Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online


To have a >50% chance of limiting warming below 2 °C, most recent scenarios from integrated assessment models (IAMs) require large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs). These are technologies that result in the net removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. We quantify potential global impacts of the different NETs on various factors (such as land, greenhouse gas emissions, water, albedo, nutrients and energy) to determine the biophysical limits to, and economic costs of, their widespread application. Resource implications vary between technologies and need to be satisfactorily addressed if NETs are to have a significant role in achieving climate goals.

At a glance


  1. Schematic representation of carbon flows among atmospheric, land, ocean and geological reservoirs.
    Figure 1: Schematic representation of carbon flows among atmospheric, land, ocean and geological reservoirs.

    a, Climate change results from the addition of geological carbon to the atmosphere through combustion or other processing of fossil fuels for energy. Carbon is indicated in red. b, Bioenergy seeks to avoid the net addition of carbon to the atmosphere by instead using biomass energy at a rate that matches the uptake of carbon by re-growing bioenergy feedstocks. c, Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies intervene to capture most of the potential carbon emissions from fossil fuels, and return them to a geological (or possibly ocean) reservoir. d–h, NETs remove carbon from the atmosphere, either through biological uptake (g,h), uptake by biological or industrial processes with CCS (d,e) or enhanced weathering of minerals (f). Any atmospheric perturbation will lead to the redistribution of carbon between the other reservoirs (but these homeostatic processes are not shown). Note that there are significant differences in the materials and energy requirements for each process to remove (or avoid adding) a unit mass of carbon from (or to) the atmosphere.

  2. Scenarios including NETs for each of the scenario categories, corresponding to the ranges and median values shown in Supplementary Table 3.
    Figure 2: Scenarios including NETs for each of the scenario categories, corresponding to the ranges and median values shown in Supplementary Table 3.

    Scenarios with no technology constraints (that is, including NETs) from the AMPERE10, 44 and LIMITS35 modelling comparison exercises are shown in colours, with all other scenarios from the IPCC AR5 database shown in grey. See the caption of Supplementary Table 3 for an explanation of the representation of gross positive and gross negative emissions. Net land use change fluxes are included (note, the 1997 fluctuation is attributable to Indonesian peat fires). Sources: CDIAC94, IPCC AR5 scenario database ( and the Global Carbon Project.

  3. The different requirements and impacts of NETs.
    Figure 3: The different requirements and impacts of NETs.

    a–f, Negative emissions technologies have different land (a), water (b) and nutrient (c) requirements, different geophysical impacts on climate (for example, albedo; d), generate or require different amounts of energy (e), and entail different capital and operating costs (f). For example, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies such as DAC and EW of silicate rock tend to require much less land and water than strategies that depend on photosynthesis to reduce atmospheric carbon (a,b), but the CDR technologies demand substantial energy and economic investment per unit of negative emissions (e,f). Among BECCS options, forest feedstocks tend to require less nitrogen than purpose-grown crops (c), but present greater risk of unwanted changes in albedo (d), and generate less energy (e). AR has been omitted from b,e,f to avoid confusion with forest BECCS (where the CCS component is included). See Supplementary Methods and Table 1 for data sources.

  4. The impacts and investment requirements of NETs to meet the 2 [deg]C target.
    Figure 4: The impacts and investment requirements of NETs to meet the 2 °C target.

    A schematic representation of the aggregate impacts of NETs on land, energy and water, and relative investment needs, for levels of implementation equivalent to BECCS (3.3 Gt C yr−1 negative emissions in 2100) in scenarios consistent with a 2 °C target (or mean and maximum attainable, where that level of negative emissions cannot be reached). Water requirement is shown as water droplets, with quantities in km3 yr−1. All values are for the year 2100 except relative costs, which are for 2050 (see Supplementary Methods).


