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

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

Here’s the context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion:

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


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

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

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

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

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

Encouraging signs:

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

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

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

Progress needed:

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

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

Encouraging signs:

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

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

Progress needed:

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

Established industry began exploring carbon removal business opportunities

Encouraging signs:

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

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

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

Progress needed:

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

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

Carbon removal and the next frontier of corporate climate action: “Scope 4” emissions (Part 1 of 2)

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on corporate sustainability and carbon removal.

An increasing number of large companies now track and report their direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (known as Scope 1-3 GHG reporting). However, corporate climate action addressing Scope 1-3 emissions will only get us part of the way to delivering on the Paris Agreement pledge of limiting global warming to below 2°C (let alone 1.5°C). Scientists are increasingly clear that we will need to go beyond reducing emissions and also deploy solutions capable of cleaning up the CO2 that remains in the atmosphere from past emissions if we want to make our global climate commitments a reality.

  Above:    Carbon Engineering    has developed a direct air capture pilot project in Squamish, BC capable of “mining the sky” for CO2 that can be converted into renewable synthetic fuels or sequestered underground to produce “negative emissions.”

Above: Carbon Engineering has developed a direct air capture pilot project in Squamish, BC capable of “mining the sky” for CO2 that can be converted into renewable synthetic fuels or sequestered underground to produce “negative emissions.”

Because time travel is not an option, we will need to develop what are known as “carbon removal” solutions that can clean up large volumes of CO2 from the atmosphere. A wide variety of carbon removal solutions have been proposed, ranging from basic tree planting and ecosystem restoration to high-tech devices that hoover up CO2 directly from the atmosphere, as shown in the figure below. While carbon removal solutions face many commercialization hurdles, estimates show a very large technical scale potential for a portfolio of solutions if these challenges are tackled successfully.

Figure: Umbrella of leading carbon removal solution options

To fully incorporate carbon removal into corporate climate action strategies, corporate sustainability leaders will need to start developing a definition for “Scope 4” emissions that shows how much CO2 each company is responsible for cleaning up from the atmosphere. And they will need to get started on this task as soon as possible, as defining Scope 4 emissions in a clear and fair manner will undoubtedly be challenging. For example, leaders tackling Scope 4 emissions will need to grapple with issues like:

  • How much CO2 should we be aiming to remove in the first place, and by when?
  • Do we assign an individual company’s Scope 4 emissions responsibility by historic cumulative emissions, or by some other proportional metric like revenue or current GHG emissions?
  • How do we measure and verify action on Scope 4 emissions to ensure reliability, safety, and ecological sustainability?
  • How do we ensure extra action on Scope 4 emissions isn’t used as an excuse to slow down action on reducing Scope 1-3 emissions?

  Above: A poster from the    Conservation Research Institute    shows that native plants can have deep root systems, helping to lock carbon in soils.

Above: A poster from the Conservation Research Institute shows that native plants can have deep root systems, helping to lock carbon in soils.

There are a number of emerging conversations in the corporate sustainability world where discussion of Scope 4 emissions can naturally fit. For example, companies like Kaiser Permanente have pledged to have a net-negative footprint through the use of renewables and offsets by 2025, and Interface’s “climate take back” initiative aims to “bring carbon home and reverse climate change. ” Efforts like these could serve as a launchpad for broader corporate engagement and coalitions of key stakeholders working to wrap their arms around carbon removal and the Scope 4 emission challenge.


  Above: moving our climate aspirations beyond carbon neutrality will involve a number of different strategies.

Above: moving our climate aspirations beyond carbon neutrality will involve a number of different strategies.

While the details are fuzzy on how to track and manage Scope 4 emissions today, it is clear that carbon removal represents the next frontier of climate action. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog series on corporate sustainability and carbon removal to learn more about what actions corporate sustainability pioneers can take today to get a head start on seizing the carbon removal opportunity.

Want to join the conversation on carbon removal? Make sure to check out the following events:




Ag. Tech's Role in Carbon Farming

Over the past few years, venture capital investment in agriculture and food businesses (collectively referred to as "Agtech") has soared (see chart below), startup incubators dedicated to Agtech launched, and even the USDA has gotten into the Agtech game by creating a fund to support Agtech innovation. All of this innovation has provided farmers with new tools to help them forecast weather more effectively, plant crops more precisely, and apply fertilizer / use water more efficiently (among many other benefits); and has provided consumers with new choices for eating more sustainable food.

  Data from the Clean Tech Group  show that venture capital investment in agriculture has taken off in recent years.

Data from the Clean Tech Group show that venture capital investment in agriculture has taken off in recent years.

