Giant Machine Sucks CO2 Directly from Air!!

Think back to 2 weeks ago. Did you feel a paradigm shift on May 31? Here at CCR we did. As did the Fast Company, CNN Tech,  and The Washington Post. On that sunny Wednesday, the world’s first commercial-scale direct air CO2 capture project opened for business.

The Center for Carbon Removal attended the launch and our team was treated to a tour of the facility, which captures CO2 from the air and sells it to a nearby greenhouse. While the growth of tomatoes and eggplants is enhanced by the supplemental CO2, don’t be fooled; the ambitions of ClimeWork’s—indeed those of the direct air capture industry—are much larger than veggies.

Giana Amador (Center for Carbon Removal) and Jessica Lam (ClimateWorks Foundation) at the launch event of the Climeworks direct air capture facility in Switzerland.

Giana Amador (Center for Carbon Removal) and Jessica Lam (ClimateWorks Foundation) at the launch event of the Climeworks direct air capture facility in Switzerland.

At the project launch event, company CEO Christoph Gebald said Climeworks is only a “base camp” in their plan to offset 1% of global emissions through similar direct air capture projects by 2025. Beyond this 1% target, he explained that Climeworks envisions expanding by another order of magnitude over the subsequent decade to start delivering “negative emissions” at the billion ton CO2/year scale. What’s more, Climeworks is not alone in their ambition to commercialize direct air capture systems. Companies like Carbon Engineering in Canada, Global Thermostat in California, and Infinitree in NY also have operational direct air capture demonstration plants with commercial scale projects in their sights for the near future.

 This flurry of commercial activity around direct air capture is likely to come as a surprise to many in the climate field. Historically, direct air capture has been largely framed as overwhelmingly expensive or impractical at commercial scale by carbon capture experts, due to the challenge of capturing the dilute CO2 in the air (exhaust streams of power plants and other industrial facilities like oil refineries, steel mills, and cement plants have much more concentrated CO2 steams). The fact that Climeworks was able to not only secure millions of dollars in public and private sector investment to develop a functional direct air capture technology, but also attract and enroll a paying customer begs the question: have experts been overlooking the potential for direct air capture systems to decrease in cost and help drive industrial innovation and sustainability?

Although experts are currently skeptical of direct air capture’s high prices and small scale, there are a few reasons why the technology is disproving the climate community’s preconceptions, and is actually following a similar trajectory as many established strategies:

  • Initial abatement costs are not unreasonable or unprecedented. While the cost and carbon lifecycle assessments for the first of a kind projects can be tricky (especially given that companies are often reluctant to share verifiable data), early direct air capture projects will likely cost around $500/ton CO2—give or take a few $100/ton (Pilke, 2009). This is not cheap, and comparing this cost to the price of current carbon markets like RGGI (~$5/ton CO2) and CA (~$10/ton CO2) might give the impression that large-scale commercial deployment of DAC is decades away. But these costs for direct air capture are actually on par with the debuts of other first-of-a-kind climate technologies (including wind, solar, and electric vehicles) on a $/ton CO2 abated basis. Even today, we have policies that pay similar orders of magnitude for “commercially-viable” climate technologies: 

  1. Renewable Portfolio Standards (mandating a state procure a certain portion of their electricity from renewable sources) are estimated to cost up to $181/ton CO2 in NY (Chen et al. 2009). 

  2. In order for the Federal Government’s incentives for electric cars to be purposeful and effective, the abatement cost for hybrid vehicle incentives had to be as high as $217/tCO2 (Tseng et al. 2013). Considering the example of Canada’s hybrid vehicle rebates, the the average cost per tonne of CO2 abated was $195 (Chandra et al. 2010). These costs are reaffirmed by Kammen et al.’s findings “that any carbon price would have to exceed $100/t-CO2-eq in order to render PHEVs' reductions cost-effective” (Kammen et al. 2008).

  3. In Germany, the feed-in-tariff supporting solar generation was estimated to cost over $500/ton CO2 on average between 2006-2010 (Marcantonini and Ellerman, 2013).

The lesson here is that some climate policies are designed to create markets for new, innovative technologies; not to reduce the marginal cost of CO2 emissions as much as possible (as is the goal for economy-wide carbon pricing regulations). On this basis and with the right regulatory frameworks, direct air capture could provide a reasonably cost-competitive climate solution in the near future.

  • Cost reductions for direct air capture systems are likely with further deployment. The initial Climeworks project will capture roughly 900 tons of CO2/year to sell to a greenhouse that is already recycling inexpensive heat energy from a nearby waste incineration plant. While many experts would perceive this small scale, niche end market and cheap energy as red flags, Climeworks sees these aspects of the technology as assets, and not deficiencies. It can be easier to raise funds for $million-scale projects than for $billion conventional carbon capture projects at power plants. Moreover, because the technology Climeworks is developing is modular, multiple small projects can provide the manufacturing experience needed to innovate system design and decrease costs rapidly. With market competition from other direct air capture developers deploying similar modular strategies, it is reasonable to expect that direct air capture innovation and cost improvements will continue.

  • Broad, bipartisan appeal for the technology. Direct air capture has managed to capture the imagination of many people—from tech enthusiasts to environmental campaigners. Furthermore, politicians on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged beneficial aspects of direct air capture. For example, Senators Barrasso (R-WY) and Schatz (D-HI) have co-sponsored legislation that would create a $50M Federally funded direct air capture innovation prize. Early policy wins for direct air capture could provide an important entry point for larger carbon capture and negative emissions policy efforts in the future (Stephens, 2009).

Climeworks direct air capture machine capturing 900 tons of CO2 per year.

Climeworks direct air capture machine capturing 900 tons of CO2 per year.

In conclusion, the whirlwind of commercial activity regarding direct air capture indicates that there is likely more to direct air capture than initially met the eye of climate experts. While a challenging future still lies ahead—one commercial scale project doesn’t signal that direct air capture is here to save the day on climate alone—targeted initiatives intended to catalyze the deployment direct air capture systems could prove highly valuable in offering innovators like Climeworks the opportunity to continue to expand the frontier of industrial innovation and sustainability.

Carbon removal: right-sized *expectations* requires right-sized *action*

Dr. Chris Field and Dr. Katharine Mach’s recent article in the journal Science is an important contribution to the future of carbon dioxide removal.  It in, the scientists stress an often overlooked point that  “a transparent and balanced approach is necessary” when considering carbon removal and traditional mitigation solutions to climate change.

Also of great importance, the article attracted coverage of CDR in mainstream media outlets that will be key for informing industry and policy action on carbon removal. Unfortunately, that coverage tended to miss the point.  We must start developing and deploying effective carbon removal solutions today.   Instead, the coverage focuses on the risks the authors identify about what happens if we do not take this action today.

The fact that “technological immaturity [of some CDR approaches] means that estimates of future costs, performance, and scalability are speculative” means that we need more action around carbon removal today.

Uncertainty and risks around carbon removal should not paralyze us, but rather galvanize us to address uncertainties and mitigate risks so these solutions are available at the appropriate scale needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. As the authors say, smart climate action will take “full advantage of the approaches that are available now while simultaneously investing in research and early-stage deployment, driving down the costs of the immature options, and evaluating side effects.” 

Above: Negative-emissions solutions can include use of natural systems (e.g., forest or other ecosystem restoration, agricultural soil carbon sequestration) and technological systems (e.g., bioenergy, direct air capture coupled with storage in long-lived materials or geologic formations, accelerated CO2 mineralization processes). 

Above: Negative-emissions solutions can include use of natural systems (e.g., forest or other ecosystem restoration, agricultural soil carbon sequestration) and technological systems (e.g., bioenergy, direct air capture coupled with storage in long-lived materials or geologic formations, accelerated CO2 mineralization processes). 

A key missing piece of this story is that efforts to develop carbon removal solutions and address important outstanding questions lag far behind necessary levels. The authors are correct that “Much of the recent discussion about CDR concerns deployments at vast scales”.  

But these discussions are in the scientific literature.  This is NOT the case for industry and policy stakeholders responsible for funding the research, innovation, and early technology deployment needed to address uncertainties. The industry and policy conversation on carbon removal is largely non-existent, which is the biggest threat to meeting our climate goals. Solid academic analyses require much better data than is available currently.  That critical data can only be generated if we right-size our action to develop carbon removal solutions immediately.

Fortunately, there are a number of efforts on which industry and policy leaders can build action on carbon removal. Yesterday, Developing a Research Agenda for Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration was kicked off by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.  The study, which aims to map a research agenda for safe and cost effective CDR, will provide critical guidance to policy makers, researchers and industry leaders alike.  The UK government has already launched a $10M+ program of CDR research. A constructive academic conversation on carbon removal requires much more efforts like this today, so that models and discussions are rooted in well-calibrated assumptions.

What do you think?  What promising CDR research do you know about? How should the conversation about CDR be moved from academia to industry and policy leaders who can deliver CDR research, development and deployment?

Rocks: the next big climate solution?

A small community of researchers increasingly see the potential for certain types of rocks to offer a cost-effective carbon capture and storage (CCS) approach that could one day help reverse climate change. Yes: plain, old rocks. Here is the story behind the potential CCS strategy hiding under our feet.

A back-to-the-future CCS approach

The phrase “carbon capture and storage” often evokes images of enormous coal-fired power plants, complex industrial systems for scrubbing CO2 from exhaust gas, and pipes boring thousands of feet underground to dispose of CO2 in geologic reservoirs.

Above: The traditional image of CCS: post-combustion CO2 capture at a coal power plant for underground storage at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam facility in Canada.

Above: The traditional image of CCS: post-combustion CO2 capture at a coal power plant for underground storage at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam facility in Canada.

However, geologists have long known that nature has an alternative method for CCS. When certain types of rocks are exposed to air, they undergo a chemical reaction that transforms CO2 into a stable carbon-based rock in a process called “CO2 mineralization.” The geochemistry of mineralization reactions is fairly well understood: metal-oxide minerals (such as those rich in magnesium like serpentine and olivine) that react with CO2 in the air are widely abundant deep in the Earth and play an important role in transforming CO2 into the carbonate rocks (e.g. limestone) that comprise a large portion of the Earth’s crust.

But while such CO2-reactive minerals are widely abundant deep below the Earth’s surface, most of these minerals are shielded from exposure to air, so natural CO2 mineralization processes only sequester a tiny fraction of the CO2 emitted from the burning fossil fuels each year.  (Physicist Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University (ASU) likes to point out that this naturally-slow CO2 mineralization rate is a good thing in the long run: if it were any faster, rocks would slowly draw down all of the CO2 in the atmosphere, ending life on Earth). So when it comes to climate change, natural CO2 mineralization processes won’t be anywhere near enough to solve the problem alone.

