In 2015, it became clearer than ever that industry is going to take serious action over the coming decades to reduce CO2 emissions. But what if businesses could go beyond stopping CO2 emissions, and actually pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they emit into it? With carbon removal (aka “negative emissions”) solutions, that vision could one day become a reality. And while building “net-sequestration” companies will be a monumental task, 2015 has seen a number of encouraging signs about the potential for a carbon-removing economy of the future. Here’s a recap of the key milestones around carbon removal from the past year, and what it means for sustainable business in 2016 and beyond.
So what exactly is carbon removal?
Forests, farms, other ecosystems, and heavy industries all hold the potential to remove and reliably sequester CO2 from the air. Carbon removal systems are sometimes called “negative emissions” approaches, because they can clean up CO2 that has accumulated in the atmosphere, in effect running GHG-emitting systems in reverse. Despite this great promise, carbon removal systems have large largely been ignored in the mainstream climate conversation, which has focused primarily on techniques for stopping emissions and for adapting to changes in climate. Until recently, that is…
The case for carbon removal has never been clearer.
In 2015, the chorus of scientists calling carbon removal a valuable tool in the fight against climate change grew much louder. A must-read scientific report released by the National Academy of Sciences found:
Other leading academics, including Daniel L. Sanchez, Pete Smith (with many others at the Global Carbon Project), and Guy Lomax, published important technical papers helping to explain both the opportunities and challenges around carbon removal.
Outside of academia, 2015 saw the emergence of more resources to tell the story of carbon removal. Tim Flannery's new book, Atmosphere of Hope, discusses numerous carbon removal options. And I’m particularly proud that we launched the non-profit Center for Carbon Removal based at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Climate Institute (BECI), which is dedicated to accelerating conversation and action to develop carbon removal solutions (more of our publications and blog posts).
The buzz around carbon removal has also reached a new level.
Across sectors of the economy, the idea of carbon removal is increasingly elevated in the climate and sustainability conversation. The breakout session at VERGE 2015 in San Jose on Positive Solutions for Negative Emissions generated great conversation around the potential of sustainable carbon removal business innovations. In the run up to COP21 in Paris, the Our Common Future under Climate Change event featured both a side event and a technical panel dedicated to carbon removal, and UC Berkeley and American University hosted partner events (video) on this topic for Global Climate Change Week. The Oxford Martin School put on a three-day Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference with support from the Virgin Earth Challenge, the Savory Institute hosted a big summit on holistic grassland management, and the NGO Belllona hosted a Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Conference (Bioenergy+CCS is a key strategy for generating negative emissions energy).
The biggest boost of all for carbon removal came at the COP21 international climate negotiations in December. Agriculture and forestry carbon sequestration initiatives were highlighted throughout the conference, and are poised to play a key role in climate mitigation, adaptation and economic development alike. A handful of side events even discussed the role of industrial carbon removal solutions (such as bioenergy+CCS) in future climate mitigation scenarios.
And crucially, coverage of carbon removal news increased substantially in 2015. GreenBiz published several articles (here, here) on the topic, and outlets such as Vox, The Verge, The Guardian, Triple Pundit, SF Chronicle, and the NY Times all published pieces on this issue.
Entrepreneurs developing potential carbon removal solutions have announced exciting milestones, including in:
Direct Air Capture (DAC)
DAC coupled with CO2 sequestration (in geologic formations underground or through utilization in building materials) can generate net CO2 removals from the atmosphere. Companies today are working to develop carbon-neutral DAC systems, which are important stepping stones to carbon-negative DAC systems of the future. For example, Climeworks announced a commercial offtake agreement to supply CO2 captured directly from the air to a greenhouse in Germany. Carbon Engineering launched their pilot-scale facility in BC, Canada. The DOE announced funding for DAC projects for the first time ever (through this Fossil Energy funding opportunity, and through this award through Biomass Energy Technology Office to the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions). And new startups joined the DAC space as well, as we saw SkyTree launch in Amsterdam.
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (CCS):
Scientists expect big things from bioenergy with CCS projects if the world gets serious about fighting climate change—some reports show up to 25 GW (about 50 average sized coal power plants in the US) of bioenergy + CCS capacity installed annually by 2040. The problem is that industry and governments don’t seem to have gotten this message, and we only have a handful of bioenergy with CCS projects operational today. The star of the field is the ADM ethanol + CCS project in Decatur, IL, which continues to sequester 100,000s of tons of CO2 annually.
Landscape carbon sequestration (agriculture and forestry):
2015 was the international Year of Soils, and we saw great strides made in advancing carbon sequestrations in landscapes. Projects such as the Marin Carbon Project are leading the way in California to show that soil carbon sequestration projects can be measured and verified in reliable way that can enable participation of these projects in carbon markets. While it is still very difficult to find reliable carbon-negative offsets, projects across the biochar, holistic agriculture, and sustainable forestry sector hold great potential to provide opportunities in the future.
We’ve even seen an uptick in activity around activity to assess potential of carbon sequestration in the mining sector. Some silicate rocks naturally react with CO2 from the air, sequestering that CO2 in stable mineral formations over hundreds of thousands of years. A handful of scientists are working to develop techniques to mine and process these CO2-reactive materials in a way that sequesters CO2 from the air much more quickly than it would naturally. The University of Sheffield has announced a $10M research center dedicated to this field.
“Enabling” innovations that can boost carbon removal in the future have also showed encouraging signs in 2015.
Many low carbon efforts today hold the potential to pave the pathway to carbon removal in the future. Take Newlight Technologies and their “AirCarbon” plastic, which offers potential for CO2 sequestering materials in the future: Newlight announced large off-take deals in 2015 that will launch their commercialization. Another startup, Blue Planet, came out of stealth mode and announced their plans for carbon sequestering cement. On the pathway to bioenergy + CCS, the Boundary Dam project started operation on their post-combustion CCS project at an old coal plant in Canada—the learnings from plants like these can drive down costs at bioenergy + CCS projects in the future. And the XPRIZE Foundation launched a carbon utilization innovation contest to encourage the development of new ways to turn carbon pollution into value manufacturing inputs.
What might 2016 have in store?
I hope momentum from COP21 will lead to greater awareness in 2016 of the critical need for developing carbon removal solutions alongside other climate mitigation solutions today, and renewed action on numerous fronts. Governments and universities have large opportunities to support RD&D across carbon removal sectors. And companies can start ramping up their climate ambition by demonstrating their commitment to a negative-emission future. It will be a marathon to build an economy that cleans up more carbon than it emits, and I have high hopes that 2016 will see great steps down this road.