“So now what?” That’s the question being asked in corporate offices after the unexpected passage of the reformed “45Q” tax credit in February.
Originally posted to TriplePundit.
Friday’s short government shutdown culminated in a potentially huge win for the climate, business and investors. Among a slew of spending and tax credits tucked into the budget bill signed by U.S. President Trump, one of them, known as 45Q, expands tax incentives for carbon capture, including from the air. With advocates from both sides of the aisle, the act shows bipartisan support for carbon capture technology. The policy also signals a shift toward greater development and deployment for something known as carbon dioxide removal.
Broadly speaking, carbon dioxide removal involves two crucial steps: trapping carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas causing climate change) and reliably storing it. For every qualifying project, 45Q generates a tax credit: $50 per ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) buried in underground storage, $35 per ton for either utilization or enhanced oil recovery.
With no cap on the available tax credits and 12 years to claim them, 45Q is poised to do for carbon capture what similar incentives did for wind and solar power: unleash private sector investments that catapult the technology into its maturity. Tax credits are the first step in that direction. The policy makes a stronger business case for development, which in turn will drive necessary innovations that make it easier and more attractive to take these technologies to scale.
This scaling is vital. Scientists agree that cleaning up past emissions of carbon dioxide is essential to meeting safe climate targets. And 45Q is the first federal acknowledgement of the role that carbon utilization and air capture technologies will play in getting us there.
Money for mechanical trees
Direct air capture (DAC) is a method for literally removing carbon from the atmosphere. Mechanical trees suck in ambient air and chemically separate out the carbon dioxide. From there, the captured CO2 is pumped deep underground into sealed chambers. The end result of direct air capture, in other words, is permanently stored CO2.
The best part? This technology is far from theoretical. ClimeWorks is one of three startups–along with Global Thermostat and Carbon Engineering–to pull it off: Their negative emissions plant in Iceland “stores the air-captured CO2 safely and permanently in basalt, leading us closer to our efforts to achieve global warming targets.”
Thus far, however, all of ClimeWorks plants have been located outside the U.S and have been highly subsidized. Direct air capture has a near limitless potential for carbon removal, making it a critical tool for carbon dioxide removal. But the high cost of the technology in pilot projects has been a barrier to wide adoption. 45Q takes an important step toward lowering these costs. As the first instance of explicit federal support, the bill sends a clear signal to DAC investors to continue funding innovations that further bring down costs.
Waste to value
45Q designates a $35 per ton tax credit for the beneficial recycling or utilization of captured CO2 emissions. Rather than storing emissions underground, CarbonTech businesses recycle waste carbon dioxide by converting it into consumer products and materials like plastics, transportation fuels, and chemicals. That credit is likely to drive a handful of industrial carbon capture projects, according to a recent study.
CarbonCure makes a stronger, faster-curing cement by injecting waste carbon dioxide into cement mixers. CarbonCure’s technology repurposes greenhouse gas emissions, injecting them into concrete to yield a superior and greener product. Positively, the extension of 45Q will incentivize more companies to reuse CO2 in novel and creative ways by making the processes and technologies more investable and affordable. In turn, this can help build early markets and broader political will for carbon removal.
Public money unlocks private dollars
Even before the extension of 45Q, innovative investors, corporations, and startups were already working to build an industry around recycling carbon emissions. More than $2 billion dollars in private capital gathered at Center for Carbon Removal’s CarbonTech Investor Roundtable last week to explore investment opportunities. They asked for more CarbonTech businesses. They also said policy support is critical to creating large markets for CarbonTech, in turn increasing revenue and mitigating climate change.
It’s like the bipartisan authors of 45Q were in the room. With federal support for carbon recycling, building a business or investing in the carbon recycling space is less risky and potentially more profitable than ever before.
45Q gathered diverse backers, ranging from fossil fuel companies to unions and environmentalists. While these stakeholders touted different benefits for the economy and the environment, they generally agreed on the importance of federal incentives for carbon capture and utilization. Enhanced oil recovery (EOR), an important pathway to geologic carbon dioxide sequestration, will likely receive many of the 45Q tax credits.