With some clever-but-low-tech engineering, however, it could be possible to accelerate natural CO2 mineralization processes substantially. And this is exactly why some climate researchers have explored the potential of engineered CO2 mineralization processes to serve as a large-scale carbon sequestration climate solution (also called "enhanced/accelerated weathering" or "mineral carbonation").

When it comes to engineering effective CO2 mineralization climate strategies, "it’s all about speed!” says Roger Aines, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL). To speed up natural CO2 mineralization processes, scientists are exploring ways to increase the surface area of CO2-reactive minerals that is exposed to air (or another concentrated CO2 stream such as a power plant exhaust), and/or changing the chemistry of the original minerals (by heat treatment, enzyme treatment, etc.). In practice, this looks like:

  • Grinding or crushing CO2-reactive minerals mined from deep within the Earth (what geologists call ex situ mineralization).  

  • Increasing mineralization deep within the Earth (called in situ mineralization) by drilling into the lithosphere and fracturing subterranean rocks with CO2-reactive minerals to increase exposure and store CO2 underground.
Source: Global CCS Institute diagram of various CO2 mineralization CCS strategies

Source: Global CCS Institute diagram of various CO2 mineralization CCS strategies

(Note: Scientists have also proposed using CO2 reactive minerals to enhance the ocean’s alkalinity -- e.g LLNL scientist Greg Rau and Cardiff University scientist Phil Renforth have proposed -- as a related cousin to ex-situ Earth-based CO2 mineralization approaches, which is itself deserving of a separate post.)

Compared to conventional CCS projects, CO2 mineralization approaches offer a number of benefits. For example, CO2 mineralization approaches face few concerns about leakage, induced earthquakes, and/or land-use concerns that can accompany conventional CCS projects. In addition, engineered CO2 mineralization processes could create small but potentially meaningful revenue streams beyond carbon credits for businesses in the mining, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, opening new frontiers for these difficult-to-decarbonize industries to becomes leaders in the fight against climate change.

So if turning CO2 into stone to fight climate change has so many benefits, why has it gained so little attention in the climate conversation to date?

The discouraging academic history on CO2 mineralization

Aines credits Lackner with first proposing the idea of CO2 mineralization back in the 90s, which in turn catalyzed a flurry of academic study of the topic, focused primarily around the mining (i.e ex situ) CO2 mineralization approaches. However, the results from this initial investigation into CO2 mineralization approaches have not been particularly encouraging. These researchers found that dedicated mining and processing CO2-reactive minerals as a standalone CCS strategy is probably more expensive than traditional CCS approaches at power plants (which themselves cost upwards of $60/ton CO2 unsubsidized). As the IPCC’s 2005 Special Report on CCS chapter on CO2 mineralization (on which Lackner was a lead author) puts it, “the kinetics of natural mineral carbonation is slow; hence all currently implemented processes require energy intensive preparation of the solid reactants to achieve affordable conversion rates and/or additives that must be regenerated and recycled using external energy sources.”

But here’s where the clever engineering enters the picture. Researchers have also looked at the potential for existing industrial processes to produce “waste” CO2-reactive minerals that could be re-purposed for CCS in a cost-effective way. For example, Jennifer Wilcox, a researcher at the Colorado School of Mines, has assessed the potential for waste products from cement production, coal power, and steel manufacturing wastes to supply the feedstock for CO2 mineralization processes. While these waste piles could provide cost-effective CCS, Wilcox and her team found that the available supply of these low-cost inputs for CO2 mineralization pale in comparison to the scale of CCS needed to mitigate climate change: even if all of these industrial wastes were harnessed for CO2 mineralization purposes, they would only be able to capture around 1% of US emissions (depending on assumptions used).

Using analysis from Wilcox et al, we see that existing sources of wastes capable of re-purposing for CO2 mineralization (e.g. Fly ash, cement dust, and steel slag) could only sequester a small fraction of emissions. To get meaningful emissions reductions from ex-situ CO2 mineralization processes, natural sources of minerals (from olivine and serpentine) would have to be mined and processed explicitly for CO2 sequestration purposes.

Using analysis from Wilcox et al, we see that existing sources of wastes capable of re-purposing for CO2 mineralization (e.g. Fly ash, cement dust, and steel slag) could only sequester a small fraction of emissions. To get meaningful emissions reductions from ex-situ CO2 mineralization processes, natural sources of minerals (from olivine and serpentine) would have to be mined and processed explicitly for CO2 sequestration purposes.

CO2 mineralization, it seemed, just wasn’t that attractive a target for CCS, as there seemed to be little way around the fundamental constraint of finding cheap and voluminous mineral sources that are not energy intensive to break down.

Between a rock and a hard place: CO2 mineralization commercialization challenges 

This expert consensus that CO2 mineralization was at best high-hanging fruit on the CCS tree has had a self-fulfilling effect on innovation and advances in the field. Whereas governments have invested billions of dollars in conventional CCS projects at power plants and industrial facilities, the US government has only spent small amounts to research CO2 mineralization, primarily based out of the Albany Research Center shortly after Lackner and team proposed this idea.

Lackner notes that all Federal funding for CO2 mineralization “stopped because everyone was convinced that other forms of geological storage would be a lot cheaper.” Furthermore, Roger Aines of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab notes that CO2 mineralization approaches have also struggled to gain political support because “the real challenge in CO2 mineralization is that it is not a method for controlling point sources like a power plant, simply because the lowest cost sources of minerals that are so good at absorbing CO2 are rarely co-located next to power plants or factories. The idea of cleaning up CO2 from the atmosphere is still new, and government investments to date have almost all been made in controlling individual emitters, not reducing existing atmospheric CO2.”

Industry and civil society have also remained almost entirely on the sidelines in exploring CO2 mineralization approaches. Just this year De Beers became the first major mining or energy company to announce any research or projects around CO2 mineralization. And research from the Center for Carbon Removal identified no grants for CO2 mineralization from philanthropists in the U.S. over the past decade.

While a handful of intrepid startups such as Green Minerals and Mineral Carbonation International are working to build CO2 mineralization businesses, they are finding it difficult to gain traction. With little government support and low awareness among industry and civil society, it is incredibly difficult for the companies to find the capital needed to develop and deploy effective CO2 mineralization solutions.

Challenging the conventional wisdom

“More opportunity exists than I thought”
— Julio Friedmann, LLNL

Because of the growing importance of CCS in meeting our climate goals, more and more researchers believe that it is too early to cross CO2 mineralization off the list of potential CCS strategies.

For one, as Aines bluntly puts it, “the idea that new mines grinding up new rock is the only way to engage CO2 process as a large-scale, economically viable climate technology is wrong. We can take advantage of what the mining industry is doing, and has done in the past, to start the testing and evaluation of new processes.” What Aines is noting is that certain mining wastes (including asbestos, tailings from diamond, and nickel mines, for example), offer a potentially substantial, yet unexplored source of extracted and processed CO2-reactive minerals. The re-processing and/or engineering of certain mine waste piles could turn these supplies of CO2-reactive minerals into passive CCS projects (see Georges Beaudoin’s research, for example). And as Wilcox et al have concluded, “comparatively low-cost methods for the advancement of mineral carbonation technologies... may be extended to more abundant yet expensive natural alkalinity sources,” increasing the economically-viable supply of CO2 mineralization CCS strategies in the future.

“One interesting thing I see is that mineral sequestration may be able to work at relatively small scales, and thus have a way to start. It needs to take advantage of the value it produces: permanent safe storage.”
— Klaus Lacker, ASU

Second, researchers at universities (such as Peter Kelemen at Columbia) and at national research labs (such as the CarbFix project in Iceland and the PNNL in the U.S.) are exploring the often-overlooked category of underground (i.e. in situ) strategies for potential opportunities to serve as large-scale CCS projects. In situ mineralization involves drilling “wells” into CO2-capturing rock formations to speed up natural mineralization rates in places where CO2-capturing rock formations are relatively close to the surface (such as in Oman). Drilling into these formations and/or injecting compressed CO2 into these formations in similar fashion to a geothermal energy project would allow water and air to have much greater exposure to these rocks, vastly enhancing the rate at which they capture and store CO2.

Exploration of these previously overlooked CO2 mineralization CCS strategies is seen by many in this community as a low-cost path forward with potentially enormous returns for fight against climate change. At best, these initial explorations could lead to unexpected discoveries and innovations around CO2 mineralization that enable costs for these approaches to fall more than thought possible with existing technology. “The value for that initial testing phase is very real,” notes Aines. According to Aines, existing mine tailings alone could sequester a few billions of tons of CO2 in total (the U.S. emits roughly 6B tons CO2 each year as a comparison), which he calls “a huge win for the first phases of implementation of a new technology.” And at worst, these projects will provide robust science to help inform any future action on CO2 mineralization.


Towards an action plan for CO2 mineralization

“Our community is building greater cohesion and momentum – it’s fantastic to see us taking this step because it will improve our ability to access large scale funding and deliver impactful results for carbon dioxide removal.”
— Sasha Wilson, Monash University Geochemistry, @_sashawilson_

In December of 2016, Aines, Kelemen, and Greg Dipple from the University of British Columbia convened a workshop of the leading practitioners in the field of CO2 mineralization to discuss where the greatest opportunities for CO2 mineralization CCS strategies existed, and how this community could marshal the resources needed to overcome the immediate barriers facing these projects. Researchers discussed a wide range of new proposals for CO2 mineralization (including new ideas such as mining olivine as an agricultural fertilizer, building high-temperature, high-pressure reactors for CO2 mineralization, and even using CO2 capturing minerals as a concrete or aggregate replacement). The goal of the workshop was to figure out “what next?” A few big ideas emerged from the discussion:

1. Now is the time to invest in more research and pilot projects to test costs, performance, and environmental impacts of CO2 mineralization strategies. It will be difficult to get accurate numbers on costs and performance of CO2 mineralization strategies without pilot projects of meaningful scale. Cost estimates for various CO2 mineralization solutions range from very cheap (just a few $/ton CO2) to expensive (upwards of $100/ton CO2). Furthermore, CO2 mineralization projects come with many site-specific challenges, such as navigating mine safety protocols and environmental regulations (many CO2-reactive minerals are found in rock formations that also include heavy metals that can contaminate local water and air supplies) that could lead to significant costs for project developers. It is very hard to estimate all of these project costs and performance variables in theory -- actual projects are needed to hone in on the true scale of the opportunity around CO2 mineralization.

