New Year's Carbon Dioxide Removal Review/Preview: 2014/15 Edition

Happy New Year everyone! Please help send me to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2015 by voting for my contest entry here and/or sharing it via Twitter/Facebook by January 6th. Thanks for the support! Welcome to the first annual edition of the Everything and the Carbon Sink carbon dioxide removal (“CDR”) New Year's review/preview post! This post highlights my take on the most significant advances in the CDR field from the past year, and my expectations for how the field might develop in 2015. So without further ado...

The Science of CDR:

Review: In my opinion, the most important development in any area of the CDR field in 2014 was the publication of this language in Chapter 6 of Working Group 3's contribution to the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report on climate change:

"The large majority of scenarios produced in the literature that reach roughly 450 ppm CO2eq by 2100 are characterized by concentration overshoot facilitated by the deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies.”

This statement signifies that the leading international group of climate scientists think that CDR solutions are no longer a “nice to have” greenhouse gas ("GHG") emission abatement option, but instead are a “must have” option if we hope to prevent significant climate change.


Above: graphic adapted from "Betting on Negative Emissions" in Nature Climate Change 4,850–853(2014)

Preview: With the likely need for CDR now established, I expect the scientific advances that will have the greatest impact in 2015 will be related to how large-scale CDR might be achieved in the future. Many key scientific questions still remain about scalability, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of the leading approaches to CDR (see figure below). For example, I expect progress to be made answering questions about the sustainable supply potential of biological based CDR approaches, as well as about the permanence of the carbon sequestration from approaches such as biochar and carbon "negative" agricultural techniques. In addition, I expect incremental R&D advances in the carbon capture field more generally from government-sponsored projects (such as ARPA-E and Cyclotron Road).

CDR approaches
CDR approaches

Above: Many CDR approaches have been proposed, but considerable R&D is necessary to identify which solutions are scaleable and sustainable.

CDR Technologies

Review: Along the technology front, 2014 was a year of encouraging financial and operational partnerships for CDR-related companies. For example, Swiss startup Climeworks signed a deal to produce "e-fuel" for Audi using Climeworks's direct air capture ("DAC") system that is able to remove carbon dioxide directly from ambient air. In the biochar arena, Cool Planet has started building its first commercial-scale facility in Louisiana with the help of around $100 million raised from private investors, and Phoenix Energy inked a deal in California that will enable them to produce large volumes of biochar while providing electricity and forest-management services in the Lake Tahoe region. On the materials front, plastics company Newlight Technologies partnered with computer manufacturer Dell to sell carbon "negative" packaging.

In addition, 2014 saw the Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage ("bio-CCS") field take a number of important steps forward. For one, the US EPA issued Class VI carbon dioxide injection and storage permits for the bio-CCS project currently operating at an ethanol facility in Illinois, paving the way for the permitting of future bio-CCS plants in the US. In addition, the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants opened in the US -- the proliferation of similar plants would provide a source supplies of lower-cost "negative" emission opportunities. Lastly, fossil-CCS startups such as Inventys made progress towards scaling up their businesses, and the first commercial-scale post-combustion fossil-CCS project in North America, Boundary Dam, began operating. Cutting the costs and scaling up fossil-CCS deployments can make bio-CCS deployments considerably more cost-effective in the future.

Preview: 2015 will be an important year for companies to transform the visions that they sold to investors in 2014 into working pilots and first-of-a-kind commercial projects. For example, DAC startup Carbon Engineering plans to launch their first commercial-scale pilot in 2015 to gain critical cost and performance data for their technology. I expect that, by the end of 2015, we will have a much better idea of the costs and viability of DAC, biochar, and other CDR businesses -- and hopefully a handful of new rising stars in the field as well.

CDR Policy

Review: Unfortunately, 2014 did not see many significant developments in the CDR policy arena. The largest milestone was likely the UN COP negotiations in Lima, where some options in the draft document for the next COP negotiations in Paris suggested global commitments to negative emissions.

Preview: Even more unfortunately, I expect only incremental progress in 2015 on CDR-related policies. Internationally, the negotiations at the UN COP in Paris seem likely to rely on the "buffet" approach, where countries would define their own emission reduction targets. I am not optimistic that such a strategy will create the commitments and markets necessary to support the development of CDR approaches. I also think awareness about CDR is still too low among key domestic energy/environmental regulators to see individual countries push for explicit CDR and/or large-scale fossil-CCS R&D programs.

Communicating the Message on CDR

Review: In contrast to the lack of progress on the policy front, there have been a number of significant advances in how CDR is discussed in conversations on preventing climate change. For example, new reports issued by the Climate Institute and by the Virgin Earth Challenge expand upon the IPCC's analysis to further explain the need for CDR and the pros/cons of various CDR approaches. CDR is also beginning to get press coverage in mainstream mass media outlets (though these articles all too often paint a single CDR approach as a "silver bullet" in the fight against climate change, and/or conflate CDR with highly risky/unproven geoengineering approaches).

Preview: Whereas scientific advances took the spotlight in the CDR field in 2014, I expect advances in the dialogue on CDR to highlight 2015. For one, I am hopeful that the National Academy of Sciences study on geoengineering will provide the impetus to separate the scientific and policy conversation about CDR away from the conversation on solar radiation management and other geoengineering techniques once and for all. I also expect that the scientific work from the IPCC and others in 2014 will catalyze greater dialogue on CDR among renewable, nuclear, and fossil CCS interest groups -- who all stand to benefit from potential opportunities for collaboration.

And that's a wrap for my first annual CDR review/preview post. Let me know what you think in the comments -- and I'm excited to see what happens in the world of CDR in 2015!