Beyond Carbon Neutral

Climate change is a defining challenge of the 21st Century and it will require a diverse set of solutions to minimize global warming and adapt to its adverse impacts. To complement existing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the University of Michigan is developing a major new initiative called Beyond Carbon Neutral. This multi-disciplinary research effort will investigate technologies, processes and policies to increase the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

The 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 work to remove CO2 from the air faster than it is already being removed through natural processes.

Global Carbon Cycle Stocks and Flows

A well-known example is reforestation, which can increase the rate of CO2 uptake for decades. Other options 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 (BECCS) is a possible CDR mechanism. Beyond these options, other advanced negative emissions technologies can be developed to further expand CDR capability.

As urgent as it is, reduction of GHG emissions alone is unlikely to stabilize the climate. CDR can measurably aid mitigation in the near term while potentially scaling up to levels that help achieve a carbon-balanced energy system over the long term. 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.

In a 2015 report, the National Academy of Sciences states: "It is increasingly likely that, as a society, we will need to deploy some forms of CDR to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but without research and investment now such attempts at climate mitigation are likely to fall well short of needed targets."

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 a par with the efforts underway to reduce GHG emissions. To fill this gap, the University of Michigan Energy Institute (UMEI) is spearheading a new multi-disciplinary research initiative to investigate the opportunities and barriers to moving Beyond Carbon Neutral.

The breadth and quality of faculty expertise at the University of Michigan make it uniquely positioned to pursue this complex and crucial topic. UMEI is engaging faculty from a wide range of disciplines, including the physical and social sciences, engineering, business, public policy and more to catalyze interest in Beyond Carbon Neutral research and identify projects that align with the interests of faculty and the university's community, industry and agency partners. 

​Staff contacts: Susan Fancy, Daniel Raimi