One area of agriculture often overlooked by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike, however, is the field of “carbon farming.” Carbon farming is the umbrella term used to describe agricultural processes that sequester more carbon than they generate--i.e. produce net-negative carbon emissions--and can include: conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost application, and rotational grazing. Over the past few years, carbon farming has grown in importance both as a climate solution and because farmers are finding numerous economic, social, and non-climate environmental co-benefits from implementing carbon farming techniques. While the potential benefits from carbon farming have grown, innovations to help farmers implement and monetize carbon farming techniques have been slow to develop in parallel. For example, only a handful of companies out of the 264 deals that made it into AgFunder's 2014 Year in Review Investing Report were even tangentially related to carbon farming.

 Total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture account for around 15% of total global emissions, from the  IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Working Group 3, Chapter 11, Figure 11.4

Total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture account for around 15% of total global emissions, from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Working Group 3, Chapter 11, Figure 11.4

Here’s a list of four ways that the Agtech revolution could catalyze the development of carbon farming techniques:

1.      Measurement and verification. As of today, significant uncertainties remain about the amount and permanence of carbon sequestration over the full lifecycle of carbon farming techniques. Innovation to build inexpensive, connected soil sensors and even smartphone apps capable of measuring carbon in the soil could help reduce these uncertainties. If farmers can say how much carbon they have stored in the soil and how long that carbon is likely to remain there, it will be easier for them to access carbon markets, providing a greater economic incentive for the adoption of carbon farming practices.

 Inexpensive, connected soil sensors -- like the one from Edyn, above -- can prove critical for measuring and verifying soil carbon sequestration cost-effectively. via  Tech Crunch

Inexpensive, connected soil sensors -- like the one from Edyn, above -- can prove critical for measuring and verifying soil carbon sequestration cost-effectively. via Tech Crunch

2.      Optimizing carbon-negative fertilizer application. A number of fertilizers, such as compost and biochar, offer the potential to increase soil’s ability to store carbon. Tools that help farmers know a) which fertilizers can increase carbon storage the most and b) how and when to apply these fertilizers to maximize the carbon sequestration potential can prove critical. For example, the net lifecycle impact of biochar depends on numerous factors (e.g. feedstock, pyrolysis process, application method, soil type, local climate, etc.), and tools that help farmers understand what type of biochar is likely to have the greatest carbon sequestration benefit on their land would be valuable for effective implementation for carbon management purposes. Innovators can even leverage publicly available tools such as the USDA's COMET-Planner application to get started.

3.      Increasing plants’ ability to build biomass. As the plant stock on land grows larger, it reduces atmospheric carbon concentrations by shifting the balance of carbon stored in biomass versus carbon stored in the air. As a result, a number of efforts are underway to increase agricultural plant stocks for carbon management purposes. These efforts include organizations like the Land Institute which are attempting to perennialize annual crops, the Savory Institute who are working on rotational livestock grazing that encourage plants to grow deeper roots, and permaculture advocates that encourage the use of cover crops. Agtech innovations ranging from genetic advances to big data techniques to optimize plant yields can help make these processes more economically viable and effective at carbon management.

 Kernza is the strand of perennial wheat that the Land Institute is developing, via  Civil Eats

Kernza is the strand of perennial wheat that the Land Institute is developing, via Civil Eats

4.      Outside the box carbon removal technologies. Silicon valley is famous for taking ideas that sound crazy and making them the norm. Why not try to do the same with carbon farming? Some ideas, such as CO2 irrigation using direct air capture, seem like long shots today, but could hold breakthrough carbon sequestration potential in the future. Taking lots of long shots (of which the vast majority are bound to fail) is critical for finding that breakthrough innovation that can help increase food security and safeguard the climate for generations to come.

 Open air CO2 enrichment might sound like a crazy idea, but long-shot carbon farming ideas could provide breakthrough potential for the carbon management field. via  Ag Gas .

Open air CO2 enrichment might sound like a crazy idea, but long-shot carbon farming ideas could provide breakthrough potential for the carbon management field. via Ag Gas.

We are only at the beginning of the Agtech revolution, and innovation will prove critical for unlocking its potential value to farmers, venture capitalists, and the planet alike.

Recap: Oxford Conference on Carbon Removal

Background: The Oxford Martin School convened a “Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference” over the three days spanning September, 30 to October 2, 2015. Around 100 people from academia, industry, and NGOs attended to share updates on promising carbon removal research and innovation, and to discuss strategies for the field to gain the policy support it needs to flourish. Being one of, if not the only, conference dedicated to the concept of carbon removal, the event provided a good look into the state of the carbon removal field today. Here’s are the three most important things I took away from the event:

  Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

1. Research and development of carbon removal solutions is progressing in a number of the carbon removal fields. For one, there was encouraging data presented by the community of researchers that are investigating ways to enhance the natural ability of silicate minerals to sequester carbon directly from the air. While there still were a number of presentations that relied on back-of-the-envelope calculations to suggest the potential of this technique for carbon removal, work such as that by Dutch researcher Francesc Montserrat is staring to show real laboratory-scale enhanced weathering processes actually doing what the scientists have suggested they will do.