“The momentum is building up to realize some demonstration projects.”
— Pol Knops, Green Minerals, Netherlands, @Greenolivine
“Several technologies offer significant potential for carbon removal from air and need additional research and scaling-up to reach industrial-scale implementation.”
— Georges Beaudoin, Université Laval

2. Developing accounting protocols is critical to enable CO2 mineralization projects to participate in carbon markets. Another challenge for would-be CO2 mineralization project developers is the lack of protocols for measuring and verifying lifecycle CO2 capture and storage that results from CO2 mineralization projects. Regulators and/or third-party certification groups will need to validate the efficacy and reliability of CO2 mineralization efforts to enable buyers of CO2 mineralization credits to trust that their projects sequester as much CO2 as needed. The long lead-time for developing and implementing accounting protocols makes it worthwhile to begin the process now. As Lackner puts it, “there is no motivation to do CO2 mineralization for carbon sequestration if you cannot get credit for it. You can't get credit for it if there are no good accounting protocols. So you need to figure the accounting out soon.”

3. Start dialogues with key stakeholders. How do you get community advocates to push for funding for CO2 mineralization projects? Inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and scientists? Proactively engage regulators to make regulatory process as fair, robust, and transparent and possible? Get industry champions to build projects and incorporate CO2 mineralization in their supply chains? One thread that addressed all of these questions was the urgent need to start dialogues today in the communities that will build and deploy projects (often rural mining communities and tropic agricultural communities -- far removed from the university research on this topic). On the ground engagement and collaboration between research, industry, and government with the communities that will build and deploy these projects is critical today to ensure that first projects are of the highest value to getting to scale in the future.

“Good body of scientific knowledge - now need to identify and focus on key areas that will give CO2 mineralization the credibility to move forward.”
— William Bourcier, LLNL


Despite less than optimistic preliminary investigations into the economics and potential of CO2 mineralization as a CCS solution to climate change, researchers and entrepreneurs alike have worked diligently to show that this field is worth a second look. New approaches to an old idea show promising pathways forwards, but it will be up to governments and businesses to take the leap and begin funding new approaches to determine the potential of this frontier in climate action.   

5 Gt of negative emissions by 2050?

Meeting the Paris Agreement climate goals was never going to be easy. But there has been relatively little published analysis attempting to understand exactly what it will take to make the ambition of the Agreement a reality. A group of European scientists recently published a paper titled, “A roadmap for rapid decarbonization” in the journal Science that attempts to change just that. The paper lays out what the authors dubbed the “Carbon Law,” which explains a simple heuristic for what we need to do meet our climate goals. The “Carbon Law” proposes that we will have to halve our CO2 emissions each decade starting in 2020 while also ramping up carbon removal rapidly starting in only a few decades time to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (and reducing land sector emissions to zero) as described in the chart, below. And while the Paris Agreement targets will be challenging to meet, the “Carbon Law” analysis reveals important points about carbon removal -- and just how critical it will be for the Paris Agreement.

Above: The red line shows a halving of CO2 emissions each decade starting in 2020, the blue line shows carbon removal scaling up to the 5Gt CO2/yr level by 2050 to get us at net-zero global emissions. Source: Rockstrom, et al. 2017.

Above: The red line shows a halving of CO2 emissions each decade starting in 2020, the blue line shows carbon removal scaling up to the 5Gt CO2/yr level by 2050 to get us at net-zero global emissions. Source: Rockstrom, et al. 2017.

1. Without carbon removal, decarbonizing as quickly as is needed to meet climate goals looks highly implausible. Say you disagree with the “Carbon Law” authors about the likelihood of getting large scale negative emissions scaled by 2050. The natural question, then, is how does the Carbon Law change to meet a 2C goal if we don’t have negative emissions? Back of the envelope math shows that we’d need to cut emissions in half every five years (i.e. twice as fast as the original Carbon Law) starting in 2020 to reach net zero (defined as <1Gt CO2) by 2050.

To even the most ardent supporter of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification, this rate of decarbonization likely does not pass the laugh test. Even if we had the will to spend the massive amounts of money to achieve this, the physical act of transforming all of our energy, transportation, building, and industrial infrastructure will take time -- major construction and building efforts are not trivial undertakings. Large-scale carbon removal by 2050 will face major challenges, but those challenges pale in comparison to the alternative of having to decarbonize twice as fast.

2. If we can’t decarbonize as quickly as the Carbon Law proposes, we will need lots more carbon removal to meet Paris Agreement goals. As Brad Plumer over at Vox writes “This road map is staggering.” Most climate experts would likely agree: cutting emissions in half each decade starting in 2020 will be really challenging. Even cutting emissions in half every 15 years will be a challenge. So what happens if we don’t cut emissions in half every decade, but rather every 15 years -- how much carbon removal would we need then to meet our Paris Agreement goals? A back of the envelope calculation shows we’d need double the amount of carbon removal proposed by the authors, ending up with 10 GtCO2/year by 2050 to reach net zero emissions. Given how hard it will be to achieve the halve every 10 years, the Carbon Law shows how valuable carbon removal will be as a hedge against meeting our climate goals

3. The Carbon Law tells us about meeting a 2C target… what about a 1.5C target? Without carbon removal, we need to halve emissions every year, starting immediately. This isn’t happening, so the only way to get 1.5C is with major carbon removal. Basically, the 1.5C roadmap is “reduce emissions as fast as possible to zero, scale up carbon removal to the 10Gt+ scale as fast as possible.”

Mammoths, Permafrost & Soil Carbon Storage: A Q&A about Pleistocene Park

Noah Deich, the Executive Director here at the Center for Carbon Removal, recently spoke with Guy Lomax about the carbon sequestration potential of Pleistocene Park, an ambitious Ice Age rewilding project near Chersky, Siberia.

ND: The Atlantic article and Vice News segment got me really excited about Pleistocene Park. Can you give our readers an overview of the project?

Guy Lomax: Pleistocene Park is a large-scale ecological experiment sitting on a remote stretch of tundra in the northern Siberian Arctic. Dr. Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita, the principle researchers on the project, are attempting to recreate a thriving grassland ecosystem in the tundra not seen since the last ice age in order to help curb the melting of permafrost as the climate warms. Such northern grasslands, known as the Mammoth Steppe, were actually once the world’s largest terrestrial biome, stretching from France to modern China, and across the Bering Strait (then a land bridge) into Canada. At its peak around 25,000 years ago, the Mammoth Steppe supported vast herds of bison, musk ox, wild horses and, of course, woolly mammoths.

Over many thousands of years, the grasslands and grazers of the Mammoth Steppe were responsible for drawing down much of the 1,330-1,580 billion tonnes carbon from the atmosphere that is preserved in the northern permafrost across the Eurasian and North American Arctic. The fast-growing grasses absorbed a lot of carbon from the air and buried it deep in the soil as root biomass and other organic compounds. Cold and permafrost in deeper soil layers then protected the carbon from decay by microbes. Helped by a steady influx of wind-blown glacial dust across Siberia, this soil carbon grew into deposits tens of metres thick in places.

Mammoths were a key part of their namesake pre-historic ecosystem. Scientists at Harvard want to bring mammoths back as a species. The Zimov’s simply want to restore their ecosystem, to help curb climate change. Image by Flying Puffin (MammutUploaded by FunkMonk) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mammoths were a key part of their namesake pre-historic ecosystem. Scientists at Harvard want to bring mammoths back as a species. The Zimov’s simply want to restore their ecosystem, to help curb climate change. Image by Flying Puffin (MammutUploaded by FunkMonk) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

ND: How could restoring the Mammoth Steppe be a climate solution?

GL: There are two halves to how this project could help avert climate change.

The first is the effect that restoring the Mammoth Steppe could have in keeping the permafrost frozen, thus preventing the massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions expected from a thawing of the Arctic tundra (which is warming on average twice as fast as the planet overall). As permafrost thaws, Ice Age microbes wake up and begin consuming the trillion tonnes of Ice Age organic carbon in the soil, converting it quickly into carbon dioxide and a little methane.  The result is a feedback loop where permafrost melting accelerates warming, which thaws more permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases (GHGs).

A single hectare of thawing permafrost soil can emit about 400 tonnes of carbon in the first century after melting begins, about twice that emitted by clearing the same area of tropical rainforest. When the Ice Age ended, Sergey has estimated that melting permafrost across Europe and Siberia released more than a trillion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. By 2100, our current warming trajectory could melt the equivalent of between 100 and 300 billion tonnes of carbon out of the tundra as both carbon dioxide and methane.

What the Zimov’s results are starting to show, however, is that grassland soils stay several degrees colder than those of the tundra – meaning less thawing and thus more carbon storage. Arctic grasslands would keep the tundra cooler than today’s forests do for a number of reasons. First, grasses reflect more sunlight in summer than mosses, preventing the ground from warming as much in these snow-free periods. In addition, animal herds compact the thick layers of snow that build up in the winter, reducing the insulating effect of that snow on the soil.  When January air temperatures routinely fall below -25°C and can reach -50°C, snow acts like an insulating blanket, so when grazers compact the snow and expose soils to the winter air, the cold penetrates deeper into the soil. This deep freeze then protects the soils from thawing when temperatures rise in summer.

Could changing the ecology in the Siberian permafrost from trees and shrubs (above) to thriving grasslands help mitigate warming in the region and draw down carbon from the atmosphere? Image courtesy of Luke Griswold-Tergis

Could changing the ecology in the Siberian permafrost from trees and shrubs (above) to thriving grasslands help mitigate warming in the region and draw down carbon from the atmosphere? Image courtesy of Luke Griswold-Tergis

ND: Gotcha, so that’s the GHG abatement half of the story. Would restoring this ecosystem also sequester additional carbon from the atmosphere on top of protecting the carbon that’s already there?

GL: On average, Mammoth Steppe soils of the past seem to have accumulated carbon at around 0.1 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year, slightly slower than in the northern peatlands today. And like peatlands, some of the soils once covered by the mammoth steppe now hold thousands of tonnes of carbon per hectare in preserved peat.

The current tundra landscape in Siberia is dominated by unproductive mosses, which have almost no roots, and sparse shrubs.  By transiting tundra back to the deep-rooted and productive grasses of the Mammoth Steppe, you’d likely see a surge in net carbon sequestration in the first few decades as the grasses pumped extra carbon below the soil surface, where temperatures and thus rates of decay are lower.  Unsurprisingly, there are few data specific to boreal grasslands yet, but in temperate soils the return of grasses to bare or cultivated soil can drive sequestration of 0.3-0.6 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.

