be able to get the cost codes down and all the things we need to take it to scale.”

A number of companies and organizations around the world are working on new technologies and methods to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it. Project Vesta, for example, has developed Coastal Carbon Capture to utilize the ocean’s natural ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and enhance coastline resilience. Zurich-based Climeworks AG recently introduced Orca, a large-scale carbon removal and storage plant in Iceland that uses geothermal energy to suck carbon out of the air and pump it underground where it slowly cools and turns into stone. CarbonCapture, a climate tech company, recently raised $35 million (Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is an investor) to produce renewable-energy-powered, direct air-capture machines that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Aether Diamonds uses direct air-capture technology to turn carbon removed from the atmosphere into lab-grown diamonds, where each one-carat diamond made pulls 20 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. 

This carbon removal work is one tool in the overall quest to tackle climate change, but people need to fire on all cylinders if they want to achieve a net zero nature-positive world. Salesforce is committed to making that a reality and has a comprehensive plan to work towards that goal.

“I go back to that quote from John F. Kennedy about traveling to the moon — this is our moon shot,” said Max Scher, head of clean energy and carbon programs at Salesforce. “This is our Earth survival shot. We need to develop and invest in other long-term technologies we’ll need past 2030.”

Create more carbon sinks

There are a few ways to remove carbon and move it to carbon sinks, natural and manufactured places to store carbon. Carbon removals can be engineered using new technologies created by companies like Climeworks and CarbonCapture, which need continued investment to scale. We can also leverage nature to remove more carbon through oceans and trees

For example, algae and wild seaweed sequester 175 million metric tons of carbon annually while seagrass captures 10% of the oceans’ carbon and is 40 times more efficient at sequestering carbon than terrestrial sinks. On land, the world once had 6 trillion trees, but due to deforestation and forest fires, about half as many exist today, greatly shrinking a once-natural carbon sink. Growing trees to replace those lost is a beneficial way to create carbon sinks, but a strong effort needs to be put into conserving the world’s remaining trees. 

That’s why global leaders and heads of corporations have come together to work on ways to reduce emissions, conserve existing natural carbon sinks, and remove and sequester more carbon from the atmosphere. Marc and Lynne Benioff announced $200 million in new climate investments toward reforestation and restoration efforts. Salesforce is also giving $100 million funding in grants over the next 10 years to nonprofits working on ecosystem restoration and climate justice.

I’m more hopeful at this moment, in this year, than I have been in a while that we will make progress. But I’m also aware of how far we have to go.

Max Scher, Salesforce’s head of clean energy and carbon programs

Ecosystem conservation and restoration is so critical to removing carbon from the atmosphere. That why Salesforce co-founded, a global movement to conserve, restore, and grow one trillion trees by 2030. And other businesses are also doing their part. According to the World Economic Forum, HP is converting nearly 200,000 acres of forest in China and Brazil; Nestle is supporting forest restoration projects in western Africa; Apple is protecting 27,000 acres of mangrove forest in Colombia; and Bank of America is working with Arbor Day Foundation to expand tree canopy in urban communities in the U.S. At COP26 more than 130 countries, representing 90% of the world’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030.

“We need to try everything,” Scher said. “People are living the climate reality now. I’m more hopeful at this moment, in this year, than I have been in a while that we will make progress. But I’m also aware of how far we have to go.”

Ari Bendersky is a Chicago-based lifestyle journalist who has contributed to a number of leading publications including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal magazine, Men's Journal, and many more. He has written for brands as wide-ranging as Ace Hardware to Grassroots Cannabis and is a lead contributor to the Salesforce 360 Blog. He is also the co-host of the Overserved podcast, featuring long-form conversations with food and beverage personalities.

More by Ari

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