In addition, the direct air capture (DAC) field is commercializing rapidly. Climeworks announced closing a commercial sales contract on a 1,000 t/yr plant in Germany, Carbon Engineering talked about getting close to inking commercial off-take contracts for solar fuels; Global Thermostat showed calculations showing how they could get below the $50/t price point for DAC CO2. The big caveat here is that DAC developers aren’t focusing on carbon removal in the short-term, as the markets for DAC sequestration aren't large enough. That said, many of the practitioners in the DAC companies that I spoke with expressed confidence that as soon as carbon prices (or other mechanisms for supporting carbon sequestration) rise considerably, DAC companies will have a clear path to delivering net-negative carbon emissions.

2. But there are still numerous uncertainties surrounding all of the carbon removal solutions, particularly around the sustainable scale potential. Biosequestration (e.g. reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) still remains a highly uncertain prospect for carbon removal. Guy Lomax from the Nature Conservancy shared details of his most recent analysis that estimated that such biosequestration approaches are likely quite large, but not enormous – "you can't sequester the geosphere in the biosphere" was the quote that resonated the most with me from his talk. On the bioenergy with carbon capture front, scientists from Greenpeace and from DAC company Carbon Engineering alike shared the view that the sustainable biomass potential is likely constrained significantly,given the indirect land use considerations and potential competition for land with food crops. This view on biomass constraints doesn't seem to be shared with the climate modeling community: Andy Wiltshire from the UK Met Office shared that the average build out of bioenergy with carbon capture in modeling scenarios sequesters over 160 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the next century (equivalent to four times current emission levels today) -- which would involve bioenergy production on land larger than all of India.

 Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

3. The policy and governance conversation around carbon removal is fairly advanced – likely much further advanced than the actual solutions are themselves. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, these discussions are critical for thinking through potential future impacts of carbon removal and how to provide incentives to scale up carbon removal solutions in an appropriate and ethical manner. On the other hand, because there are still so many uncertainties as to which solutions are even going to be viable, these discussions are founded on numerous hypothetical situations and assumptions, making it difficult to extract the most relevant conclusions. This is reflected most in the conversations where carbon removal was still conflated with solar geoengineering, much to the detriment of the overall conversation.

Conclusion: The impact of events like this will hopefully be to stimulate further research and collaboration – building the networks necessary for growth of the field. What’s needed now is to expand the conversation to involve new voices, scale up research, and get deployments happening. To this point, my favorite presentations was from Ned Garnett from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, who shared his advice on how to get this research funded, telling the audience:

  • Don’t just identify the problem, identify the innovative carbon removal research needed to address the problem;
  • Identify any international development angles to carbon removal, as these are seen as higher priority in funders' minds today;
  • Find independent forums to deliver advice; and 
  • It is critical to have a competitive process for awarding research grants in this field

Bottom line: a very interesting three days of carbon removal conversation in Oxford, and I look forward to more conferences in the future to continue to track the progress of the field and see how it grows over time.


Carbon Removal Dialogue: What are barriers to increasing "carbon farming" participation?

Welcome to the latest "Carbon Removal Dialogue," a feature on the Center For Carbon Removal blog where we ask experts to share their thoughts on important questions related to carbon removal. We've consolidated the responses into a single post (below) -- and please share your thoughts in the comments section as well! 

This time, the question pertains to "carbon farming" -- i.e. the umbrella term used to describe the range of agricultural techniques that hold the potential to sequester carbon in plants and soils (check out our fact sheet for more information on these farming techniques).

Thanks to all of the experts that have responded to our question, and without further ado, our "carbon farming" dialogue!


In your mind, what are largest barriers to increasing “carbon farming” participation in carbon markets and/or offset schemes?



Robert Parkhurst

Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Markets Director

Environmental Defense Fund

There are a couple of challenges to the adoption of soil carbon in environmental markets.  To start with, the soil carbon cycle is dynamic and complex.  There currently are few long term studies about what practices sequester carbon and how that carbon is retained over long periods of time.  This is starting to change, but is still a challenge.  Some simplifying assumptions have been made for the inclusion of carbon sequestration practices in voluntary carbon markets.  Three carbon offset protocols have been developed over the past four years which allow landowners to generate carbon offsets from practices such as the avoided conversion of grasslands to croplands and the application of compost to rangeland.  In November of 2014 the first project, located in the North Dakota, generated 40,000 tons of offsets from the preservation of grasslands.  Several other projects are in the pipeline.  To really expand this market, one of the three protocols needs to be adopted by the California cap-and-trade program.  To date only two agriculture related protocols exist in this market – dairy methane destruction and rice methane avoidance.  With the development of additional pilot projects, it would be possible to see a soil carbon offset protocol adopted by the California Air Resources Board in the future.