That still may seem small compared to the emissions from melting permafrost. Yet over the vast area once covered by grasslands, this could amount to sequestration of tens to hundreds of millions of tonnes per year. But to answer this question fully, we’ll need the data on soil carbon accumulation from Pleistocene Park itself.

ND: If we replace northern forests with grasslands, isn't there a huge biomass carbon deficit that will exacerbate climate change for decades before soils have had a chance to accumulate significant amounts of carbon?

GL: It’s not clear how much the expanding Mammoth Steppe would really replace much true boreal forest, as opposed to tundra and shrubland. At least until humans are able to reintroduce mammoths to the ecosystem!

But if it does, there would likely be some emissions associated with the loss of the forest. Then again, 80% of carbon in the boreal forest is typically below the surface in soils. And tree species adapted to permafrost soils can be damaged or even killed if the permafrost melts, when subsidence or erosion leads to collapse of their foundations.

So, the net climate impact would still depend on the alternative fate of that piece of forest.

ND: What about the balance between soil carbon sequestration and the methane emissions from massive reintroduction of grazers?

GL: Sergey and Nikita have estimated the numbers of animals per square kilometre at the peak of the Mammoth Steppe from the bones they have uncovered in the permafrost: five bison, seven and a half horses, fifteen reindeer and one woolly mammoth!

Based on estimates of typical methane emissions from these species, we can estimate that animals at the ecosystem’s peak were producing 0.3-0.5 tCO2e/ha/year in methane (based on a 100-year global warming potential).

That’s the same order of magnitude as potential carbon sequestration, and a lot lower than the emissions we’d expect if the permafrost started melting, which may be tens of tonnes of CO2-equivalent per year. But it is enough to become a significant new source of methane if the Mammoth Steppe is restored at scale, and needs to be accounted for.

ND: How much do you think it would cost to realize the Zimov’s vision, in terms of dollars per hectare or per tonne of carbon avoided?

Father and son ecosystem scientists, Sergey (left) and Nikita (right) Zimov, in Pleistocene park. Image courtesy of Luke Griswold-Tergis

Father and son ecosystem scientists, Sergey (left) and Nikita (right) Zimov, in Pleistocene park. Image courtesy of Luke Griswold-Tergis

GL: Nikita estimates it would take $1 billion to scale up Pleistocene Park over a “continental scale”. The North Siberian plains tundra area covers 100 million hectares. Assuming even 1% of that could be restored and preserved as permafrost with this investment, that would imply a cost of around $1000/ha. Based on Sergey’s estimate of historic emissions from melting permafrost, CO2 and methane emissions could amount to more than 16-20 tCO2e/ha/year. That would conservatively imply costs on the order of $2.5-3/tCO2e avoided just over the first 20 years.

But it all depends now on demonstrating whether the model works, gathering better data and proving whether Pleistocene Park can create an ecosystem that can survive in the wild.

ND: What’s next for Pleistocene Park?

GL: Eventually, they hope to see the restoration of the Mammoth Steppe across hundreds of millions of hectares of tundra. The Zimovs have already returned wild horses, musk ox, reindeer and moose to the park, and seen large areas of grassland return; now they are sourcing populations of bison, yaks, and elk. In the future, once the herbivores are established, Nikita wants to bring back tigers, wolves and, one day, perhaps even woolly mammoths to complete the ancient ecosystem.

It’s not going to be a quick fix: to make an impact on the climate, the Mammoth Steppe will need to spread again across many millions of hectares. Sergey readily admits the project must be a global, intergenerational effort. But the first step to reaching that kind of scale tomorrow is to fully understand the science today. 

And to state the obvious for a moment, climate change itself is an issue that will be felt for generations to come. Pleistocene Park, if it can demonstrate that large-scale regeneration of this ecosystem is feasible and effective, could be the seed of unprecedented ecosystem restoration efforts over the coming century.

ND: Where can readers learn more about the project?

GL: Visit the Pleistocene Park website. Learn more about Pleistocene Park in Ross Andersen’s article in The Atlantic. You can also read about the Zimovs’ work in Science. The project’s founders, Sergey and Nikita Zimov are currently running a Kickstarter to take their project to the next level.

ND: as always, thanks Guy!

Guy Lomax - pic for bio.jpg

Guy Lomax is a researcher in the Natural Climate Initiative at The Nature Conservancy, specializing in the science of carbon sequestration and mitigation in soils and ecosystems. Guy also works with the Virgin Earth Challenge – Sir Richard Branson’s $25M innovation prize for scalable and sustainable ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Guy has been following Pleistocene Park for several years as part of his work, since he met Sergey Zimov at a megafauna conference in Oxford back in the day.

Debunking 3 Soil Carbon Myths

2016 can certainly be recognized as a year of progress for U.S. soil conservation and restoration. In May, Congressional Representative Jared Huffman (CA 2nd District) introduced the Healthy Soils and Rangelands Solutions Act to create a pilot payment program to incentivize the sequestration of carbon on public lands. In August, the approval of California’s SB 859 established The Healthy Soils Initiative, a California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) led program to farmers for management practices that protect soils and reduce net greenhouse gases from agriculture. Near the end of the year, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science, providing a much-needed summary of present research, technological demands, best land management practices, and social drivers around soil conservation and restoration. 

While there has been noteworthy progress on soil policy, there is still a great deal of work to be done to support the development and implementation of soil carbon sequestration practices in a realistic, verifiable manner. Progress, however, is hindered by a number of myths about soil carbon that continue to circulate, both from advocates and skeptics. Below we debunk three common misconceptions about soil carbon and set the facts straight about the efficacy of soil carbon sequestration as a tool to fight climate change.


Myth #1: The soil carbon reservoir is a fix-all climate solution.

While soil carbon is our largest terrestrial carbon reservoir, some sequestration advocates tend to gloss over the complicating factors that can affect sequestration projections in scientific model results. These data-limited projections still require continued research, implementation, and supervision, and therefore justify the celebration of soils as an important tool, but not a universal solution to climate change.

While it is positive that prominent research in soil carbon sequestration has indicated a substantial storage potential for U.S. soils, theoretical projections like the French “4 Per 1000” Initiative and others found in studies that extrapolate the global potential for soil carbon sequestration could be misconstrued if the management requirements and timelines for these pathways are not clearly articulated to stakeholders. A recent study in Science Magazine found that climate models may overestimate the speed at which carbon cycles through soil. The study expanded on IPCC models, using radiocarbon dating to demonstrate that previous climate projections had assumed an unusually rapid cycling of soil carbon. The lead author of the study, Yujie He, stated that “it will take a very long time for soil to soak up the carbon; there is a timescale mismatch in terms of climate change.” In a 2016 letter, Dr. Ronald Amundson echoed this skepticism, explaining that soil carbon sequestration programs often oversimplify soil sequestration by omitting factors like the microbial slowing of carbon intake and stakeholder disorganization. He explains that “the biggest sequestration of carbon occurs at the beginning of a management change, and it quickly grinds down to no net gain.” While scientists may still be working through the microbial nuances of soil’s carbon flux, these calculation refinements are not an indication that soil is not worthy of our attention, but rather a signal that it needs a more comprehensive analysis in order to contribute alongside other mitigation strategies.


Myth #2: We should focus on emissions reductions before we worry about soil carbon sequestration.

This is a false choice. In reality, these two efforts must happen simultaneously, since increases in average global temperatures due to climate change can cause the loss of carbon currently stored in soils. These added emissions from the soil would exacerbate the climate problem, starting a feedback cycle between warming and soil carbon emissions. Failure to act now to effectively manage the carbon currently stored in soils could undermine our efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere.

This initial statement presumes that we can’t do two things at once, and that soil carbon management is somehow at odds with reductions in other sectors. Failure to adequately protect soil carbon from disturbance and warming can result in increased emissions, making intervention to protect global soils increasingly necessary. This is especially important consdering that 50-70% of carbon in cultivated lands has already been released, further perpetuating warming. A Yale Forestry report states “that warming will drive the loss of at least 55 trillion kilograms of carbon from the soil by mid-century, or about 17% more than the projected emissions due to human-related activities during that period.” Dr. Amundson commented that “the real concern about soils is the positive feedbacks that will likely occur this century, and the additional greenhouse gases soils will emit due to warming.” This feedback also has repercussions for the benefits of healthy soils (such as increased crop production, recreation, and other ecosystem services) since they are contingent upon a well founded structure of high soil organic carbon density. Regarding soil exclusively as an negative emissions strategy not only fails to acknowledge its multitude of other crucial services, but excludes the positive emissions emitted from U.S. soils as a result of unsustainable agriculture, overgrazing, development, biomass loss, and climate change.

Healthy, undisturbed soils with dense biomass and root structures will slowly store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil (left). However, when that biomass is lost, soil is disturbed, and/or land is deforested, carbon stored in the soil is released back to the atmosphere (right). 

Healthy, undisturbed soils with dense biomass and root structures will slowly store carbon from the atmosphere in the soil (left). However, when that biomass is lost, soil is disturbed, and/or land is deforested, carbon stored in the soil is released back to the atmosphere (right). 

Myth #3: Soil carbon sequestration is at odds with productive agriculture and other human activities.

Carbon farming and regenerative agriculture present techniques which incorporate soil carbon priming methods and consistent groundcover to maximize agricultural yields, soil fertility, and profit.

Even if we are to consider our nation's soils as a long term strategy for climate stabilization, there is a plethora of co-benefits associated with increasing and protecting carbon in soils. These benefits include increased fertility, water availability, and erosion resilience and are typically beneficial for agricultural productivity. Recent studies establishing carbon farming as a potential synthesis between sequestration and economic productivity in Bioscience and Environmental Science and Policy have supported the idea that soil sequestration can be a win-win strategy in U.S. and international climate mitigation efforts. Carbon-sequestering farming practices like polyculture, low- and no-till farming, and enhancing organic material through the addition of compost are all ways in which farming can be compatible with preventing carbon loss and even sequestering carbon into U.S soils. In an interview, Kristin Ohlson, author of the “The Soil Will Save Us,” articulated the basic principles succinctly: “we want to disturb the soil as little as possible, we want to have as much vegetation growing as densely as possible, and we want that vegetation to be as diverse as possible." In this respect, carbon sequestration and storage in U.S. soils can be aligned with sustainable and profitable food production, improved soil resilience and health, and increased soil fertility.    

Soil organic carbon (SOC) offers climate as one of several interconnected benefits. Each of these necessary elements is integrally linked and dependent upon preserved and even enhanced soil carbon (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture 2015).  

