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Research highlights the concerning tendency to excessively depend on future CO₂ removal methods

Governments and businesses are placing too much reliance on future carbon dioxide (CO2) removal from the atmosphere instead of taking immediate action to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuels, according to new research published in the journal Science. The study suggests that the potential for carbon dioxide removal, as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is overestimated and fails to consider the harmful consequences for people, food security, and ecosystems.

The researchers argue that recent advancements in scientific understanding have allowed for a more accurate assessment of carbon dioxide removal options and their sustainability risks. Lead author Alexandra Deprez explains that the scale of carbon dioxide removal proposed by governments and industries poses serious threats to food security, human rights, and natural ecosystems.

The study examined the scientific literature that informed the most recent IPCC reports and the pathways to limit global warming to 1.5°C. It found that the thresholds for land-based carbon dioxide removal, such as bioenergy crops and tree-planting, are much lower than what is currently proposed. Co-author Prof. Paul Leadley warns that the proposed levels of carbon dioxide removal create high risks for agriculture, livelihoods, and the environment, as there simply isn’t enough land on Earth to accommodate large-scale removal efforts.

The researchers also analyzed existing climate commitments and found that countries plan to produce twice the amount of fossil fuels recommended in the IPCC pathways. Additionally, they estimate that land-based carbon removal could potentially push over 300 million people into food insecurity. Co-author Dr. Kate Dooley emphasizes that carbon dioxide removal should not be used to offset ongoing fossil fuel emissions, and that government climate plans should prioritize emission reductions and restoration of natural ecosystems.

In light of their findings, the researchers make three recommendations to policymakers and scientists. They suggest estimating a sustainable carbon dioxide removal budget based on socio-ecological limits, identifying viable pathways to limit global warming without exceeding sustainability thresholds, and allocating limited carbon dioxide removal resources to the most legitimate uses.

The study also calls on the scientific community to inform the upcoming cycle of IPCC reports, focusing on scenarios that align with the goals of the Paris Agreement without overstepping sustainability limits. Alexandra Deprez emphasizes the need for a smaller-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal alongside a rapid transition away from fossil fuels to effectively address the climate and biodiversity crises.

Overall, the research highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of carbon dioxide removal and its potential risks, as well as the importance of prioritizing emission reductions and ecosystem restoration in climate action plans.

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