But even EOR projects would help carbon capture companies reduce their costs and get to scale.
With these learnings from EOR projects under their belt, carbon capture companies could more easily transition to storing CO2 underground without EOR when carbon prices increase to make such standalone sequestration economically viable
Cementing the victory
Here at Center for Carbon Removal, we work to grow nascent carbon removal activities into large-scale climate solutions. Technological, commercial, and policy barriers must be overcome in order to do so. 45Q starts to tackle all three of these obstacles by reducing the risks and increasing the profitability of carbon removal. This is why CCR, as part of a diverse coalition, has advocated for this policy for years.
This victory calls for even more tenacious work on carbon removal. Center for Carbon Removal invite you to join us in pioneering the future of carbon removal. We need your intellect, passion and expertise. Here is how you can get involved:
- Subscribe This Week in Carbon Removal to keep abreast of the latest carbon removal news, events, job postings, and journal articles.
- Join Center for Carbon Removal Investor Network for exclusive connections to other investors and the hottest startups.
- Got a good CarbonTech business idea? Sign up to compete in the Carbontech Labs business accelerator.
In a moment – how I lost 35 pounds (16 kilos, for those outside the US). But first, some brutal climate math.
The Climate Science is in. The recent congressionally mandated government report, the UN Emissions Gap Report, and the last IPCC report make the case. Beyond that, the weather is in. With the three hottest years ever, record heat waves, terrible wildfires, the strongest storms ever, and the accelerating melting of Greenland and Antarctic Ice, it’s pretty clear that it’s pretty bad.
Ocean acidification. Species dying. Spreading tropical pests and diseases. Fires and floods. It may not be the end of days, but it sure looks like the Book of Revelations. We live today in the future predicted by climate scientists years ago.
But I come not to talk about Climate Science. I come to talk about Climate Math.
The Climate Math is pretty straightforward. Since we know about how much CO2 warms the atmosphere (both directly and indirectly, like by increasing water vapor saturations), and we know how much warming has already happened, we know how much more CO2 we can emit before we blow past the Paris Climate Accord targets – 1.5C and 2C of warming. Friendly note: even a 1.5 world is pretty awful, and a 3C world is REALLY awful.
The Paris targets give us a BUDGET to work with. Just like any budget, one can only spend so much before becoming overdrawn. Since we have to assess future climates statistically, the carbon budget is actually a set of probabilities associated with rates of emission and how much warming we get from adding greenhouse gases to the air (called the Climate Sensitivity).
The carbon budget news is pretty bad. Here's the highlights. If our current rate of emissions stays flat:
- We can emit for only 5 more years (!) to have a 2/3 chance of reaching 1.5C. Five.
- We can emit for only 12 more years to have a 50% chance of stopping at 1.5C
- We can emit for roughly 20 years to have a 50% chance of stopping at 2 C
- To get on track for a 2C world, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year by about 15 billion tons in 12 years’ time. That’s more that all emissions from all worldwide coal.
- To get on track for a 1.5C world, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year by about 20 billion tons. That’s twice the weight of all oil and gas shipped in the world every year, or about 100 times the volume that Royal Dutch Shell refines and sells every year.
Whether this makes you optimistic or pessimistic, the WORK looks the same. Moping or flapping like wet hens won’t reduce emissions. Action will. Which takes me to my weight-loss story.
I really did lose 35 pounds in about 4 months. It wasn’t always fun. But I did it. I started by modifying my diet some (less carbs and sweets, more fruit) and going to the gym 3 times a week (moderate cardio). Over the course of three months, I lost 5 pounds.
I felt better, and was pleased with myself. Then I went on vacation and gained it all back in 4 days.
I decided I needed to do more. I reset the clock and started again. This time, I cut out sweets 100%. I stopped eating pasta, and decreased carbs a lot. I hit the gym 5 times a week – vigorous cardio and weight training. I drank tons of water. I ate less, and I was hungry. I stayed hungry.
In three weeks, I didn’t want sweets and was not as bothered by my occasional hunger. I slept better. My acid reflux went away. And, in three months, I had lost 25 pounds.
