Who dreams beyond the cloud?
Time passes, the trees burn... and a new era unwinds under an unfamiliar sky. To keep Earth's temperature rise below +2ºC, humanity has to discover how to liberate over a TRILLION TONS of carbon dioxide from its cage in the atmosphere! The challenge is tremendous, the stakes sky-high, and we will have to make full use of our plants and technology just to survive.
How the cloud got so big
The world has emitted about 1.5 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels since the start of the Industrial Revolution7 (2.4 trillion if you include emissions from land use changes1). Roughly 60% of that has been absorbed by the land and the ocean with the rest staying in the atmosphere,2 leaving us with an excess of up to a trillion tons of atmospheric CO2 above pre-industrial levels.
However, we don’t necessarily need to get back to pre-industrial levels of CO2 in the atmosphere to maintain a livable planet. In 1770 the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was around 270 parts per million (ppm), but the safe limit is likely 350 ppm.3 As of the time of this writing, however, atmospheric concentrations are around 420 ppm, which we are just beginning to feel the warming effects of globally.
To get back to 350 ppm, technically we need to remove a little over 300 billion tons2 of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We can accomplish this by deploying carbon dioxide removal projects at a large scale. However, atmospherically speaking, there is one major caveat – the actual amount of carbon dioxide removal needed may be four times as much. The reason for this is that after large scale carbon dioxide removal, some amount of CO2 inevitably ends up back in the atmosphere.4,8 This is due to planetary feedback.6 A climate modeling study that examined the effects of large scale carbon dioxide removal found that only about 25% of the carbon dioxide that was removed from the atmosphere actually stayed removed after 100 years.5
So, in order to get back to 350 ppm we have to remove 300 billion metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, but in order to do that we actually have to remove 1.2 trillion tons. But who’s counting?
How much will it cost?
Right now, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere reliably is expensive, usually around $300 per metric ton of CO2. Let's say, however, that the industry achieves its goal of $100/ton. Adding it all up, that means it would cost $120 trillion dollars to remove all the CO2 we need in order to maintain a livable planet. This is an extremely large amount of money.
To put it in perspective, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the entire world was estimated to be around $104 trillion in 2022, which means that $120 trillion is more than the annual economic output of the entire planet.
Where do we begin?
We need to invest in early stage CDR solutions TODAY so that they can scale massively tomorrow. One way you can do that is by sending carbon removal greeting cards from Thanks a Ton to your friends, family, loved ones, coworkers, clients, or even your pets! We have a wide variety of cards and carbon removal methods to choose from that can be sent for as little as $5 all the way up to the price of a ton. Send a greeting card today and be part of the climate solution!
1 Bergman, A., & Rinberg, A. (2021) The case for carbon dioxide removal: From science to justice" CDR Primer, Chapter 1. https://cdrprimer.org/read/chapter-1
2 Friedlingstein, P., O'sullivan, M., Jones, M. W., Andrew, R. M., Gregor, L., Hauck, J., ... & Zheng, B. (2022). Global carbon budget 2022. Earth System Science Data, 14(11), 4811-4900. doi.org/10.5194/essd-14-4811-2022
3 Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., Beerling, D., Berner, R., Masson-Delmotte, V., ... & Zachos, J. C. (2008). Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2, 217–231.
4 Jones, C. D., Ciais, P., Davis, S. J., Friedlingstein, P., Gasser, T., Peters, G. P., ... & Wiltshire, A. (2016). Simulating the Earth system response to negative emissions. Environmental Research Letters, 11(9), 095012. doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/11/9/095012
5 Keller, D. P., Lenton, A., Scott, V., Vaughan, E.N., Bauer, N., Ji, D., … & Zickfeld, K. (2018). The Carbon Dioxide Removal Model Intercomparison Project (CDRMIP): Rationale and experimental protocol for CMIP6. Geoscientific Model Development 11(3), 1133–60. doi.org/10.5194/gmd-11-1133-2018
6 Keller, D.P., Lenton, A., Littleton, E.W. et al. The Effects of Carbon Dioxide Removal on the Carbon Cycle (2018). Curr Clim Change Rep 4, 250–265. doi.org/10.1007/s40641-018-0104-3
7 Our World in Data. (2021). Cumulative CO₂ emissions by world region. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from ourworldindata.org/grapher/cumulative-co2-emissions-region?stackMode=absolute
8 Tokarska, K. B., & Zickfeld, K. (2015). The effectiveness of net negative carbon dioxide emissions in reversing anthropogenic climate change. Environmental Research Letters, 10(9), 094013. doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/9/094013