Peter Byck

Professor - School of Sustainability & Cronkite School of Journalism

Arizona State University

We (the ASU / Soil Carbon Nation research team) propose to conduct whole systems science comparing Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing with continuous grazing to see whether there are indeed C accrual benefits with AMP grazing.  Our principal investigator, Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M, has found that there is a large benefit re: carbon accrual with AMP grazing.

Soil carbon is currently not recognized for trading by the CA Air Resources Board.  Soil Carbon is not accepted by EPA in the President's Clean Power Plan, as a way for states to mitigate their power grid's carbon intensity.

We've been told by folks within CA ARB and EPA that the data we propose to collect will be very helpful in getting those agencies to recognize soil carbon as a tool in carbon mitigation.

Adam Kotin

Associate Policy Director


"An overly market-based approach to achieving agricultural carbon sequestration may present too many logistical challenges for most growers to overcome. As I wrote in a blog post last year, the burdens imposed by agricultural carbon offset protocols can be high, excluding participation from growers (particularly smaller ones) who lack the time and resources to take them on. Meanwhile, the monetary compensation may be so small as to be practically insignificant. The State of California can still plan an important role in promoting carbon sequestration and other farm practices that reduce GHG emissions and improve overall environmental health. They can do that through grower technical assistance, outreach and financial incentives separate from the carbon market."

Amanda Ravenhill

Executive Director 

Project Drawdown

Carbon farming will be greatly accelerated when more talent, time, and treasure are focused on the growing field of open-data monitoring and modeling for regenerative agriculture. Farmers, ranchers and land managers need more access to low-cost sensors for measuring and monitoring soil carbon, Photosynq being an excellent example of such a sensor. Other new tools and resources in this field are farmOS, Cool Farm Tool, GoCrop, and the Soil Carbon Coalition. You can learn more about these organizations and tools by watching the Open Agriculture Learning Series. Watch this space, it will change the face of agriculture.


Guy Lomax


Virgin Earth Challenge

I'd say there are two big barriers: accountability and permanence. First, accurately estimating the amount of carbon being sequestered and/or avoided in an agricultural practice is often more difficult and time consuming than in activities that reduce fossil fuel emissions. With the latter, you need to estimate how much energy or fuel has been saved and the emissions saving is a straightforward calculation; for the former, you need to regularly monitor carbon in soils across a whole landscape. The amount sequestered will also vary between different places and over time in response to changing conditions like rainfall. This also makes it difficult to predict the number of credits you'll produce from an agricultural activity.

The second big problem is impermanence. Carbon stored in soils can be easily re-released by a future change in climate or cropping practice, for example, which makes a soil carbon credit fundamentally distinct from an avoided emission credit and risks undermining the carbon market concept. This is the main reason forestry and agriculture are not permitted in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. One answer is to make farmers liable for any re-emitted carbon, but that raises another problem: how do you convince people to sequester carbon in their soils if they might have to pay for its release a decade from now, especially if the carbon price then could be five times higher than what they receive today? 


Noah Deich


Center for Carbon Removal

Improved measurement and verification tools. Regulators need more confidence in carbon accounting (i.e. whether specific management practices on specific plots of land lead to the carbon sequestration benefits that are claimed). And farmers need inexpensive (both in terms of effort and capital) tools to measure carbon sequestration and monetize their benefits.  

Have an idea for a dialogue question? Email us ( or leave it in the comments below! 

Direct Air Capture Explained in 10 Questions

Direct Air Capture ("DAC") systems are an emerging class of technologies capable of separating carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from ambient air at large scale. Want to learn more about how DAC systems work and how they can help fight climate change and create a circular economy? We've got 10 Q's and A's below to get you started: 

1.      How do DAC systems work? DAC systems can be thought of as artificial trees. Where trees extract CO2 from the air using photosynthesis, DAC systems extract CO2 from the air using chemicals that bind to CO2 but not to other atmospheric chemicals (such as nitrogen and oxygen). As air passes over the chemicals used in DAC systems, CO2 "sticks" to these chemicals. When energy is added to the system, the purified CO2 "unsticks" from the chemicals, and the chemicals can then be redeployed to capture more CO2 from the air. Check out the video below explaining how Climeworks's DAC system works:

2.      What type of carbon management technology is DAC? DAC systems can be classified as carbon "recycling" or carbon "removal" technologies, depending on what happens with the purified CO2 that the DAC system produces.

  • Recycling: CO2 produced by DAC can be recycled into fuels or other products that release CO2 back into the atmosphere quickly after their use (such as greenhouses, carbonated beverages, etc.). As a carbon recycling tool, DAC systems can provide an important component of a circular economy, where the sky is mined for the raw inputs used in subsequent manufacturing processes.
  • Removal: CO2 produced by DAC that is sequestered in geologic formations underground or in materials that do not allow CO2 to escape into the atmosphere (such as cements or plastics) can generate negative carbon emissions.
 Above: a visualization of what a commercial-scale DAC plant might look like, via  Carbon Engineering .