Soil organic carbon (SOC) offers climate as one of several interconnected benefits. Each of these necessary elements is integrally linked and dependent upon preserved and even enhanced soil carbon (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture 2015).  

All in all, our soils can play a pivotal role in fighting climate change, but we need to act today to protect and restore their carbon-storing capacity. Increased science to understand soil carbon sequestration dynamics, swift action to protect existing soil carbon stocks, and increased stakeholder engagement to connect healthy, productive soils to climate protection will be key in realizing their full potential.

Leaders in Carbon Removal: Wil Burns

Welcome to the January edition of "Leaders in Carbon Removal"! This month we sat down to chat with Wil Burns, the Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment in the School of International Service at American University and a research fellow at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at University of California, Berkeley. Read below to learn more about his experience in the carbon removal field. 

Center for Carbon Removal: What inspired you to get involved in carbon removal?

Wil Burns: I became interested in climate geoengineering issues about thirteen years ago when I needed one final topic to incorporate into a class that I was teaching at Williams College on international environmental law. It turned out to be such a fascinating topic, that it’s become the cynosure of my research agenda ever since. When I became the Director of the Energy Policy & Climate program at Johns Hopkins, I became increasingly aware of how the topic had moved from the fringes to the corridors of power in Washington, DC. At that point, I formed a think tank with a colleague at American University, the Forum for Climate Energy Assessment, which is now based at American University’s School of International Service. In recent years, my primary area of interest in the field has focused on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options because I believe they are likely to be the most viable from a political perspective, as well as critical to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

CCR: What are you working on in relation to carbon removal today?

WB: The primary area of my research revolves around how we ensure that CDR options are operationalized in a way that protects justice, equity and human rights interests. My focus currently is on BECCS, which could require large diversions of agricultural and forest land, as well as water. This potentially has huge implications for human rights in the context of interests (e.g. food, water, and sustainable livelihoods). I’ve written on how we might use the human rights language in the Paris Agreement to ensure that we apply a Human Rights Based Approach framework to scrutinize proposals for BECCS at the project and program levels at both the domestic and international level. I’m also working on a report on how CDR options might be addressed within the Paris Agreement.

CCR: What is the one thing that you are most excited about in the carbon removal field today?

WB: I’m excited by the fact that CDR options are being actively discussed in important international fora, including the IPCC, the UNFCCC, and other treaty regimes like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention, which addresses introduction of substances into the world’s oceans (the regime has addressed ocean iron fertilization, and a new amendment to its Protocol expands the potential scope of regulatory review to all geoengineering options with a nexus to oceans). I think this will help to galvanize the world to address the potential benefits, risks, and logistical challenges associated with large-scale carbon removal options. While the focus currently is on BECCS and ocean iron fertilization, I think the discussion will quickly expand to other carbon removal options.

CCR: What's one thing you'd like to see the carbon removal community do differently?

WB: I think the community needs to develop outreach materials that will more effectively communicate the nature of carbon removal options to the general public, as well as policymakers. As is true with the climate geoengineering community in general, it’s a bit insular and “clubby” in its orientation, and I include myself in that criticism. We need to develop a public outreach strategy that clearly and honestly explains the need for carbon removal research. This should include development of public deliberative mechanisms. For example, we’re working with the Danish Board of Technology to develop a “World Wide Views” deliberative forum that could involve over 10,000 citizens in almost 100 countries to engage on climate geoengineering issues. We also need to make a more effective case to policymakers on why we need basic R&D funding for carbon removal technologies.

CCR: What do you need in order to achieve your goals around carbon removal?

WB: Collaboration with members of the science community to discuss benefits and risks of these options, and how this can be incorporated into legal mechanisms, including risk assessment and human rights assessment protocols.

Wil Burns is Co-Executive Director of the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment in the School of International Service at American University, as well as a research fellow in the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at University of California, Berkeley. You can reach Wil on Twitter @wil_burns and on LinkedIn

Want to learn more about Wil's work? The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment is hosting a Carbon Dioxide Removal/Negative Emissions Technologies Workshop in Berkeley on February 8th. Learn more and register for the event here

3 reasons why environmentalists can cheer the launch of the Petra Nova CCS project

Earlier this week, the energy company, NRG, announced that its CO2 capture and storage (CCS) project at a coal-fired power plant in Texas had begun commercial operation. If history is any guide, many environmental groups are likely to dismiss this CCS project as an environmental distraction (see Greenpeace, for example). But there are a number of reasons why even the staunchest environmental advocates can applaud this project as a critical stepping stone to solving the climate challenge.

Here’s the context:

NRG has partnered with JX Nippon and the US Department of Energy to fund their “Petra Nova” project: a retrofit of NRG’s “WA Parish” coal-fired power plant outside of Houston, Texas with a post-combustion CO2 capture and storage (CCS) system. The CCS technology installed on this power plant will separate and compress CO2 from 240 MWs worth of the plant’s exhaust stream. NRG will then pipe that compressed CO2 80 miles to an oil field, where the CO2 will be injected into an old oil reservoir. The pressure from the injected CO2 will breathe new life into that oil field by pushing oil to the surface for collection. The injected CO2 then will take the oil’s place trapped in the rock below, where it will slowly mineralize into rock itself over the course of millennia. At the end of this process, would-be CO2 emissions from the coal power plants are trapped underground, resulting in a large reduction in the power plant's impact to the climate.

Above: diagram of the oil recovery + CO2 sequestration process employed by the Petra Nova project. Source: US DOE

Above: diagram of the oil recovery + CO2 sequestration process employed by the Petra Nova project. Source: US DOE

The Petra Nova project (and CCS technology more generally) won’t come without challenges in the future, and it is far from a long-term “silver bullet” solution to climate change that will enable us to continue the widespread use of fossil fuels indefinitely. But this project and ones like it are very valuable for the fight against climate change.  

Here are three reasons why environmentalists concerned about climate change can support CCS projects like Petra Nova:

1. CCS projects like Petra Nova can enable a cost-effective, fast, and fair transition to a decarbonized economy, but NOT to an indefinite future of expanding “clean coal” power generation. The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of existing coal power around the world whose CO2 emissions needed to be eliminated as soon as possible if we want to meet climate goals. To accomplish this feat, we have two options: 1) shut down coal power plants before their useful lives are up, and/or 2) install CCS and let these power plants continue to use coal -- but with a fraction of the climate impact -- until they become obsolete. While coal retirement campaigns like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign have gained some traction with the first approaches, there is still a massive amount of work to be done to eliminate CO2 emissions from coal power plants across the globe. This is not to say that environmental campaigners should ditch all existing efforts around closing coal power plants in favor of advocacy for CCS -- instead, CCS can provide another valuable option for which these campaigners can advocate in contexts where the rapid shutdown of coal is undesirable and/or politically infeasible.

And how can environmental advocates trust that advocacy for CCS is actually a bridge to a coal-free future and not an indefinite license to burn coal? For one, natural gas is beating out coal as the most economically viable fossil fuel for power generation in North America, and renewables -- even when coupled with demand side management tools (e.g. battery storage, load response) -- are getting effective enough to compete against coal for new power plant capacity around the world. As President Obama recently noted in his article in Science, “the irreversible momentum of clean energy” will be difficult to overcome -- it just might take a while for this momentum to build to the point where the discussion on clean v. dirty energy is moot due to the favorable economics of clean energy alone. As a result, CCS projects like Petra Nova offer a potential lifesaver for the planet in the interim.

2. The technology pioneered at the Petra Nova project is relevant for controlling emissions from other types of fossil power generation (e.g. natural gas) and from other difficult-to-decarbonize heavy industrial sources (like cement, steel, and chemical factories). While CO2 emissions from coal power plants is a significant part of the climate problem, we will also need to eliminate CO2 emissions from other sources within the next few decades to meet climate targets. Transitioning all of these projects to renewables will be even harder than the transition from coal power, which means that CCS technology will be highly valuable for reducing CO2 emissions from these projects in the near future. Because CCS technology like that deployed at Petra Nova can be adapted for CCS at other industrial sources of CO2, projects like Petra Nova can generate valuable lessons that help us reduce costs, develop fair environmental and safety regulations, and increase investor experience for CCS projects in all sectors of the economy in the future.

Box 4.1 of the US Midcentury Deep Decarbonization Strategy makes it clear how important CCS is beyond coal power.

Box 4.1 of the US Midcentury Deep Decarbonization Strategy makes it clear how important CCS is beyond coal power.

3. Fossil CCS projects -- even those that use captured CO2 to produce oil -- can help pave the way for negative emissions in the industrial sector in the future. As the former NASA scientist Jim Hansen recently told Rolling Stone: “We are at the point now where if you want to stabilize the Earth's energy balance, which is nominally what you would need to do to stabilize climate, you would need to reduce emissions several percent a year, and you would need to suck 100 gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is more than you could get from reforestation and improved agricultural practices.” The implication: in addition to rapid reductions in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, we’ll likely need big industrial CCS processes to generate negative emissions via approaches like sustainable bioenergy coupled with CCS and/or direct air capture (DAC) + sequestration to make our climate goals a reality. Because there are no good markets for these industrial negative emissions projects today, the only viable way for companies to develop and test the components for these solutions today is through CCS projects like Petra Nova (e.g. on a coal power plant with the CO2 utilized to drill for more oil). Is coal power for oil production a good long-term vision for CCS technology? No. But until better markets and regulations exist for negative emission technologies, these types of projects are the only viable way to improve negative emissions technology components in the meantime. 

In conclusion:

At the end of the day, the Petra Nova CCS project offers an all-too-rare example where environmentalists can genuinely applaud big energy companies for developing and deploying tools for the climate solution toolkit. CCS doesn't need to be the long-term climate solution of choice for environmentalists, but efforts like Petra Nova can be commended by all for advancing technology that will be extremely valuable in the fight to solve the climate challenge.


Great Expectations: The new year brings momentum for carbon removal

In December, we checked in with you about the exciting developments around carbon removal over the past year. (If you missed them, you can read the policy, business, and international recaps on our blog.) In 2017, we expect carbon removal advocates to build upon the momentum created in 2016 to actualize even more progress. Here is what each member of our team is looking forward to in the coming year.


Science & Policy

Giana - headshot.jpg

Written by

Giana Amador

Associate Director of Research & Operations



In 2016, a number of large-scale research projects around carbon removal were announced. While many of those studies won’t be done until at least 2018, we will likely hear inklings of the the initial findings from those preliminary meetings. For one, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences study which will outline a carbon removal research agenda, will be in full swing by mid-2017. There will also be a large effort from the international science community to complete research for the IPCC’s Special Report on the 1.5C target, due to be published in 2018. We can expect a number of new peer-reviewed papers relevant to the role of carbon removal solutions in keeping global temperature increase to below 1.5C to hit the scientific press throughout this year.

