Negative Emission Technologies Won’t Save Us (yet)

And why we must proceed with caution.

Marcus Arcanjo
5 min readJan 10, 2019


Direct air capture technology. Credit: Carbon Engineering

By now, the dire situation we are in regarding carbon emissions and their contribution to a warming planet is not a secret.

We’re also familiar with what we can do at an individual level to reduce our footprint, namely implementing the Holy Trinity — flying and driving less, ditching the single-use plastic and reducing our meat consumption.

What’s less publicised is that these measures are unlikely to be enough to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement — limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 with efforts to reduce this to 1.5°C. We’re currently already at 1°C, with emissions rising in 2018 for the first time in four years. Even if all emissions stopped tomorrow morning, the level of carbon already in the atmosphere means that we would still miss these targets, by quite a long way.

In fact, warming projections for 2100 by Climate Action Tracker shows that a business-as-usual scenario — that is, if we were to do nothing about emissions — places us at 4.1– 4.8°C of warming. An analysis by Carbon Brief found that 4°C of warming would likely see economic damages from river flooding in the UK increase by 6,543% and the average drought length in North Africa rise to five years. That’s pretty rough by anyone’s standards.

The same study predicts that even with all the commitments and pledges, which are viewed as incredibly ambitious, the best we can do is a 2.6–3.2°C increase.

So, if cutting emissions isn’t enough, what can we do?

The answer being suggested, like so often, is technology. In short, we need to remove carbon that has already been emitted on top of continuing to pursue aggressive mitigation actions. Negative emissions technologies (NETs), in theory, allow us to undo some of the damage we have already done.

Source: World Resources Institute

These technologies vary widely. For example, afforestation and reforestation are perhaps the most natural, simply the planting of trees to increase carbon uptake…



Marcus Arcanjo

Thoughts on the environment, psychology and the future