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Author information


  1. Institute of Biological & Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, 23 St Machar Drive, Aberdeen, AB24 3UU, UK

    • Pete Smith
  2. University of California, Irvine, Department of Earth System Science, Irvine, California 92697-3100, USA

    • Steven J. Davis
  3. Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Torgauer Street 12-15, 10829 Berlin, Germany

    • Felix Creutzig,
    • Sabine Fuss &
    • Jan Minx
  4. Technical University Berlin, Straβe des 17, Junis 135, 10623 Berlin, Germany

    • Felix Creutzig
  5. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), PO Box 60 12 03, 14412 Potsdam, Germany

    • Jan Minx &
    • Elmar Kriegler
  6. Hertie School of Governance, Friedrichstrasse 180, 10117 Berlin, Germany

    • Jan Minx
  7. AgroParisTech, UMR1402 ECOSYS, F-78850 Thiverval-Grignon, France

    • Benoit Gabrielle
  8. National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), Environment and Arable Crops Research Unit, UMR1402 ECOSYS, F-78850 Thiverval-Grignon, France

    • Benoit Gabrielle
  9. The Institute of Applied Energy (IAE), Minato 105-0003, Tokyo, Japan

    • Etsushi Kato
  10. Department of Earth System Science, Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Robert B. Jackson
  11. NSW Department of Primary Industries, University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351, Australia

    • Annette Cowie
  12. Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development, Department of Environmental Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, 3584 CS, The Netherlands

    • Detlef P. van Vuuren
  13. PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, PO Box 303 3720, AH Bilthoven, The Netherlands

    • Detlef P. van Vuuren
  14. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich), Universitätstrasse 16, Zürich 8092, Switzerland

    • Joeri Rogelj
  15. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Schlossplatz 1, Laxenburg A-2361, Austria

    • Joeri Rogelj,
    • David McCollum,
    • Volker Krey,
    • Arnulf Grübler,
    • Matthias Jonas,
    • Florian Kraxner,
    • Nebojsa Nakicenovic,
    • Michael Obersteiner &
    • Mathis Rogner
  16. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE), Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace (IPSL), CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, CEA l'Orme des Merisiers, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France

    • Philippe Ciais &
    • Thomas Gasser
  17. Stanford University 473 Via Ortega, Stanford, California, 94305-2205, USA

    • Jennifer Milne
  18. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Research, GPO Box 3023, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  19. Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo (CICERO), Gaustadalléen 21, Oslo 0349, Norway

    • Glen Peters,
    • Robbie Andrew &
    • Asbjørn Torvanger
  20. US Carbon Cycle Science Program, US Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC 20006, USA

    • Gyami Shrestha
  21. University of Exeter, North Park Road, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  22. Centre International de Recherche sur l'Environnement et le Développement (CIRED), CNRS-PontsParisTech-EHESS-AgroParisTech-CIRAD, Campus du Jardin Tropical, 45 bis avenue de la Belle Gabrielle, 94736 Nogent-sur-Marne Cedex, France

    • Thomas Gasser
  23. King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, PO Box 88550, Riyadh 11672, Saudi Arabia

    • Wolfgang K. Heidug
  24. Met Office Hadley Centre, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

    • Chris D. Jones &
    • Jason Lowe
  25. University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Emma Littleton
  26. Institute of Energy and Environment, University of Sao Paulo, Av. Prof. Luciano Gualberto, 1.289 – Cidade, Universitaria, São Paulo 05508-010, Brazil

    • José Roberto Moreira
  27. University of Maryland, 2101 Van Munching Hall, School of Public Policy, College Park, MD 20742, USA

    • Anand Patwardhan
  28. Carnegie Mellon University, Baker Hall 128A, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213, USA

    • Ed Rubin
  29. Global Carbon Project — Tsukuba International Office, c/o NIES, 16-2 Onogawa, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-8506, Japan

    • Ayyoob Sharifi
  30. National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), 16-2 Onogawa, Tsukuba 305-8506, Ibaraki, Japan

    • Yoshiki Yamagata
  31. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Joint Global Change Research Institute, 5825 University Research Court, Suite 3500, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Jae Edmonds
  32. Korea University, 5-ga, Anam-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul 136-701, Korea

    • Cho Yongsung


P.S. led the writing of the paper, with contributions from all authors in the inception of the study and in writing the drafts. P.S. led the analysis with significant contributions from S.J.D., F.C., S.F., J.M., B.G., R.B.J., A.C., E.Kr., D.M. and D.V.V. Figures were conceptualized and produced by S.J.D., J.R., P.C., S.F., P.S., G.P., R.A. and J.M.

Competing financial interests

M.O. was given a share in Biorecro, a company that cooperates with BECCS projects globally, honouring his pioneering work on BECCS. The other authors declare no competing financial interests.

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