Above: a visualization of what a commercial-scale DAC plant might look like, via Carbon Engineering.

3.      Are DAC systems classified as energy- or manufacturing-sector technologies? Unfortunately, DAC systems defy easy industry classification. DAC systems can be used to generate the inputs for manufacturing processes. But DAC systems also can operate in similar fashion to energy-sector carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. As a result, DAC systems can be considered an energy-sector technology, a manufacturing-sector technology--or both--depending on how it is used.

4.      What are the pros and cons of DAC as a carbon management technology?

  • Pros: Because DAC systems do not need to be sited directly at power plants, they can be sited close to sequestration/manufacturing sites, eliminating the sometimes costly CO2 transportation step associated. In addition, DAC systems take up a relatively small land footprint. A study by the American Physical Society showed that a square kilometer of DAC machines could generate around 1 million tons of CO2/year (meaning that 3 sq-km of DAC projects could offset the same amount of coal power that the Topaz Solar Field does using over 25 sq-km of land)
 The APS report shows that DAC systems can take up relatively little land compared to other renewable energy technologies such as solar or wind.

The APS report shows that DAC systems can take up relatively little land compared to other renewable energy technologies such as solar or wind.

In addition, DAC systems require no biomass inputs, so there is little competition for agricultural land (as there is with other leading carbon removal approaches).

  • Cons: High costs compared to other greenhouse gas abatement approaches.

5.      What organizations are building DAC systems today? The idea of separating CO2 from air is not new, and has been done on submarines and in space applications for decades (it would be impossible to breathe in these closed environments without CO2 capture from air). That said, large-scale DAC systems used for carbon management purposes are only beginning to emerge today, and there are no commercial-scale deployments of DAC systems as of this writing. Today, there are four leading commercial DAC system development efforts, along with one academic center pursuing DAC research:

a.      Carbon Engineering: Based in BC, Canada, Carbon Engineering is pursuing a liquid potassium hydroxide based system. They have a pilot plant in Squamish, BC set for an October, 2015 launch date.

b.      Climeworks: Based in Zurich, Switzerland, Climeworks is employing a novel sorbent coupled with a temperature swing to release the captured CO2. Climeworks has inked a commercial partnerships for CO2 recycling with Sunfire and Audi, and are building a 1,000 ton-per-year plant in Germany to supply a greenhouse with CO2 for its operations.

c.      Global Thermostat: Based in CA, USA, Global Thermostat is pursuing a DAC technology based on proprietary amine sorbents with a temperature swing for regeneration. Global Thermostat has a pilot plant up and running at the SRI headquarters in Menlo Park, CA.

d.      Infinitree: Based in NY, USA, Infinitree is using a humidity swing process for concentrating CO2. They are targeting the greenhouse market for initial customers. This technology is based on the DAC system developed by now-bankrupt Kilimanjaro Energy (formerly Global Research Technologies).

e.      Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU: based in AZ, USA, this academic group headed by professor Klaus Lackner is developing a DAC technology based on a humidity swing process.

 Global Thermostat's pilot plant in Menlo Park.

Global Thermostat's pilot plant in Menlo Park.

DAC for carbon management purposes is a relatively new pursuit because separating CO2 from air is challenging to do in an economically viable way. The main reason for this is that it takes a significant amount of energy and air to separate and concentrate CO2: CO2 exists in the atmosphere in very dilute concentration compared to other chemical elements (CO2 comprises 0.04% of the atmosphere compared to about 78% for nitrogen, and 21% for oxygen). Finding chemical agents that are sticky enough to bind with the few CO2 molecules that exist in the air—but are also not too sticky so that they will easily release the CO2 in the chemical regeneration step—has proven challenging.

6.      How is DAC related to other carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems? In many ways, DAC systems are quite similar to other CCS systems, especially in regards to the chemicals used to capture CO2. Capturing CO2 from ambient air, however, is thermodynamically more challenging than capture from energy systems, as coal power plants generate exhaust gas with around 15% concentration of CO2, natural gas power plants around 5%, and ambient air has around 0.04%. This relatively dilute stream of CO2 in the air requires DAC systems to deploy novel engineering designs, as traditional CCS systems would require a prohibitive amount of energy to capture CO2 directly from the air.

7.      How much energy is required for DAC? It depends on how efficient the air capture process is, and what ending concentration of CO2 is required. To get 100% pure CO2 stream at the maximum possible efficiency, the American Physical Society report cites that it takes approximately 497 kJ of energy to generate 1 kg of compressed CO2. In other words, for every million tons of compressed CO2 generated from a maximally efficient DAC system, a power plant running at 100% capacity factor of 10 MW is required. To get to the billion ton scale of CO2 capture viewed by many experts as climatically significant, DAC systems would thus require about 10 GW of power, equal to about 3 times the capacity of the largest nuclear plant in the US.