Diet and exercise. Who knew?
The punchline is I needed to do more, so I did. Same with the climate budget, we gotta do more. We must.
We need to invest in innovative approaches. We try new things. We should triple our R&D investments in clean tech across the board.
We need new policies that take new approaches and have greater ambition. We should support new business models, and create new markets that stimulate private investment. We need to spend more money – a recent study at Stanford showed just how much, and where! In particular, we need to augment the current investments in renewables and EV’s with additional investments in energy efficiency, geothermal, nuclear, and carbon capture.
We also need to go beyond reducing emissions, and start removing them. After all, what drives the climate is the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If we want to fix the mess we made, we need to remove that carbon as well.
We must take more shots on net if we want to score. "All of the above" worked for me in weight loss, and will work for the climate best as well.
My future blogs will discuss aspects of the solution set. How might we start thinking about the work we share. How to talk about the challenge in ways that help separate sense from non-sense and spur action. How to create new industries that bring growth and wealth while we solve the problems at hand. For now, though, I leave you with one thought only:
If you embrace climate science, then embrace the climate math.
Dr. Julio Friedmann is the CEO of Carbon Wrangler, LLC, and a Distinguished Associate at the Energy Futures Initiative, where he leads a team on large-scale carbon management and deep decarbonization.
He recently served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy. He has also held positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including Senior Advisor for Energy Innovation and Chief Energy Technologist. Follow Julio on Twitter @CarbonWrangler.
Setting the stage for COP23
This year’s meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be an important step toward the implementation of the Paris Agreement, due to take effect in 2020. At this year’s annual negotiating session, the country of Fiji will be presiding over the negotiations, though the event will be held in Bonn, Germany. Fiji is known as an outspoken member of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of vulnerable countries that consistently presses for greater ambition in addressing climate change. Bonn is familiar turf for most climate negotiators, and the recently completed conference center and specially designed venue is well-equipped to support the negotiations. These factors set the stage for an ambitious and smooth-running meeting.
In this post, I aim to give you a guide to the high points of the meeting, explain where carbon removal (a.k.a. “carbon dioxide removal”, “CDR”, or “negative emissions”) fits into the negotiations, point out some developments that may overshadow the negotiations, and describe how the Center for Carbon Removal (CCR) will be engaged at the COP. Stay tuned to CCR’s newsletter and website for updates on how it all plays out.
What is this meeting about?
This meeting is the 23rd annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change, so it is one of many steps on the road to a safer climate. This will be the second COP meeting since the Paris Agreement was completed, and countries will be working out the nuts and bolts of that agreement. The structure of the negotiations mimics the structure of the Paris Agreement, with separate negotiations for each Article of the Agreement occurring in parallel tracks. As each piece nears completion, the separate tracks will be brought together, much in the way that separate assembly lines converge in order to build a complex, interconnected product like a car.
At the heart of the Paris Agreement is a series of interrelated mechanisms that serve as an “engine” to slow and reverse climate change. In a simplified view, these mechanisms can be thought of as consisting of four essential parts: 1) country-level pledges to take action, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs); 2) a set of procedures to facilitate cooperation among countries; 3) a standardized way of reporting the outcomes of those actions, called the Transparency Framework; and 4) a process to regularly check collective progress, called the Global Stocktake (GST).
The theory behind the Paris Agreement is that these mechanisms will work together to harness the individual and collective action of countries, driving them toward the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. The first step of this process started with the initial round of NDCs pledged in 2015, which countries will begin to implement in 2020. Second, as they begin to take national-level actions, many countries will find it easier and more cost-effective to work together on some activities, such as exchanging technologies or investing in low-carbon solutions. Third, they will use the Transparency Framework to report their progress, allowing everyone to see what is working and not working. And fourth, the Global Stocktake process will then look at overall progress, illuminating areas where more effort is required, or where additional investments can accelerate approaches that are already succeeding. Like the cycles of a 4-stroke engine, this brings the process back around to the starting point; countries will take all of this information and pledge another round of NDCs to take effect in 2025, and the process will begin again. With each cycle, they will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and learn a great deal about how they can make their efforts more effective.
