Could carbon dioxide removal help California meet its climate change goals?

California has established a goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 or sooner, and net-negative emissions thereafter. Achieving this goal will require aggressive emissions reductions and the phase-out of fossil fuels. It is also expected that it will require some carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and the steady scale up of technologies that physically remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

In this blog post, we review findings related to the role that CDR could play in California’s transition to net-zero and net-negative emissions. We show how a CDR strategy could support a number of key challenges facing the state, including wildfire risk reduction. We conclude by highlighting policy barriers and opportunities, including how establishing a regional CO2 storage hub in California is a critical gateway to deeply decarbonize the American West and achieve a national net-zero emissions goal.


The effects of climate change have never been more prevalent in the American West, with record-breaking droughts, deadly heatwaves, and catastrophic wildfires now defining features of the California experience. Disadvantaged and low-income communities often face the brunt of these disasters, and rarely have the means to adapt. Ambitious climate change proposals are non-negotiable to begin the work of protecting these communities today, and future generations.

California has established a goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 or sooner, and net-negative emissions thereafter. Achieving this goal will require aggressive emissions reductions and the phase-out of fossil fuels. It is also expected that it will require some carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and the steady scale up of technologies that physically remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Since late 2018, Conservation Strategy Group has been collaborating with a small group of experts, including from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, and more recently Princeton University, to understand what role – if any – CDR could play in supporting California’s climate and clean energy goals. We highlight the findings of these ongoing collaborations below, as well as policy solutions that could support a sustainable deployment of CDR technologies in California.

What is CDR? What are CDR technologies?

Carbon dioxide removal refers to actions that physically remove CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. Unlike mitigation approaches which prevent CO2 from being emitted, CDR has the added potential of restoring the climate once global warming is stabilized (at, we hope, a temperature increase of 1.5°C to 2°C). This is because, even when we reach net-zero emissions, it will be necessary to remove excess emissions that have been building in the atmosphere and causing the climate impacts we are seeing today.

CDR can be achieved via natural or technological solutions. Examples of natural solutions include reforestation and soil carbon sequestration. Examples of technological solutions include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture (DAC). While natural solutions are important for a variety of ecological reasons, they have a limited and uncertain CDR potential, and also risk being reversed (e.g. wildfire). In contrast, BECCS and DAC hold large-scale, reliable and permanent CDR potential.

What are some concerns with CDR technologies? What are the benefits?

BECCS and DAC are newer technologies that are not yet widely available as a climate solution. In the case of BECCS, a key concern is that the use of bioenergy crops could crowd-out farm and conservation lands, and strain water resources. In the case of DAC, a key concern is that its high energy demand could perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. More broadly, there is a concern that a focus on developing CDR technologies may distract from more readily available climate solutions, such as renewable energy.

Yet, it is clear that without developing these technologies, it will not be possible to restore the climate system. There is a compelling ethical argument that Global North countries that are most responsible for climate change ought to take the lead to commercialize these technologies for global benefit, and themselves target net-negative (as opposed to net-zero) ambitions. In addition, there are emissions sources in most economies that may be impossible to fully eliminate by mid-century, such as animal agriculture, planes, ships, some trucking, and some industrial processes. CDR could compensate for these residual sources, before added CDR can then take economies net-negative.

What role should CDR play in California?

Balancing these factors, we considered the role for CDR in California. We found that California has highly favorable attributes to deploy BECCS and DAC in a manner that is sustainable, fair, effective, and safe, and is also capable of creating a host of environmental and social co-benefits. We outline these below:

  • First, California has an abundance of biomass waste, including forest, agricultural and municipal solid waste streams that are otherwise open burned, landfilled, or left to decay in fields. By developing a ‘circular economy’ BECCS strategy around biomass waste feedstocks, this avoids competition with farm and conservation lands and places no added demand on water resources.
  • Second, diverting this biomass waste to create renewable energy products (e.g. green hydrogen; renewable natural gas) avoids short-lived climate “super pollutant” emissions in the forms of methane and black carbon. Rapid and drastic reductions in short-lived climate super pollutant emissions is considered critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
  • Third, deploying BECCS infrastructure can support wildfire risk reduction in California. A key implication of the state’s ambition to increase forest management to reduce fire risk, is that this will generate hundreds of millions of new tons of biomass residues. A high-value outlet for these residues, such as conversion to renewable biofuels, could support the cost of forest treatments.
  • Fourth, California has an abundance of presently unutilized geothermal resources that could support renewable DAC projects. DAC is an energy intensive technology that requires heat. Geothermal resources that are either not suitable for electricity generation, or where existing electricity projects produce waste heat, could support renewable DAC projects.
  • Fifth, California has access to world-class geologic storage reservoirs located along the Central Valley, which can support low-cost, safe, and permanent underground CO2 storage. This is a unique asset that is likely necessary to support deep decarbonization across the American West.
  • Sixth, there is a significant amount of hard-to-eliminate emissions sources in California, including animal agriculture and the airline and shipping industries. These three sources alone generate 30 Mt of CO2 per year that may need to be offset. This also assumes that there will be zero other sources remaining (e.g., from gas-powered trucks; industry; wildfire) in 2045, which is uncertain.
  • Seventh, CDR deployment could create substantial job and economic development opportunities in California, particularly in disadvantaged communities. California’s abundance of biomass waste could support a cutting-edge manufacturing capability focused on producing renewable liquid and gaseous transportation fuels to support the state’s clean energy transition. Geothermal DAC could enable communities to leverage available resources that are otherwise unutilized, creating jobs and enhancing local tax revenues to support local priorities. Finally, deployment of CO2 transport and storage networks could allow at-risk oil and gas workers to repurpose their skills in CO­2 geologic assessment, project siting, drill rig and CO2 pipeline construction and operation, and synthetic and biofuels refining, distribution and storage. 

