Lawrence Livermore Releases Landmark Report Highlighting Pathways to Achieve Carbon Neutrality in California by 2045

On January 30th, 2020, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) released a first-of-its-kind report which identifies and quantifies the negative emissions opportunities that would enable California to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 or sooner.

“Negative emissions” refers to the physical removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as through natural climate solutions (e.g. soil carbon sequestration) or technological solutions (e.g. carbon capture and storage). California’s current emissions reduction trajectory estimates that by 2045 approximately 125 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MMTCO2e) emissions will remain in the economy, including in hard-to-decarbonize transportation, industrial and agricultural applications. Therefore, to reach carbon neutrality, an equal amount of negative emissions is needed to compensate for this shortfall. The LLNL report identifies where we can find these negative emissions in the state, their potential scale, cost, as well as what it would mean for California to lead on negative emissions.

Key Strategies

The report identifies three major negative emissions strategies for California, which are outlined below. While these strategies could be combined in various ways to achieve the 125 MMTCO2e goal, we highlight the lowest cost pathway below, as identified by LLNL, which includes maximizing natural and waste biomass solutions first, before meeting remaining needs through Direct Air Capture technology.

  • Natural solutions: Natural solutions encompass activities, including various Natural and Working Lands restoration, to increase carbon uptake in trees and soils. Natural solutions are the least expensive negative emissions strategy, averaging $11/ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere. However, natural solutions are  limited, capable of contributing maximum negative emissions of 25 MMTCO2e/year (or 20% of the needed 125 MMTCO2e goal) from 2045.
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  • Waste biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS): California generates 56 million tons of waste biomass annually, including from fuels reduction forest management work, agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, and more (see Figure 1). This waste biomass is typically burned in piles, resulting in serious public health impacts, landfilled, or left to decay in fields and on the forest floor. Converting this waste biomass to renewable biofuels with CCS poses the most significant negative emissions opportunity for the state. Captured CO2 would be transported and permanently stored deep underground in safe geologic storage sites, for which there is significant capacity in California. Waste biomass solutions range from $29-$64/ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, and could contribute negative emissions of 84 MMTCO2e/year (or 67% of the needed 125 MMTCO2e goal) from 2045.
  • Direct Air Capture (DAC): For remaining negative emissions, DAC technology can be deployed. DAC is the most expensive option, but has nearly unlimited technical capacity, provided its energy needs can be met from a low-carbon source. Some DAC will be required to achieve carbon neutrality in California. Currently, DAC solutions range from $193-201/ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, and could generate negative emissions of 16+ MMTCO2e/year (or 13% of the needed 125 MMTCO2e goal) from 2045.

Figure 1: This Figure highlights the waste biomass available in California per county. Significant volumes of forest waste are available in Northern California, while the Central Valley provides a lot of agricultural waste, and Southern California provides substantial municipal solid waste.   Source: LLNL report (2020)

Figure 2: This Figure highlights the lowest cost pathway for California to achieve 125 MMTCO2e/yr negative emissions and economywide carbon neutrality by 2045. The pathway includes the deployment of natural climate solutions (green), biomass waste with CCS (blue), and Direct Air Capture (orange).   Source: LLNL report (2020)

Key Takeaways

LLNL estimates that it would cost the state less than $10 billion/year, or 0.4% of current GDP, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, and that as the proposed solution focuses on achieving negative emissions in-state, the majority of this funding would be spent on local jobs and local industry. Moreover, by producing high-value end products like biofuels, it is anticipated that this could drive significant revenue streams into Natural and Working Lands restoration, particularly to support fuels reduction work in the state’s forests. Finally, the use and scale of CCS technology could help facilitate a just transition for the state’s oil and gas industry by creating new jobs in low income Central Valley communities.

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2045 presents a substantially more challenging task for California compared to existing climate goals. However, LLNL’s groundbreaking report demonstrates that it’s possible. By implementing negative emissions strategies, California can once again lead the nation and the world in pioneering the solutions to fight global climate change.

Conservation Strategy Group has been proud to support Roger Aines and the LLNL team’s efforts to develop this report since it was conceived over a year ago. CSG has since been working to determine the sets of policies which would unlock negative emissions opportunities in California, including how to scale the deployment of next generation waste biomass facilities and CCS. For more information on this work or the LLNL report, please contact Sam Uden (sam@csgcalifornia.com), who through his capacity at the University of Queensland was a contributing author of the study.

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