Beyond Carbon Neutral

A major new initiative to develop technologies, programs and policies to raise the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. 

Climate change is a defining issue of the 21st Century, and an existential threat to humanity. To address this challenge, we must deploy a diverse set of solutions to minimize or reverse global warming and adapt to its impacts. To complement existing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the University of Michigan Energy Institute is developing an ambitious, creative new initiative called Beyond Carbon Neutral. This multidisciplinary research effort investigates technologies, processes and policies to increase the rate at which carbon is removed from the global carbon cycle. 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from fossil fuel use is the largest source of anthropogenic GHG emissions and its buildup in the atmosphere is the largest driver of the radiative forcing that destabilizes the Earth's climate. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) refers to actions that increase the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted into carbon-based materials that can be either sequestered or substituted for fossil carbon. Sometimes called "negative emissions," CDR strategies remove CO2 from the air faster than it is already being removed through natural processes. What distinguishes CDR is that its aim is not merely to achieve carbon neutrality, but rather to greatly increase the rate of negative emissions through mechanisms that go Beyond Carbon Neutral

The Energy Institute has worked with over 70 faculty to develop more than 50 inventive research proposals investigating different aspects of CDR. These research activities fall into three overlapping areas: the biosphere, technology, and human systems. As the figure below illustrates, some Beyond Carbon Neutral research activities fall clearly into one research area, while others bridge the conceptual divides that too often limit the scope and ambition of academic research.

A well-known example of CDR is reforestation, which can increase the rate of CO2 uptake for decades. Others include agricultural practices that increase soil carbon uptake and other forms of terrestrial carbon management. If productive lands are appropriately managed, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is a possible CDR mechanism. A range of technologies can also be developed to further expand CDR capability. Beyond Carbon Neutral will support research into each of these areas, examining ways to increase carbon uptake, as well as methods for storing and utilizing excess carbon.

At present, CDR is under-researched and not well understood by policymakers and the public. No coherent strategy exists to systematically research, develop, test, refine and scale up CDR on par with efforts underway to reduce GHG emissions. Beyond Carbon Neutral is designed to take the necessary steps to develop this crucial area and raise its profile for action at local and global levels. The breadth of faculty expertise at the University of Michigan makes us uniquely positioned to pursue this far-reaching topic. Within the areas of the biosphere, technology, and human systems, the suite of Beyond Carbon Neutral research projects are the foundation for a world-class initiative and bring a new focus to this emerging and urgent area of climate change research. The table below provides examples of the 50+ research projects developed by faculty in conjunction with the Energy Institute.