 A visualization of what an "artificial forest" of DAC machines might look like when coupled with renewable energy, via the ASU Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.

A visualization of what an "artificial forest" of DAC machines might look like when coupled with renewable energy, via the ASU Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.

8.      How much does DAC cost? At commercial scale, no one really knows. Estimates range from around $60/ton of captured CO2 at the low end (for only CO2 capture) to $1000/ton of CO2 at the high end (for both capture and regeneration) according to a recent National Research Council study (on page 72). The eventual cost of DAC systems will likely depend on how efficient manufacturing for DAC systems becomes. Because there are no commercial scale deployments of DAC systems, however, it is very difficult to estimate how quickly costs will come down. It is likely that the first commercial-scale DAC projects will cost several hundreds of dollars per ton of concentrated CO2, but as manufacturing improves over time, these costs are likely to come down significantly, especially if DAC is manufactured modularly like many startups are attempting to do. It is also likely that operating costs will come down overtime as novel chemical structures are developed that cost less and/or require less material than existing capture chemicals.

 DAC system costs are likely to come down with larger scale deployments, much like other clean energy technologies such as wind energy have, especially if DAC systems are manufactured modularly. 

DAC system costs are likely to come down with larger scale deployments, much like other clean energy technologies such as wind energy have, especially if DAC systems are manufactured modularly. 

9.      What are the revenue opportunities DAC? In the future, carbon markets or regulations can provide large sources of revenue for DAC system operators. Without carbon prices, DAC systems are likely to find the largest revenue opportunities by providing CO2 for manufacturing fuels, or for use in enhanced oil recovery (as many oil fields are located far from CO2 pipelines, making them ideal candidates for flexibly-sited DAC systems). Smaller, high value markets (such as greenhouses, carbonated beverages, etc.) can provide early revenue opportunities. 

 Audi's "e-diesel" uses Climeworks's DAC system. Transportation fuels can provide an early revenue opportunity for DAC companies.

Audi's "e-diesel" uses Climeworks's DAC system. Transportation fuels can provide an early revenue opportunity for DAC companies.

10.   Are there any policies related to DAC today? Very few. The US Federal government has provided a $3M solicitation from the DOE to support the development of DAC systems, and there is language providing $250k for research and development in the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Bill report language. In addition, the provincial government of Alberta in Canada has provided grant support for DAC companies through the CCEMC. DAC will benefit from ongoing policy advances around the utilization and geologic storage of CO2, and potentially from the development of carbon markets that are considering traditional CCS as a compliance option. Nevertheless, DAC systems would likely require specific policy treatment in any carbon regulatory system, and so far there has been very little discussion about how to incorporate DAC into any of these existing/potential policy structures.

Bonus question: Want to learn more? Check out our list of links related to DAC, and share your own favorite resources in the comments section!


Thanks to Avi Ringer, Matt Lucas, and Daniel Sanchez for helping to prepare this post.

Clean technology research and development is critical for curtailing climate change. But is it enough?

A number of leaders in the energy/climate field, from Bill Gates to a group of British climate experts, have recently called for governments across the world to significantly increase spending on research and development (R&D) for clean energy technologies. Implicit in many of these calls for R&D, however, is the misleading idea that the climate change problem can be solved mainly by investments in clean technology R&D. Take the Global Apollo Project report, for example:

"One thing would be enough to [make energy clean]: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground."


“One thing would be enough to make it happen: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground.”
— A Global Apollo Program to Combat Climate Change

While the statement above is true -- and while more publicly funded R&D into all greenhouse gas abatement strategies (including carbon removal) is almost certainly a positive thing -- focusing exclusively on this "one thing" to fight climate change is likely sub-optimal for a number of reasons:

  1. First, there is another way to keep fossil fuels in the ground: regulation. Governments can either impose taxes on carbon-intensive fuels, or simply restrict their use outright. In fact, such regulation would likely spur significant private-sector R&D into clean energy technologies, in the end accomplishing similar (or even deeper) cost reductions for clean energy technologies as compared to cost reductions from public-sector R&D efforts. Most governments have done a poor job of regulating carbon emissions to date -- and have found that climate regulation garners less political support than clean energy R&D -- but smart climate regulation is too valuable a tool to shelve for a focus only on R&D.
  2. Second, a focus on clean energy R&D buries the importance of a key variable in the fight against climate change: time. Cost reductions for clean energy technologies can take significant amounts of time -- event with massive R&D pushes. And we don't have time to wait for R&D to reduce the costs of clean energy, raising the importance of complementary strategies to reduce emissions.
  3. Third, the fact that not all fossil fuels cost the same amount to produce increases the challenges for clean energy systems. Take the oil supply curve, below, for example:

For clean energy to out-compete all supplies of oil on price alone, they can't just get below the current price of oil -- they will have to get below the lowest-cost oil supplies, which are very cheap. This level of cost reduction is hopefully possible to accomplish with massive investments in R&D, but there is significant risk that such cost reductions will not happen at the pace needed to curtail climate change. One strategy to reduce this challenge is to make the cost of these inexpensive fossil resources through smart regulation. Alternatively, policies that encourage the development and deployment of carbon removal systems could enable us to meet climate goals even if R&D efforts to reduce costs of clean energy systems didn't result in prices low enough to displace all carbon emissions.