This approach builds upon past experience with the Kyoto Protocol and other policies, but as yet it is still untested. Therefore, it is crucial for countries to design these different mechanisms carefully, with an eye toward how they will all come together to function smoothly in the end.
Will carbon removal be part of the negotiations?
“Carbon removal” and “negative emissions” don’t appear anywhere on the formal agenda of the two-week meeting; however, several of the interrelated parts of the agenda could either pave the way or shut the door on negative emissions, depending on the outcomes of the negotiations.
For example, many countries are including carbon sequestration from the land sector – forests, agriculture, wetlands, etc. – as part of their NDCs. This kind of sequestration has long been recognized by both scientists and policymakers as an effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. However, under the Paris Agreement, two different perspectives must be brought together smoothly in order for the land sector to play its essential role.
On the one hand, under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries tended to take biological sequestration for granted, either automatically counting it towards their pledges or essentially ignoring it in their policies. Neither one of these approaches would give us what we need, which is a set of policies designed to stimulate and promote sequestration in the landscape, through such activities as reforestation, sustainable forest management, and conservation agriculture.
The other perspective comes primarily from developing countries, where deforestation has been a large source of emissions over the past several decades and a hot-button issue. After a decade of advocacy, these countries succeeded in establishing a set of international policies, incentives, and safeguards to help reach two interlinked goals: 1. reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and 2. protect and enhance forests and other biological reservoirs of carbon. This body of work is known as REDD+, and it is enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Countries participating in REDD+ can seek support from international finance mechanisms aimed at supporting action on climate change, bringing much-needed resources to poor and middle-income countries. In practice, much of the focus in REDD+ has been aimed (appropriately) at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Much less attention has been given to supporting sequestration by protecting and enhancing forests. Furthermore, despite several years of discussion, there has been very little tangible progress toward promoting carbon sequestration in agriculture.
These dynamics set up a delicate dance at the negotiations. Developing countries are keen to garner support for their efforts to control deforestation and degradation, but most probably don’t see a clear way to activate carbon sequestration as part of their policies and development planning. Meanwhile, most of the developed countries already feel that sequestration is on cruise control, and doesn’t require much additional attention from them. So in both cases, CCR will be working to bring more attention to the importance of sequestration, in the land sector and beyond.
What activities at the COP are relevant for carbon removal?
Activities associated with the COP ramp up several days in advance, and several of them are relevant for carbon removal. Several roundtables are scheduled for specific agenda items – these are less formal meetings where civil society (e.g. non-governmental organizations) and country representatives can hear about recent progress or talk about opportunities and concerns. Roundtable discussions about the Transparency Framework, GST, NDCs, and mechanisms for cooperative action will all take place in the days before the COP begins. Hopefully, these roundtables will create momentum and foster a common understanding among the countries, so that the COP itself does not become bogged down in misunderstandings.
Once the COP begins, the main event will be the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA). The agenda of this group will tackle the various pieces of the Paris Agreement in separate tracks, working to build up a set of decisions about how the Agreement will be operationalized and supported once it takes effect in 2020. In addition to the main event, two subsidiary bodies associated with the UNFCCC will also meet to address their own agendas: one focused on scientific and technical issues, the other focused on policy implementation issues.
Beyond the negotiations themselves, the COP provides a rich opportunity for the climate community to share their contributions and make connections. For instance, the COP supports a robust program of side events, often hosted by civil society groups, who share new insights about policy-relevant work. The Center for Carbon Removal will host its own event during the second week of the COP – the only such event explicitly addressing the role of negative emissions in climate policy.
The COP also features a space where business groups, innovators, and other members of the private sector can interact with country negotiators and civil society groups, usually by hosting exhibits, receptions, and other events.
In addition, media are on hand to report about the developments in the meeting, including regularly scheduled press conferences by all types of participants.
What recent developments might impact the dynamics of the COP?