CDR in California as a national priority

CDR can play a specific role in California’s climate portfolio – that is, by compensating for certain hard-to-eliminate emissions sources, and driving economy-wide net-negative emissions. Recent research suggests that deploying CDR in this way is not only important for state goals, but also national goals.

In a recent first-of-its-kind study, Princeton University explored what it would take for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The study highlighted the importance of carbon capture, utilization and storage in almost all scenarios, and the likely need for the U.S. to be sequestering at least 1 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050, with about 50% of this amount coming from CDR pathways (i.e., BECCS and DAC-with-storage). Figure 1 highlights the role of the American West in such pathways, and how the only reliable CO2 storage sites in this region are in California. As a result, CO2 pipelines must extend from the Central Valley to support deep decarbonization goals in other Western states. This presents an opportunity for federal partnership, with both the White House and Department of Energy having made clear commitments to support the research, development and demonstration of CDR technologies.

Fig. 1: This diagram illustrates the extensive CO2 transport and storage networks necessary to achieve net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050. The red circle highlights how the only reliable CO2 storage sites in the American West are in California (shaded in gray). Due to the Rocky Mountain range, a separate Western States CO2 transport and storage network is required. Therefore, CA’s ability to deploy CDR is not only important for state goals, but also national goals.  Source: Princeton University (2020)

Policy barriers and opportunities

There are a number of barriers that currently limit the ability to deploy CDR projects in California. For example, in the case of carbon-negative forest biofuels, project developers are unable to obtain reliable, long-term feedstock supplies as well as incentives under the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard and federal Renewable Fuel Standard programs. We are actively working on resolving these barriers. Another promising pathway is renewable DAC, which presents a significant global leadership opportunity for California. Public funding to support capital costs is needed to incentivize the small (but growing) handful of DAC companies to build demonstration and large-scale projects in California.

A final common barrier for BECCS and DAC projects is the ability to perform CO2 transport and storage. CO2 transport and storage projects in this context are challenging to execute due to multiple separate actors along the value chain (Fig. 2). CO2 capture entities (e.g., bioenergy developers) usually lack the capability to develop CO2 storage. As a result, committing to CO2 capture presents a significant business risk that outweighs available incentives (e.g., Low Carbon Fuel Standard; federal 45Q tax credit).

Fig. 2: This diagram highlights the multiple actors along the CO2 value chain. As each actor has their individual expertise, cooperation is required to establish the value chain. However, dependence on others creates counterparty risk. Policies to “de-risk” this value chain are required to incentivize each of the entities to perform their function. By comparison, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects are usually vertically-integrated, meaning that the same company is responsible for each of the functions. This substantially reduces value chain risk, and is a key reason why these projects can be economically-viable.

To resolve this chicken-or-egg problem, the state could establish a new public authority to finance, build, and operate one or more 5-10 Mt per year CO2 storage sites (or ‘hubs’). In this instance, bioenergy and DAC developers are more likely to either retrofit or add CO2 capture to projects in the confidence that they will be able to offload their CO2 to a dedicated entity responsible for its permanent storage. The storage entity could charge a “storage fee” to capture entities to fund its operations. The public authority business model could give way to alternate operating models in the future (e.g. private utilities). Promising locations to site initial hubs could be in the Delta region, which is proximate to an abundance of woody agricultural and forestry residues. Another option could be near Bakersfield, which presents a near-term opportunity to support large volumes of CO2 captured from nearby cement facilities, and then overtime extend a CO2 pipeline network to Southern California geothermal fields.

A proactive policy intervention of this nature can allow the state to shape the trajectory of CO2 transport and storage projects, such that they meet robust and uniform environmental standards, as well as other state priorities. If the state chooses to wait and let projects develop organically, there is a risk that disparate local standards are developed. In addition, the state is more likely to face organized opposition to public benefit projects to achieve state climate goals if an industry is able to establish in the interim.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimated that CDR technologies could provide 150 Mt of greenhouse gas mitigation per year to support California’s net-zero and net-negative emissions goals. This is a significant potential. As infrastructure projects have long lead times, allocating some investments and setting some proactive policies today can ensure that CDR technologies might be a real option to support multiple state priorities, including those related to climate change, wildfire, jobs, and economic development.

For more information, please contact Sam Uden ( or Amanda DeMarco (

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