The bottom line:

While something like a Global Apollo program for clean energy (and for other climate change abatement strategies too) is almost certainly a good idea, society risks moving too slowly to curtail climate change by focusing primarily on R&D. Instead, pursuing parallel policy pathways that increase the cost of extracting and using carbon-intensive fuels alongside clean technology R&D efforts can help ensure that we decarbonize as swiftly as needed to curtail climate change -- and that we do so in as economically-viable and sustainable a manner as possible. 

Three Lessons Carbon Removal Can Learn from the Low Carbon Energy Investor Forum

The state of carbon removal technologies in investment today is akin to the beginnings of other now well-known mitigation technologies like solar, wind, and energy efficiency. Scaled demonstration projects, industry and policy support, and an open dialogue on the potential for carbon removal technologies is imperative to preventing climate change

How today's "low-carbon" investors are charting a course for financing tomorrow's "negative-carbon" investments

IEA investment
IEA investment

In 2014, investors allocated $310B in capital to clean energy projects according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, making up a significant portion of the ~$1.5T in total global investment in energy supply as estimated by the International Energy Association ("IEA"). What's more, the IEA predicts we will need over $40T in cumulative energy investment by 2035 to meet energy needs, suggesting that the amount of capital needed to be deployed annually for clean energy projects will have to increase by an order of magnitude over the coming decades to meet the dual goals of preventing climate change and powering the world's economy.

Above: The IEA's 2014 World Energy Outlook projections for necessary clean energy investment.

As the clean energy finance community grows, it also pioneers new ways to finance low-carbon energy projects. The past few years are no exception: publicly-traded yieldcos have flourished, asset-backed securitization has helped reduce cost of capital for distributed generation companies, and public-private partnerships have helped increase clean energy deal flow.

These financial innovations that enable low-carbon projects have enormous implications for "negative-carbon" projects that scientists increasingly project we will need but that have only just begun to develop. Low-carbon technologies like energy efficiency and renewable energy have had several decades to de-risk technical, regulatory, and financial barriers, and sit well poised to expand rapidly. Negative-carbon approaches must leverage as much of the experience of low-carbon projects as possible if they are to develop to appropriate scale quickly enough to prevent climate change.

Later this month, many low-carbon financial success stories will be on display at the Low Carbon Energy Investor Forum 2015 in downtown San Francisco. I'm excited to be speaking at the event, as the agenda includes conversations on emerging financial innovations, technology developments, and policy support needed to scale low-carbon developments.

What is particularly interesting to me about this, however, is that for an event with the words "low carbon" in the title, the word "climate" appears only once on the agenda -- for a session titled "Climate Change – The new factor becoming mainstream among investors." This shows that, with or without an explicit mandate to fight climate change, the financial sector is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to technologies that are pivotal for fighting climate change. And as much as any financial lesson, negative-carbon solutions can learn from low-carbon solutions the power of strong financial business cases in helping to catalyze the growth of negative-carbon solutions, and make these nascent investments today the "mainstream" investments of the future.

Want to join the Low Carbon Energy Investor Forum? Use the code "lcei15" for a 15% registration discount.

"Legacy" Emissions and Beyond-Neutrality Corporate Emission Reduction Targets


  • Corporations need not only to stop emitting greenhouse gases ("GHGs") to prevent climate change, but they also need remove and sequester "legacy" emissions from the atmosphere.
  • Corporate GHG emission reduction targets set at levels above 100% create new challenges for corporations around measuring their past emissions, setting appropriate targets, and deploying strategies to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Despite the challenges, the new opportunities for value creation from carbon removal for corporations are significant.



A number of large companies have recently introduced pledges to eliminate carbon emissions entirely in their efforts to fight climate change and grow in a sustainable manner. While eliminating future emissions is an important first step on the pathway to stabilizing our climate, few companies are talking about how they can deal with the fact that a significant percentage of their emissions from previous decades of doing business still remain in the atmosphere, contribute to climate change, and affect the sustainability of their operations going forward.