Two recent developments are relevant, both U.S.-focused. First, this will be the first meeting since the Trump Administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and I expect the rest of the countries will respond to that announcement, perhaps in dramatic ways. This will create a good deal of ill-will toward the U.S., and the issue could disrupt the progress of the COP.
Second, the recent spate of tragic climate-driven disasters on US soil will certainly receive attention at the COP. The significance of the hurricanes that pounded Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, as well as the wildfires that devastated parts of California and other states, will not be lost on anyone. Most countries will struggle to understand the disconnect between the obvious impacts of these events and the retrenchment by U.S. policymakers. In some cases, this could allow actions at the state and city levels to step into the policy vacuum and garner more recognition than they would otherwise. The recognition around the world that climate change is worsening the impacts of extreme weather events will spur greater urgency within the negotiations, but the cognitive dissonance coming from the U.S. might act to dissipate that sense of urgency.
What is CCR aiming to achieve at the COP?
CCR brings a fresh and positive message to the COP: the global community has an opportunity to build and utilize a set of carbon removal tools that can accelerate climate mitigation and tamp down the disruptive impacts of climate change faster than emissions reductions alone. Recent science points to greater potential for carbon removal than we had previously realized, if we activate natural climate solutions and protect existing forests. We will be delivering these messages to COP participants through our in-person engagement and a formal side-event.
Carbon removal opportunities will take a great deal of work if we’re going to reach the scale we need to affect the climate system. We can’t afford to delay action or to get bogged down in politics and procedures. At the same time, we need all countries to carefully consider how carbon removal fits with their other priorities – such as sustainable development, food security, emissions reductions, and building access to new markets – to pave the way for smooth implementation at the right scale. COP 23 is a prime opportunity to elevate these issues on an international stage and accelerate progress. We don’t have any time to lose.
The “Natural Climate Solutions” paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 17, 2017, presents an insightful examination of the global potential for well-managed ecosystems to mitigate climate change. The article provides a crucial update on the global potential for natural carbon removal solutions to be expanded in order to help countries meet their Paris Agreement contributions, ultimately concluding that these solutions can play a significantly greater role than previously thought.
Even assuming substantial safeguards around food and fiber productions, the study shows a massive opportunity for the management of natural systems to avoid emissions and clean up carbon from the atmosphere. The findings indicate that through twenty distinct restoration, conservation, and land management approaches, natural climate solutions (NCS) can deliver approximately 30% more climate mitigation than previous estimates. Even limiting the analysis to solutions that cost less than $100 USD per Mg CO2e, the paper found that natural climate solutions have the capacity to mitigate 37% of emissions required by 2030 (and 20% by 2050) to meet Paris Agreement climate targets. At under a hundred dollars per ton, natural solutions are competitive with other mitigation options like renewable energy, and with a third of this potential available at under ten dollars per ton, natural solutions can radically lower the overall cost of mitigating climate change. The abatement requirements for NCS outlined by the report are contextualized through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report pathways, and aligned to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.
All of this is good news. More cost-effective climate mitigation – with greater safeguards around food, fiber, and ecological integrity – is inherently beneficial, as cheap, safe, and rapidly deployable mitigation options are few and far between. Moreover, these specific pathways offer a guide for translating nationally determined contributions (NDCs) into detailed land management strategies by mapping the geographies and scales these solutions can be deployed at.
The paper also highlights the unfortunate lack of funding dedicated to achieving this mitigation potential. Currently only 2.5% of mitigation dollars are applied to natural solutions. Although anxieties regarding the ambiguous scale and cost of natural climate mitigation are resolved with more detailed land use pathways, concerns of reversibility require policy support through clawback provisions and improved monitoring protocols. But before policy mechanisms can be effective in pursuing NDCs, financial investment must increase. On the international level, unlocking the potential of NSC will require significantly greater monetary commitments, especially through payment into the UNFCCC's Green Climate and Least Developed Countries Funds. On a domestic level, increasing funds for restoration or conservation projects can offer a variety of ecosystem services, employment opportunities, and health benefits.
