Australia's Carbon Sequestration Potential

Achieving the Paris Agreement goals to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, will require urgent and ambitious cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions, supplemented by the removal and storage of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.

Carbon sequestration is the durable storage of carbon which was either:

  • removed from the atmosphere (negative emissions, e.g. trees; blue carbon; direct air capture or ‘DAC’); or
  • prevented from entering the atmosphere (avoided emissions, e.g. carbon capture and storage or ‘CCS’).

With careful management, carbon sequestration can contribute to both:

  • accelerating decarbonisation in the near term, including to offset emissions sources that cannot yet be reduced; and
  • achieving and sustaining net-negative global emissions, to keep global temperatures within safe limits in the long-term.

Careful management means ensuring storage is durable, adverse impacts are avoided, and sequestration doesn’t delay emissions reductions. The Authority’s Strategic Framework states that Australia should “mitigate as much as possible and sequester the rest” (CCA, 2021).

The Authority’s self-initiated Carbon Sequestration Potential project follows on from earlier work, including the 2021 Insights Paper, Paris Plus: From cost to competitive advantage (CCA, 2021), which found that an improved understanding of Australia’s carbon sequestration potential is needed to underpin evidence-based advice on Australia’s future targets and policies. In that paper, the Authority stated its intent to “investigating the scale, distribution and environmental effectiveness of biological and geological sequestration opportunities in Australia, with a view to addressing potential barriers and risks”.

The Authority commissioned the CSIRO to report on Australia’s sequestration potential to inform our advice to government on the role of carbon sequestration in supporting increasingly ambitious emissions reduction targets.

Through the Carbon Sequestration Potential project, the Authority aims to:

  • Build an understanding of Australia’s realistic carbon sequestration potential;
  • Contribute to the evidence base to inform the Authority’s advice on the role of sequestration in Australia’s next emissions reduction target and the Government’s policy response; and
  • Raise awareness of the importance of sequestration in the net-zero transformation and of the longer-term need for net-negative emissions.

The sequestration potential project consists of three phases, as follows:

  1. Phase One: CSIRO’s technical report on sequestration technologies;
  2. Phase Two: a series of CSIRO-led technology workshops, with global experts considering possible pathways for technological advances and cost reductions for each technology, to help inform future estimates of potential scale.
  3. Phase Three: a policy “Insights Paper” authored by the CCA, setting out analysis and policy actions for Australia in unlocking this sequestration potential:

Sequestration Project

The Authority partnered with the Clean Energy Regulator to co-fund the CSIRO technical report and the CSIRO-led technology workshops. The workshops will consider possible pathways for technological advances and cost reductions for each technology, to help inform future estimates of their potential scale.

21 September 2022

The Authority held a roundtable to discuss ideas to scale-up carbon sequestration in Australia. Read about the observations made by the roundtable here.

12 December 2022

CSIRO published a technical report – Australia’s carbon sequestration potential.

14 December 2022

The Authority is hosting a public webinar on 14 December 2022, where CSIRO will present the findings of their technical report. This webinar will also be available on our YouTube channel.

March 2023

The Authority intends publish its Insights Paper and the CSIRO’s report on findings of the technical workshop series in March 2023.

Phase 1 findings

The CSIRO technical report, ‘Australia’s Carbon Sequestration Potential’, provides a framework for understanding estimates of carbon sequestration, which comprises three categories:

The report provides estimates of technical and economic potential, but not of realisable potential. It is important to note that the economic potential of each technology cannot be summed to provide an indication of what sequestration can actually be achieved in Australia in total – understanding realisable potential is required for this step.

The report identifies the need for new modelling and analysis to estimate the realisable potential for sequestration in order to inform the Authority’s advice on the role sequestration may play in Australia’s next emissions reduction target. Realisable sequestration is what matters for emissions reduction.

The CSIRO’s findings include:

  • A portfolio of technologies will be needed to achieve significant scaling-up of carbon sequestration in Australia. Individually, no single technology would be sufficient on its own.
  • Identifying which technologies are ultimately the most desirable will require resolving the trade-offs between the social, environmental, and economic uses of shared resources.
  • Engineered approaches can provide more secure and longer-lived storage than nature-based approaches, but are currently more costly. Nature-based approaches are shorter-lived and more vulnerable to environmental impacts, but they offer numerous environmental and economic co-benefits, particularly for Australia’s regions and First Nations peoples.
  • Where gaps between current sequestration and potential are large, they point to areas of opportunity to unlock potential through reshaping regulation, changing incentives and/or leveraging co-benefits.
  • Potential sequestration for many approaches is limited by resource competition. For example, biological approaches can place demands on arable land and on water, creating trade-offs between sequestration and other objectives such as food production. It is important to understand limiting factors so that effort can be prioritised in technologies with the most likely impacts.
  • Rigorous assessment of trade-offs will require further analysis and modelling. There is a need to determine estimates of the realisable potential, taking in a wide range of constraints including resource competition. 
  • A new national analytical capability is required to estimate the realisable potential for sequestration, to identify and assess best-value portfolios of options, and to guide design and implementation of incentives.

The Authority will draw on the CSIRO’s technical report (Phase 1) and technology workshops (Phase 2) and other evidence to inform a policy Insights Paper (Phase 3) on the role of sequestration in Australia’s decarbonisation journey.