Internationally, the UK’s NERC will likely award its solicitations for its newest research program on greenhouse gas removal technologies (i.e. carbon removal). Towards the end of the year, we can expect to see updates to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report and the Global Carbon Project’s carbon budget. These reports are released annually and track the ability of current climate pledges meet our climate targets. Because of this, they have historically been a strong and pragmatic indicator of the importance of carbon removal solutions in fighting climate change.

Thinking about U.S. Federal policy in 2017, it is likely too early to tell what a new Administration and the 115th Congress have in store for carbon removal. There has been quite a bit of talk about the Trump Administration’s potential support for carbon capture and storage (CCS) (see this NY Times article with intel from Senator Heidi Heitkamp). This potential interest suggests that industrial carbon removal solutions and their pathway technologies could see bipartisan support in 2017 -- especially if there is continued support for tax incentives for CCS and CO2 utilization like the options explored by the 114th Congress (see the Carbon Capture and Utilization Act from mid-2016).

On the land side, however, Congress has begun to signal a movement to give more control of public lands to states. This creates opportunities for state governments to pursue land-based carbon sequestration efforts, and we can expect California to lead the way by continuing to implement programs to meet its targets around healthy soils and soil-based emissions reductions.

Business & Technology

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Written by

Noah Deich

Executive Director



On the technology front, we can expect that the trend set in 2016 of a growing number of industrial CO2 management projects coming online will continue into the new year. These projects will hopefully provide valuable lessons for carbon removal projects in the future. For example, the Petra Nova CCS project in Texas is expected to be the first commercial-scale post-combustion capture project at a power plant in the U.S., and the commercial upgrade of the ADM CCS project in Decatur, IL will make it the largest bioenergy + CCS project in the U.S. In addition, direct air capture pilots from companies like Carbon Engineering and Climeworks will gain critical operational experience. Collectively, these projects should shed lights on how well various technologies perform in the field, which will help inform larger-scale carbon removal efforts into the future.

On the business front, efforts to incorporate carbon sequestration activities into corporate supply chain and climate-resiliency efforts are only likely to increase. Many corporate leaders are still likely to be in learning mode when it comes to carbon removal. However, some of the first-movers in this space are close to making big procurement commitments for carbon management solutions and it would not be a surprise to see new businesses publicly launch carbon removal efforts in 2017.


International Land Use

written by

Jason Funk

Associate Director of Land Use




On the international front, we see a number of opportunities for progress in the land sector, even without any major new international policies or commitments. Many countries will begin to implement their plans for reducing deforestation and accelerating forest restoration. These plans won’t come into full swing until 2020, but given that hundreds of millions of acres are slated for restoration, countries will be gearing up for projects at a massive scale.

Meanwhile, work will proceed on transforming agriculture to use more climate-conscious systems. The theme of “restorative agriculture” could take hold, since it offers the potential to increase soil health (and the value of the land asset), even as productivity increases. In addition, forest and crop residues may play a bigger role in generating electricity, and rising demand for these feedstocks could begin to trigger additional planting of new forests and perennial biomass crops.

Policies at the national level will likely accelerate these processes in some places. For instance, China and India are looking to the land sector to produce additional renewable energy. In the US, action is likely to be driven at the state level, with economic forces continuing to fuel growth in renewables, driving more production of biological feedstocks. For agriculture, new investments – especially from the private sector – could have a catalytic effect toward making carbon-sequestering practices commonplace.

2016: Carbon removal gains traction with policymakers

With 2016 coming to a close, it’s clear that carbon removal (or “negative emissions) solutions are starting to gain some serious traction as a critical part of climate action. Governments across the globe have begun to “dip their toes” into the uncharted waters of negative emissions. Here are three key lessons we took away from global policy action on carbon removal this year.

Lesson 1: Carbon removal is critical to deep decarbonization.

With the Paris agreement closing out 2015, 2016 became a year of planning. Policymakers around the world used this year to ask: how will we meet the ambitious goals laid out in the Paris agreement? Although reports like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report previously expressed the likely need for negative emissions to meet our climate goals, this year carbon removal became a more prominent and important pillar in national deep decarbonization scenarios, solidifying its position as a key climate strategy. In 2016, we saw:

  • The US White House Council on Environmental Quality released their “Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” which explores pathways to an 80% reduction of GHG emissions below 2005 levels by 2050. The report included carbon removal solutions as a key pillar of climate action, alongside the transition to low-carbon energy sources and reducing non-CO2 GHGs.  

“Achieving deep economy-wide net GHG emissions reductions will require three major categories of action, [including] Sequestering carbon through forests, soils, and CO2 removal technologies, by bolstering the amount of carbon stored and sequestered in U.S. lands (“the land sink”) and deploying CO2 removal technologies like carbon beneficial bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which can provide “negative emissions”.
— US White House Council on Environmental Quality Mid-Century Strategy


  • Similarly, the UK began to incorporate carbon removal into their national climate action plans. In October, the UK Committee on Climate Change released a report titled, “UK climate action following the Paris Agreement” which extensively explored the technology readiness and cost barriers to implementing various carbon removal solutions. The report states that, “developing and deploying GGR [greenhouse gas removal technologies, also known as carbon removal] options globally and in the UK will be central to realising the Paris ambition” and included three carbon removal solutions into their deep decarbonization scenarios. Following up on this report, in November, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) announced a four-year, interdisciplinary research program around carbon removal solutions.
  • Key international bodies, like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in its annual Emissions Gap Report, also confirmed the need to explore the opportunities and risks associated with using carbon removal solutions to fight climate change. 


Lesson 2: Carbon removal is increasingly seen as a portfolio of Solutions.

An another important development, policymakers have begun to see carbon removal solutions as a portfolio of technologies -- one that ranges from utilizing natural and working lands to sequester carbon through biological processes to more engineered solutions that sequester CO2 directly from the atmosphere. This framework ensures that we explore all relevant options for cleaning up carbon pollution, expand the number of groups that can implement and benefit from carbon removal solutions, and hedges our bets if any solution fails to provide cost-effective, verifiable CO2 removal. This framing was evident in a number of actions by policymakers this year, including the following:

CO2 removal and reuse landscape mapped by SEAB.

CO2 removal and reuse landscape mapped by SEAB.

Lesson 3: Policy is needed to help these solutions reach cost and scale, but we aren’t doing enough today.

2016 also brought a number of potential support mechanisms for carbon removal solutions. While these are promising steps, they are far from what is needed to fully realize the potential of carbon removal solutions.

ADM corn ethanol + CCS demonstration project in Decatur, IL. Photo source: Picture Decatur Blogspot

ADM corn ethanol + CCS demonstration project in Decatur, IL. Photo source: Picture Decatur Blogspot

2016 marked a significant turning point for the carbon removal field. Policymakers have begun to see negative emissions technologies as a key strategy to meet our climate goals and have begun to explore their role in developing these technologies. While they have laid a significant foundation for action by incorporating a portfolio of carbon removal solutions into their deep decarbonization scenarios and research agendas, as they continue on, they will need to continue to be pragmatic spokespeople for these technologies and provide the necessary support mechanisms to help these solutions mature in ways that are consistent with our climate, environmental, and economic goals.

Carbon removal technology developers and businesses build a foundation for action in 2016

Over the past year, innovative carbon removal solutions have received some high profile media coverage and started to enter the climate conversation in a much more prominent way. This post highlights some of the most encouraging developments around carbon removal technologies and businesses in 2016, and provides some context for what it will take to build on these accomplishments to ensure that novel carbon removal technologies can transform into prosperous businesses that make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change.

Dr. Klaus Lackner's research into direct air capture technology was featured in the Washington Post earlier this year. Source: Noah Deich

Dr. Klaus Lackner's research into direct air capture technology was featured in the Washington Post earlier this year. Source: Noah Deich

CO2 removal technologies increasingly viewed as a tool for decarbonizing heavy industry

Encouraging signs:

2016 saw a surge of interest in the idea of using CO2 as a resource to make products (e.g. consumer goods, buildings, fuels, etc.). A prime example is the XPRIZE Foundation’s $20M Carbon Prize, which announced their semi-finalists earlier this year. Some of the startups in this space, such as Opus 12, are working on transforming CO2 into fuels and chemicals; others like Carbon Cure and Solidia are using CO2 to make stronger, more sustainable cements. Groups like the Global CO2 Initiative have projected that the market for CO2 utilization will be worth billions of dollars in the near future, and investors, including Evok Innovations, have begun to fund early-stage companies in this space.

The conventional carbon capture and storage field also saw progress in 2016. A handful of large-scale CO2 capture projects came online this year around the world and more projects are expected in 2017. Two of those projects, at an ethanol refinery in Decatur, IL and a municipal solid waste incinerator in Oslo, will help demonstrate the concept of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (known as “BECCS” for short), which climate scientists see as a prime candidate for delivering large-scale carbon removal in the future.

Direct air capture (DAC), another potential industrial carbon removal technology, also started to gain commercial traction in 2016. One DAC company in Canada, Carbon Engineering, signed an agreement to produce synthetic hydrocarbon fuels using CO2 captured from air. Also, the Swiss DAC company Climeworks announced three EU Horizon 2020 Power-to-X projects using their DAC technology.

Progress needed:

There’s a big catch with this progress around CO2 capture and use: most of the commercial activity described thus far will result in emissions reductions, but NOT net-negative emissions. Emission reductions are important and early commercial activity that encourages technology development, creates initial markets, and helps navigate regulatory and financial barriers relevant to carbon removal is critical. However, going forward, these companies will need to work with industry, government, and civil society to build markets that enable carbon-removing versions of their technologies to flourish.

Finance and business model innovations helped fuel growth in land-based carbon removal approaches

Encouraging signs:

2016 saw big advances in funding for promising technologies that can enable carbon removal in the land sector. For example, ARPA-E announced a $35M investment in grants to a range of technologies that could improve carbon sequestration in agricultural crops. More broadly, the AgTech field as a whole continued to see billions in venture capital funding, including for technologies such as microsatellites and connected sensors that can measure and verify carbon sequestration in natural and working lands.

Entrepreneurs have also made good progress on developing innovative financial instruments and business models that can help carbon removal projects reach scale. Companies like Blue Forest Conservation and Encourage Capital have partnered with philanthropies and government agencies to offer innovative bonds that deliver social and financial returns on enhanced forest management projects. Other companies, like All Power Labs, have begun exploring hybrid energy/agricultural business models to unlock markets for products like biochar all around the world.