Natural climate solutions, however, simply cannot uphold a third of global NDCs with funding that is an order of magnitude lower than that of technological mitigation. The key takeaway from this paper must be that while the opportunity presented in NCS is more significant than previously thought, funds dedicated to NCS must match this potential.
What are you up to on Sept 19-21? Want to meet CCR and 2,000 other leaders at VERGE 17 in Silicon Valley? The conference explores business opportunities and solutions at the intersection of technology and sustainability.
VERGE 17 Conference and Expo brings together 2,000 leaders - from the world's largest companies and utilities, progressive government agencies and disruptive startups - to accelerate the clean economy. Program tracks include: Renewable Energy Procurement, Distributed Energy Systems, Grid-Scale Power, Next-Gen Buildings, Connected Transportation & Mobility, Smart Infrastructure, City & Regional Resilience and Circular Economy.
In particular, CCR is excited to host a ½ day workshop entitled Capturing CO2, Strengthening Corporate Supply Chains. The workshop takes place on Tuesday Sept. 19 8:30-12:15. Executives are increasingly in search of solutions for capturing CO2 from the sky to reduce risks and increase resiliency of their supply chains. However, many barriers remain for corporates to turn carbon “drawdown” ideas into profitable actions.
This workshop will help companies hone their vision for converting CO2 from a pollutant into a resource, and begin to design effective supply chain strategies that treat CO2 as an asset, not a waste.
Join us and save 10% with code V17CCR here: http://grn.bz/v17ccr
Yesterday, hell froze over: U.S. Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed. What got these often warring parties together? Carbon Dioxide Removal. Specifically, a tax credit that incentivizes carbon capture, storage and utilization.
The FUTURE Act (Furthering carbon capture, Utilization, Technology, Underground storage, and Reduced Emissions) shows that carbon dioxide removal is a true bipartisan energy, economy and climate solution.
When introducing the bill, Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) stated, “7 out of 11 climate models from UN IPCC could not stay below 2° C warming without carbon capture.” Senator Capito (R-WV) said, “Not only will it help us protect our coal industry, which is so critical to states like West Virginia, but it will also help us expand our oil production, reduce our emissions and compete internationally as other countries continue to build coal plants to power their economic development.” Supporters of the bill range from coal companies hoping to benefit from a lower cost of carbon capture, to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and labor organizations championing the Act's environmental protection and job creation.
How does the FUTURE Act improve 45Q?
The bill extends and expands tax credits to build the New Carbon Economy. How? It incentivizes business to develop and utilize carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies. This bill is even better from the iteration introduced last year, thanks in part to Center for Carbon Removal advocacy.
Currently, the 45Q tax incentive offers $10/ton of CO2 employed for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) and $20/ton for CO2 injected in geological reservoirs without application to EOR. Moreover, the current incentive has a cap of 75 million tons sequestered. The most recent audits, from 2014, imply that as much as 35 million tons of the fund have already been claimed by existing projects. With an such an ambiguous cap, there is no assurance to businesses that begin implementing carbon capture infrastructure.
The bill recognizes the importance of negative emissions by increasing the incentives for non-EOR carbon sequestration to $50/ton. This is a $15 premium over EOR.
If passed, the Act will also invest in the future of negative emissions in particular. It would open up the 45Q tax credit to Direct Air Capture (DACs) projects and CO2 utilization beyond Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). By supporting nascent and future carbon removal and utilization technologies, potential projects can actualize much sooner.
EOR is the “gateway drug” to negative emissions technologies. By incentivizing EOR, the Act can help to reduce the costs of carbon capture and sequestration while improving the technology.
The FUTURE Act goes even further than its predecessors by explicitly establishing CO2 utilization and sequestration beyond EOR as a priority.
The Center for Carbon Removal is enthusiastic about the framing of this legislation, as it establishes negative emissions as a priority within the United States’ energy paradigm. Positively, the introduction of the Act has been framed as a vital step towards closing the ambition gap and a necessary opportunity for the executive branch to take action on ‘clean coal’ promises, despite efforts to reduce the Department of Fossil Energy's Budget.
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.
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:
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
(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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.