This post first published in TriplePundit
Later this year ministers, scientists, diplomats and heads of state from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris for COP 21 with the ambitious goal of adopting a binding international treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. The enormity of that task can be distilled to one number: two.
Climate scientists warn that a 2 degrees Celsius rise of average global temperatures from pre-industrial levels is a conservative maximum to avoid the most devastating impact of rapid climate change. The 2-degree limit was set as an aspirational goal in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord of the 15th annual U.N. Conference of Parties (COP15) and officially agreed upon at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico. According to recent reports, we are already halfway there.
As preparatory talks for COP21 wind up this week in Bonn, Germany, officials from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognize that current emissions-reduction pledges will not be sufficient to meet the 2 degrees Celsius target. This despite a more rapid and aggressive response than expected from nations submitting their proposals.
Officially called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said in a press release that “on their own, the INDCs received before Paris are not going to keep us below a 2 degrees Celsius rise this century. But they underline a sharp and positive departure from business as usual and will form the essential foundation to reach that ultimate goal if governments agree to clearly ramp up ambition over time.”
This departure from “business as usual” is encouraging news, but we remain a long way from meeting the goal of a “2 °C world.” And even with a best-case-scenario outcome at the COP meeting in Paris (which has arguably never happened at any prior COP), Noah Deich, a cleantech consultant and founder of the nonprofit Center for Carbon Removal, believes the idea that simply reducing — or eventually eliminating — carbon emissions and adapting for what is to come severely limits the breadth of options available to address the climate crisis.
“The way I see the current conversation in academia is: We can’t just stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere,” Deich told TriplePundit. “We also have to clean up the carbon that has accumulated in the air over the past several decades — really a century — of industrial activity.”It is increasingly unlikely that mitigation alone will be enough, at least the way most think of it now. Negative carbon — the idea of going beyond reducing carbon emissions to actively sequestering or directly removing them from the atmosphere — may be essential to meet the target of a 2 °C world. But awareness, research and innovation in negative carbon, or carbon removal, remains disorganized and often misunderstood. Noah Deich hopes to change that.
As Deich sees it, however, the conversation of cleaning up current and past emissions hasn’t penetrated industry or policymaking. “I think this is a real missed opportunity.”
“If you’re able to think about cleaning up carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, you really broaden the set of climate solutions that are available to us,” Deich said. “And we have new opportunities to engage industry in a way that we could potentially have more aggressive climate goals and really curtail climate change in a more comprehensive way.”
When I expressed my pessimism to Deich that meeting the 2-degree target is still even within our grasp, he was quick to counter that idea. “I think it’s certainly possible,” he said. “If we were to commit to clean energy, I think we could certainly do it.
What is clear, Deich said, is not a lack of technological or entrepreneurial potential, but of (say it with me) political will. “And that is why carbon removal is so interesting to me right now.”
“We haven’t really tested how it changes that political dynamic — if it really can bring more people to the table and if it can get us to actually curtail climate change, which it can. But we just haven’t tried it yet, and the same old mitigation story clearly isn’t working. There hasn’t been any new breath of fresh air — no pun intended — in the climate conversation in such a long time.”
Business will lead
It’s not that changing hearts and minds among the political naysayers is easy. They continue dig in, but Deich suggested it may be to their own political peril. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the common argument is that climate action will cripple the economy. Among the many reasons why this logic is flawed is that such thinking actually stifles innovation and opportunity. “There’s just too big of a business opportunity,” Deich told us. “It will be tough, but I think when it does change, it will change quickly, because business will lead.”
“I think what has happened historically is that, without carbon removal, many of the entrenched interests — some of the big energy, agriculture and mining [industries] — … have seen their bread-and-butter be jeopardized by admitting to climate change.”
Carbon removal turns all that on its head because it is often the very same companies that have “ironically made the problem” that are best equipped to solve it.
“If you want to remove carbon from the air and sequester it deep underground in geologic reservoirs, that’s in many ways analogous to running an oil field operation, just in reverse,” Deich said. “That’s going to be a big energy company doing it; same thing with agriculture. If you’re going to sequester carbon in soils, you’re going to have Big Ag playing a large role in that.”
It’s a new way of thinking that changes the narrative around climate action, focusing more on what business can do instead of what they can’t. “This isn’t ‘hey, you have to stop what you’re doing and figure out how to make biofuels or solar panels, or whatever it is,’ all of which is a certainly a key part of this equation,” Deich told us.
“This is: ‘You have to figure out how to transition from taking carbon out of the ground to taking it out of the air and putting it back in the ground.'”
Deich suggested that this is a strategy or political dynamic that hasn’t yet been fully explored. “People are doing this today,” Deich said. “They’re just not explaining it as carbon removal as a whole. People are working on the individual pieces, but nobody is looking at the big picture.”
The carbon market
Part of the big picture is looking at carbon as a commodity. In the long term, the best solution could likely be storage and sequestration. But for the short term, the market for CO2 is “huge,” Deich explained. “When it comes to plastics and things like cement, there are potentially huge markets out there.”
“These markets are on the order of 100 million tons or so annually, especially if you look at enhanced oil recovery.
“I think the key for those markets is to understand when they are low-carbon versus no-carbon versus carbon-removing and figure out how to credibly commit some of the low- and no-carbon activities to pave that pathway to actual negative carbon. I think it’s certainly viable.”
Looking at the big picture of carbon removal
There is no one solution or approach to carbon removal. As with climate change or any complex problem, solutions are varied and multifaceted. An ideal technology in one area may not work in another. Some face greater technical challenges than others or may prove more difficult to scale. What is important is to bring all these questions, possibilities and challenges under one roof — if not literally, then as a strategic approach.
The Center for Carbon Removal Research Working Group (RWG) is a partnership with leading scientists and policy experts working to identify and solve key questions to lower the technical barriers to carbon removal and how to best focus comprehensive research efforts across the broad spectrums of possible solutions. The RWG initiative is a collaborative effort among researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and the Carnegie Institute at Stanford.
The center also partnered with the Aspen Institute Energy Environment Program through the Aspen Institute dialogue on carbon removal, bringing a multi-sector group of experts together to identify early actions for “developing a roadmap for advancing policy and industry-focused initiatives related to carbon removal.”
Living in a 2 °C world
If there was ever a time to think “outside the box,” it is now. As COP21 approaches, international attention is focused on solutions to climate change, energy and a thriving, sustainable future. Many nations are stepping up and submitting relatively ambitious emissions reductions goals. Advances in renewable energy are accelerating, slowly but surely becoming a mainstay of our energy economy. But all of it is not enough.
The Center for Carbon Removal brings to the table one more important tool for meeting the challenge before us: ensuring that we, our children and theirs can live in a 2 °C world.
Image credits: Luca Serazzi, courtesy flickr; Center for Carbon Removal