From Zero to Hero?: Why Integrated Assessment Modeling of Negative Emissions Technologies Is Hard and How We Can Do Better

Climate change mitigation strategies informed by Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) increasingly rely on major deployments of negative emissions technologies (NETs) to achieve global climate targets. Although NETs can strongly complement emissions mitigation efforts, this dependence on the presumed future ability to deploy NETs at scale raises questions about the structural elements of IAMs that are influencing our understanding of mitigation efforts. Model inter-comparison results underpinning the IPCC's special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C were used to explore the role that current assumptions are having on projections and the way in which emerging technologies, economic factors, innovation, and tradeoffs between negative emissions objectives and UN Sustainable Development Goals might have on future deployment of NETs. Current generation IAM scenarios widely assume we are capable of scaling up NETs over the coming 30 years to achieve negative emissions of the same order of magnitude as current global emissions (tens of gigatons of CO2/year) predominantly relying on highly land intensive NETs. While the technological potential of some of these approaches (e.g., direct air capture) is much greater than for the land-based technologies, these are seldom included in the scenarios. Alternative NETs (e.g., accelerated weathering) are generally excluded because of connections with industrial sectors or earth system processes that are not yet included in many models. In all cases, modeling results suggest that significant NET activity will be conducted in developing regions, raising concerns about tradeoffs with UN Sustainable Development Goals. These findings provide insight into how to improve treatment of NETs in IAMs to better inform international climate policy discussions. We emphasize the need to better understand relative strength and weaknesses of full suite of NETs that can help inform the decision making for policy makers and stakeholders.