Moving beyond mitigation versus adaptation: our framework for thinking about carbon technologies

We have both been thinking about carbon for a long time, but when we came to consider negative technologies, we found there to be no agreed framework for thinking about the landscape. This is a critical flaw at a time when so many people are arriving new to this space, eager to understand what is going on and how they can contribute.

Our framework is below. We invite comments.

Net-negative framework

Download framework as a PDF

These are the basics of our approach:

  • Throughout this website we use the terms ‘carbon’ and 'CO2' as a shorthand for all greenhouse gas emissions (so including methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, etc.).
  • We also interpret the notion of ‘technology’ broadly, so consider planting trees or sequestering carbon in soil to be a ‘technology.’
  • We think about whether a technology is carbon negative vs carbon avoiding by taking a baseline of now, the start of 2020 with carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at around 415 parts per million.
  • Any tool, approach or technology that has the absolute capacity to draw down carbon is classified by us as carbon negative. Anything that reduces the amount by which this number rises, relative to business as usual, is considered a carbon avoiding technology.
  • We take timeframes seriously. For all technologies we need to understand how long they will take to deploy (how ready they are), how their carbon impact varies over time, and how durable they are - how long the carbon is stored for.
  • We recognise that the world is a complex system and that the schematic framework above does not fully represent reality. In particular, the technology areas shown are not discreet: for example, the circular economy is closely linked with industrial energy efficiency which is itself closely linked to carbon capture; and organic material - which appears in the 'biological solutions' category - can also reduce the carbon intensity of construction ('new building materials').
  • Although we believe that managing our climate is today’s most pressing challenge, we certainly recognise that there are many other critical issues that demand attention and resources.

The framework shows three stages in our climate journey: low carbon systems, zero emissions systems and carbon negative systems. Different parts of the economy are likely to be at different points in their journey between these stages. The overall climate requires a balance: any activity that is still producing carbon must be offset by carbon absorbing activity elsewhere in order for net zero to be achieved (shown by the dotted line in the framework).

Most important of all are the “foundational technologies” – renewable energy production and the storage that is required to make this the backbone of our economies – without which no system can ever approach zero carbon.

These technologies are represented by the entire background area in the graphic framework above.