Progress needed:

Measuring and verifying the carbon sequestration from specific land-based carbon removal projects still remains an enormous challenge. Without simple solutions and protocols for tracking CO2 sequestration associated with soil and biomass carbon projects, it will remain challenging for land managers to monetize the carbon sequestration benefits of these projects.  

Established industry began exploring carbon removal business opportunities

Encouraging signs:

Overall, one of the most encouraging signs in 2016 was a major uptick in corporate interest in carbon removal. Venues such as the annual VERGE and SxSW Eco conferences provided new platforms for business leaders to discuss early opportunities for deploying carbon removal solutions. Bill McDonough, an architect of the Cradle-to-Cradle certification, has launched a campaign to get businesses to think about CO2 as a resource and an asset for their supply chains. Interface also launched their major “climate take back” initiative to reverse climate change by using CO2 from the sky in their supply chain. Patagonia Provisions even launched a beer made with a perennial variety (and potentially carbon-sequestering) of wheat. This uptick in private sector support will be a key demand driver for carbon removal solutions in the near future.

Venues like SxSW Eco offered new platforms for corporate leaders to discuss opportunities for action on carbon removal. Source: Noah Deich

Venues like SxSW Eco offered new platforms for corporate leaders to discuss opportunities for action on carbon removal. Source: Noah Deich

Progress needed:

A lot of fundamental questions still need to be answered for carbon removal to secure a meaningful place in the corporate world. What types of goals should companies have around carbon removal? How do they measure and track progress towards these goals? How do they differentiate carbon removal efforts from traditional GHG offsetting programs and how do they communicate their progress towards these goals in a clear and constructive way? Corporate leaders will need to get to work answering these questions and more in 2017.

Want to learn more about where our team sees the carbon removal field headed next year? Check back in on the blog in early January 2017 for our thoughts!

2016 quietly ushered in a new global era in climate and land use

Future historians may look back at 2016 as a year that marked a significant shift in the land sector, leading to the acceleration of carbon sequestration around the world. It confirmed and widened the opportunities for countries to sequester carbon through better management of forests, croplands, pastures, and wetlands, while adding to the urgency of this opportunity as a key element of our efforts to prevent disruptive climate change. Fortunately, many countries have begun to take action at a large scale, and others are learning from their examples. At the same time, new resources to spur sequestration are being mobilized at an unprecedented scale. Although the year might be characterized as one of preparation and cultivation, rather than tangible, high-profile outcomes, the seeds of 2016 promise to bear significant fruit in the years ahead.


Global momentum on enhancing forest carbon is unleashed

After years of negotiations, the global climate community has aligned behind efforts to protect and restore forests, which have enormous potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Building on initiatives like the Bonn Challenge, the Warsaw Framework for REDD+, and the New York Declaration on Forests, 2015 concluded with worldwide consensus in the Paris Agreement that “Parties [to the Agreement] should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases,” including “biomass, forests and oceans as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems.” In 2016, we saw many countries begin to act on this commitment, individually and collectively, with a proliferation of new plans and policies, fueled by growing investments and practical science. More than 120 countries included forests in their commitments, with activities ranging from afforestation in Afghanistan to sustainable forest management in Zambia.

Many countries were already taking action toward reducing emissions from deforestation and enhancing forest carbon sinks, and 2016 gave them an opportunity to secure the gains they had made. For example, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Malaysia have each built a solid foundation for action in forests, by 1) developing monitoring systems that can track fluctuations in emissions from forests, 2) initiating processes for consultation with stakeholders, and 3) establishing official baselines for tracking progress, which have been reviewed by international experts. In 2016, we saw further progress, with nearly a dozen countries submitting forest baselines for formal review – as well as development of recommendations for how to make this process more accessible and streamlined, generated by an expert dialogue in which I played a role as a facilitator and co-author. These baselines and the associated accounting systems, used to track progress, are crucial early steps that set the stage for forest countries to secure financial support and implement policies that can build up forest carbon.  

Experts met in Bonn in 2016 to discuss recommendations about constructing and reviewing baselines for forest emissions and sequestration. Source: Jason Funk

Experts met in Bonn in 2016 to discuss recommendations about constructing and reviewing baselines for forest emissions and sequestration. Source: Jason Funk

A number of countries stepped forward to support such efforts, often using dedicated multilateral funds designed specifically for this purpose. For instance, 14 countries, plus the European Commission and two independent organizations, have committed $1.1 billion to the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which in turn has leveraged at least one dollar of additional investment for every dollar it has allocated to the 19 countries in its pipeline of large-scale forest programs. Contributions like these will be directed toward the priorities set by countries in their own commitments, including forests and agriculture.


Agriculture is poised for transformative changes

Turning to agriculture, we saw nearly 120 countries pledge to address emissions from agriculture, often through measures that can pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils. Scientific and technical breakthroughs will need to play a key role to make these pledges a reality. Toward that end, in 2016 the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases continued its work, bringing together researchers and experts from dozens of countries to assemble collaborative research projects and develop best management practices in agriculture, including cropland and soil carbon management. Their work draws upon active research on the practices that can simultaneously sequester carbon, raise yields, and enhance agricultural resilience – some of which is occurring at the 15 research centers of the CGIAR network, through the Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture, and at dozens of academic institutions around the world.  Such work will be increasingly necessary to sustain the most vulnerable in a world with rising human populations and ongoing impacts of climate change.

One example of an agriculture project in Haiti demonstrated that farmer livelihoods could improve while boosting carbon sequestration – with the largest benefits coming from watershed reforestation and perennial crop expansion. Source: CGIAR Info Note

One example of an agriculture project in Haiti demonstrated that farmer livelihoods could improve while boosting carbon sequestration – with the largest benefits coming from watershed reforestation and perennial crop expansion. Source: CGIAR Info Note

Even with these critical inroads, progress will be difficult in agriculture, especially as climate impacts and rising incomes add to the existing pressure to increase productivity. Historically, increases in agricultural productivity have typically been associated with rising emissions and the depletion of soil carbon. However, many farmers in a range of contexts have bucked this trend, finding ways to improve the health of their soils and reduce their use of high-emissions inputs, while gradually improving their livelihoods. This body of practices and techniques is now being recognized as a distinct approach to farming, sometimes labeled “carbon farming,” and its champions are cataloging its characteristics and successes. The widespread adoption of this approach will require -- among other things -- demonstrating its advantages to millions of smallholder farmers and creating transition pathways from current practices to more climate-friendly ones.


2016 was a springboard for the land sector

The year 2016 marked the beginning of a new era for climate and land-use issues. This change has not happened overnight, but has been the result of long-term, dedicated efforts by land managers, researchers, investors, policymakers, and others. Its effects may not be fully realized for some time (or may be interrupted), but the signs point to a significant shift: the incorporation of forest and soil restoration into the climate and development strategies of most countries, the enshrinement of the land sector’s key role in the international climate agreement, the first fruits of coordinated research efforts aimed at integrating climate goals into land management, and the availability of large-scale financial investments to fuel the climate-related benefits of better land management. Each of these factors blossomed in 2016 and in combination, they comprise an unprecedented opportunity for transformative progress. Here at the Center, we plan to add our own efforts to building a new, sustainable paradigm for the land sector – a paradigm that turns carbon into a resource for feeding the world and restoring our precious landscapes. 

Guest Post: How CO2 can be a solution to climate change

Image source:

Image source:

What do blue M&Ms and sneakers have in common? What if I told you they could both help fight climate change?

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions have generally focused on two strategies: shifting to renewable and other low-carbon energy sources and finding ways to sequester carbon through forestation, improved land use, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Both of these strategies are critical. But both also miss an opportunity—namely that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are not just the primary driver of climate change, but also a potential building block for an almost infinite number of materials, fuels, and products we use every day.

Here are just a few examples. The food company Mars has committed to switching from artificial colors to natural colors, and their biggest challenge is the color blue. One promising source is spirulina, a type of algae that a number of companies are producing using CO2. In 2014, Sprint began selling iPhone cases made of plastics from waste CO2 captured at farms and landfills. This year, Ford announced it would use foam and plastics derived from CO2 emissions to make vehicle seats and interiors. The company Covestro is making CO2-derived foam for use in mattresses and upholstered furniture. And at New York Fashion Week this year, NRG Energy unveiled a “Shoe Without a Footprint” made from CO2.

Shoes made out of waste CO2? They won't solve the climate change alone, but could help spur unexpected innovations that enable large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Shoes made out of waste CO2? They won't solve the climate change alone, but could help spur unexpected innovations that enable large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

So why aren’t technologies like these a bigger part of the climate change conversation?

Some argue the potential markets for CO2-based products are inherently niche and, even in aggregate, would have only a very small impact on reducing carbon emissions. Others say that large-scale carbon capture paired with underground sequestration is a more certain path to address the enormous amount of CO2 emissions produced globally.

These arguments are not necessarily wrong, but they don’t tell the whole story. That’s because, as history has shown, what we think we know today can be turned on its head tomorrow. How?

First, raw materials are fungible and frequently replaced by better performing, more cost-effective alternatives. In the mid-1880s, aluminum was exceedingly difficult to produce, making it rare and valuable. In France, Napoleon III served his most honored guests with aluminum plates and utensils, while lesser visitors were given gold and silver. But before the end of the 19th century, new processes for separating aluminum reduced its cost dramatically and opened an abundance of new markets in everything from electrification and construction to consumer products like cans and aluminum foil.

Second, innovation in adjacent sectors can create new markets for products once considered merely waste. The first U.S. oil wells were drilled in the 1850s to produce kerosene for lighting and a major byproduct—gasoline—was discarded as waste. But by the 1920s, the rise of the automobile transformed demand for gasoline, and today it makes up nearly 50 percent of every barrel of oil produced.

Third, we are living in an age where transformational technologies can replace not just materials and products, but entire industries. In 1975, a young engineer at Kodak invented the first digital camera, but the company did not pursue the technology because they were concerned about cannibalizing their dominant position in film. By 2000, revenue for digital cameras had surpassed film. By 2012, Kodak had filed for bankruptcy and the online photo-sharing platform Instagram had sold for $1 billion.

Will markets for every—or any— product we can make from CO2 follow these examples?

The answer is we don’t know. But it’s certainly possible that CO2-derived products can have a more significant impact than some analyses suggest today. One expert recently estimated products from CO2 could consume 25 percent of carbon emissions in 20 years.

What we need are better tools and methodologies to assess the potential economic impact—and environmental footprint—of these technologies and products. Teams competing in the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE will be judged on the net value of their CO2-based products, including the potential market size. More economic and market analysis like this would help us better understand the potential of CO2 as an asset.

Climate change is the very definition of a grand challenge—big, complex, and for which there is no single solution. When we talk about the power of innovation to solve grand challenges, we mean the power of solutions that don’t exist today to become commonplace. The wonder of science and technology is that we don’t know what solutions we may discover. That is, of course, unless we don’t try at all.

Alisa Ferguson is a consultant and writer working to accelerate clean energy deployment. She led the design of the Carbon XPRIZE and enjoys all colors of M&Ms.

Guest Post: A "Secret Master Plan" for Direct Air Capture?

10 years ago, Tesla announced its plan to radically transform the automotive market by building electric vehicles that were more attractive than conventional combustion-powered cars. While Tesla wasn't the first company to propose such a bold vision, they set out to achieve their goals in an unconventional manner: by producing a high-end performance vehicle as their first foray into the market. Conventional wisdom at the time held that such a plan might succeed at converting some of the Porsche-driving crowd over to electric vehicles, but that it wouldn't help the billions of other drivers around the world that were unable to afford such luxury cars. Tesla saw it differently. As summarized in the company's “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan,” Tesla planned to use the revenue and experience from niche, high-priced initial markets to build successively more affordable mass-market cars. Amazingly, that plan seems to be working.  

Above: Tesla's unique approach to transforming the automotive industry to electric vehicles was to start in the luxury segment to gain experience and revenue. Image source: Wikipedia 

Above: Tesla's unique approach to transforming the automotive industry to electric vehicles was to start in the luxury segment to gain experience and revenue. Image source: Wikipedia 

The case study and business strategy of Tesla is highly relevant for another emerging technology with a bold vision, but facing major commercialization challenges: Direct Air Capture (DAC).  DAC technology is basically an industrial sized air filter that can extract CO2 from air and concentrate it to the higher purity needed for utilization or permanent disposal. The reason many see DAC as so important is that, even if Tesla takes over the world and makes all of our energy from renewable sources, we still will have to deal with excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air from past industrial activity to prevent climate change. While DAC can provide a promising technological fix to answer this challenge, it has been largely neglected in climate change discussions to date -- cast off as too expensive and something with only niche potential, much like the electric vehicles of only a few decades ago.

So what might a "Secret Master Plan" for DAC to gain market traction and global attention look like?

First Markets

If we want to get good at extracting CO2 in order to sequester billions of tons of past, present, and future emissions, it will be critical to find attractive first markets. For DAC, this is challenging, but not impossible. The biggest challenge for DAC is it's price premium against competing technologies -- much like electric vehicles had to compete against low-cost gasoline alternatives. Estimates for first-of-a-kind DAC costs are all well over $100/ton CO2, which is considerably higher than existing carbon markets and the cost of current low-cost CO2 capture processes from natural sources and/or fuel/chemical manufacturing. Fortunately, CO2 collected from DAC systems can be used to make a number of valuable, and even sexy, products today for which customers are willing to pay a premium.  

Energy company NRG makes a shoe using recycled CO2 via Business Insider

Energy company NRG makes a shoe using recycled CO2 via Business Insider

So which of these early markets might give DAC developers a chance to cross the commercialization valley of death, while building the policy support it will need to thrive in the future?

  • Extracting CO2 from buildings: Recent studies have shown that excess indoor CO2 reduces cognitive function. Systems that can solve this pain point can integrate with new technologies that can monitor CO2 concentrations (see FutureAir) and turn on as needed and even provide an on-demand source of CO­2. Skytree is the only DAC start-up that is currently exploring this option. The largest benefit for this application is that by placing DAC units on site, there are no direct competitors (e.g. from flue gas like in other applications).
  • Greenhouses with a passive DAC system: Greenhouses are a lucrative market for providing CO2, because operators pay between $100-200/ton CO2 to enhance plant growth. Because greenhouses do not require pure CO2, companies like Infinitree can take advantage of a passive approach to DAC that uses evaporation to upgrade CO2 to concentrations needed at a much smaller cost-premium. In addition, because DAC systems can be sited directly on site, they can eliminate the costly transportation step often associated with CO2 capture from other industrial sources. Long term cost reductions aside, it also is conceivable that there are customer segments willing to pay extra for “DAC enhanced” food, just as there is a customer segment willing to pay a premium for organically or locally grown food.
Climeworks entry point into the DAC market is CO2 for enhancing greenhouse yields.

Climeworks entry point into the DAC market is CO2 for enhancing greenhouse yields.

  • Carbon neutral liquid fuels: dispatchable energy for a variable load. Some DAC companies, such as Carbon Engineering, are focused on making synthetic liquid hydrocarbons as their first market. These fuels can decarbonize the transport sector and be used for long-term carbon neutral energy storage. While large quantities of less expensive waste CO2 could also be available for making liquid fuels coming from power plants, by extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, renewably-powered DAC has a clear competitive advantage on the life cycle CO2 balance in niche markets willing to pay for low-carbon fuels. In addition, the modular and dispatchable nature of DAC systems can complement intermittent renewable energy infrastructure nicely.  
  • Remote and distributed niche markets. While both Climeworks and Global Thermostat also aspire to make liquid fuels and feed CO2 to greenhouses, their modularity and active processes also allow them to satisfy remote and niche demands for CO2. This includes delivering CO2 for beverage carbonation, water purification or to algae farms (for use in fuel, feed, and chemical applications). Global Thermostat uniquely can capture CO2 from both air and from power plants.
A rendering of Carbon Engineering's plant that can be used for producing synthetic hydrocarbon fuels.

A rendering of Carbon Engineering's plant that can be used for producing synthetic hydrocarbon fuels.

Towards a DAC commercialization master plan

The jury is out whether any of the aforementioned companies have a plan that can achieve the escape velocity needed to move DAC from niche markets into mainstream applications. But if a DAC company did have a "secret master plan," I think it might read something like:

  • Find one air-to-end-use for CO2 -- and prove that DAC is a viable business, even if only in niche markets. This step must involve public demonstration and market pull -- transparency is key for showing DAC has an economic, environmental, and social value. DAC companies will need to figure out how to publish credible techno-economic assessments of their technology to prove it works, despite the (understandably) secretive nature of start-ups wishing to protect intellectual property...
  • Work with customers and governments who want to see more of it. Like any new climate solution technology, DAC needs policy and regulatory support. Tesla, after all, got a $465M loan from Uncle Sam back in 2008, and has benefited from consumer tax rebates for electric vehicles at the Federal and state level. Finding champions in government and industry will be critical for DAC to grow into new markets and come down the cost curve. 
  • As DAC becomes cheaper, seek out more mainstream consumer markets, and build on DAC's unique environmental strengths to command a premium from customers. This can help reward the early adopters and inspire new DAC supporters.
  • Act collectively to push for policies that make DAC as a negative emission technology more and more competitive over time as part of the suite of technologies needed to close the carbon cycle.

Christophe Jospe spends his time building networks to enable collective action and amplifying attention and capital to the most promising solutions that can capture, use, and sequester carbon dioxide. Click here to subscribe to his monthly newsletter. 

Profiles in Carbon Removal: Tom Price

Happy November CCR followers! Welcome to the monthly series on our blog called "Profiles in Carbon Removal". Here, we share stories about individuals working on carbon removal. Meet Tom Price. Tom focuses on fighting climate change and improving energy access through his work with All Power Labs. 

Read his answers to our questions below! 

Center for Carbon Removal: What inspired you to get involved in carbon removal?

Tom Price: I used to be a freelance journalist, and got an assignment to go to Tuvalu to report on that Pacific Island nation’s loosing fight with climate change. At the time no one believed that sea level rise was happening. While there, I interviewed an old man on the porch of his thatched hut, who said when he was a boy the lagoon used to be about 300 feet away. As he spoke, the lagoon was lapping at the back corner of his house. This disconnect badly spooked me and I thought, "what if this guy’s right, and they are wrong?"  It completely changed the course of my life. Fast forward 13 years: that same magazine is writing about my current work on climate and carbon removal.

CCR: What are you working on in relation to carbon removal today?

TP: Our company, All Power Labs, designs and builds biomass gasifiers. These gasifiers turn organic waste like wood chips and corn cobs into an on-demand, renewable, carbon-negative energy. Gasification is an old, but largely forgotten, technology — turning a solid material into vapor that can power various energy systems, including a regular car engine. This versatility allows us to connect the largest system of harvesting energy and carbon on the planet — plants — with the largest system for using energy on the planet — the internal combustion engine. Fortunately for all of us, gasification is an imperfect process, so about 5-10% of the embedded carbon gets captured in the form of something called biochar. We can put it in the ground and sequester it, and/or use it for useful things like fertilizers or filters. This process is one of more market-ready ways of getting carbon out of the atmospheric system, and it can help us turn problems, like California’s forest health crisis, into solutions.

All Power Labs with their biomass gasifier at VERGE 2013 in San Francisco. 

All Power Labs with their biomass gasifier at VERGE 2013 in San Francisco. 

CCR: What is the one thing that you are most excited about in the carbon removal field today?

TP: The diversity! There are so many great approaches, startups, and faces now in this space. It’s really quite jarring — when we were in Paris at COP21 last December, the conversation was all about limiting emissions, and just six months later at CEM7 it was beginning to incorporate removal. From hardly being part of the conversation a year ago, it has really begun to shift the conversation among early adopters, and from there it will only spread.  I credit CCR for much of that.  

CCR: What's one thing you'd like to see the carbon removal community be doing differently?

TP: Two things: 1) Stop arguing with people that don’t agree climate change is happening. We literally don’t have time to even talk to those people. Find our allies, the ones that want to DO something, and empower them. 2) Make sure that carbon removal becomes adopted in addition to lowering carbon emissions, in all your conversations/articles/work/plans. The limits approach is not nearly enough. We need to shift the conversation to: what will make the [CO2 PPM] number go down?

CCR: What do you need in order to achieve your goals for carbon removal?

TP: The hardest thing for us is for people to learn that we even exist. When people think about renewable energy, they think solar and wind, maybe hydro. But we can pave the planet with solar panels and it won’t remove a single gram of carbon from the atmosphere. Yes, we absolutely need to stop making things worse, and solar is the best tool for doing that. We also need to actively start pulling carbon out of the sky, and our work can be a part of that. So for us, it’s word of mouth; it’s doing demonstrations; it’s letting people know that we can solve the twin challenges of energy access and climate change at the same time.

You can contact Tom and learn more by visiting: @tomprice or @allpowerlabs on Twitter, the All Power Labs website, and on LinkedIn.