Scientific context. Carbon dioxide is considered a "long-lived" pollutant, meaning that it resides in the atmosphere for centuries (on average). This leads to a pesky problem -- we could decarbonize our economy entirely, and we still could face the consequences of climate change caused by pollution from decades past. As a result, it is increasingly likely that we will need to employ carbon removal solutions -- i.e. processes capable of removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. While there is increasing activity to develop such carbon removal solutions, proven and scaleable carbon removal solutions have yet to emerge.

Challenges for corporations. Carbon removal creates a number of challenges for corporations seeking to set meaningful GHG emission reduction targets.

  • Measurement. It is frequently difficult for companies to asses their historic contributions to carbon emissions. Companies can usually get a rough order-of-magnitude estimate of historical emissions, but it is very difficult to tell using legacy systems that might not have captured necessary data to get a more precise estimate.
  • Targeting. Even if companies have a good sense of their total historical emissions, it can be difficult to set reduction timelines. New science-based methodologies are being developed to help inform forward looking targets, but it is unclear whether they will incorporate negative emissions.  A more fundamental question is how companies might deal with legacy emissions not directly attributable to them, but that still affect how they do business in the future.
  • Action: Given the current state of development of many carbon removal approaches, companies could face challenges around generating scalable and verifiable net-negative emission levels. Many carbon removal approaches today are expensive to deploy and/or measure, so companies are unlikely to deploy these such technologies at scale without further development.

Opportunities for corporations. Despite the challenges associated with adopting greater than 100% emission reduction targets, corporations that strive for such targets stand to seize valuable business opportunities -- even in the sort-term.

CDP 2012 data
CDP 2012 data

Above: data from the CDP 2012 disclosure scores, with my own analysis of carbon removal potential. 

For one, carbon removal offers new growth opportunities for companies thinking about providing carbon-negative products and services. Today, startups like Newlight Technologies are developing carbon-negative plastics that can substitute directly for carbon-emitting products -- similar carbon-removing products could provide a great way for companies in commoditized industries for differentiating their offerings.

Above: AirCarbon packaging used by Dell. Source:

In addition, carbon removal solutions can help improve operational and supply chain efficiency. For example, agricultural carbon removal solutions such as restorative farming approaches hold the potential for increasing crop resilience, reducing water and fertilizer needs, and even enhancing yields.

Columbia Field Trials

Above: biochar field trials. Source: International Biochar Initiative.


Lastly, corporations that move early to set net-negative emission reduction goals stand to generate large brand leadership benefits. Consumers are hungry for innovative climate solutions, and are likely to reward corporations for their leadership in enabling consumers to vote with their wallets for carbon-removing products and services. With strong corporate leadership and academic partnerships, we could start seeing carbon-negative products across numerous industries, including: foods, cements, fertilizers, and even gasoline.

Moving forward. It is clear that companies still have a long way to go just to get to carbon neutrality. But it is important for corporate managers to think about how the long-term pathway to sustainability might involve net-negative emission reduction targets, and how early movers can start generating value through carbon removal today. Right now, little changes in reporting standards and protocols could go a long way to achieving this potential. For one, the CDP could update its Leadership Index and the GRI could update its reporting guidelines to encourage companies to employ net-negative emission strategies. In addition, the LEED green building rating system could encourage the use of more carbon-removing materials. But most importantly, early corporate leaders will have to stand up and commit to a "beyond-neutrality" goal, and show that it is possible to make steady progress towards that goal with a combination of the mitigation technologies of today and the carbon removal solutions that hold promise for our future.

Carbon-as-a-service Businesses?

The Cleantech Group's annual San Francisco Forum wrapped up earlier this week. The event's theme was "Cleantech-as-a-service," and featured parallel tracks named "Cloud" and "Connect." Overall, this focus on technology-enabled business model innovation shows how mature the cleantech field has become, as the event felt very much like a "standard" tech conference in the Bay Area.

Above: Sheeraz Haji kicking off the Cleantech Forum SF 2015 event.

The growing emphasis on the "tech" portion of "cleantech," however, has not caught on for all clean technologies. For example, carbon sequestration businesses were conspicuously absent from this year's Forum. Economic fundamentals can help explain this lack of carbon sequestration businesses on display. Most of the discussion at the Cleantech Forum focused on the left-hand side of the McKinsey GHG abatement curve (below), which makes perfect sense: no amount of clever business model or financial product innovation will help uneconomic businesses (like many carbon sequestration businesses today) flourish.

mck ghg abatement
mck ghg abatement

Above: McKinsey GHG Abatement Cost Curve

The big exception to the above, however, is solar PV -- which many would call the poster child of the cleantech-as-a-service revolution. What has set solar apart from other high dollar-per-ton GHG abatement schemes is non-carbon-focused regulations (be it some combination of net-metering, renewable portfolio standards, PACE financing, etc. designed to specifically support renewables).

What is so striking is how little acknowledgement such policies now get in the cleantech conversation. Business model innovation is highly complementary to environmental policies, yet so few of the leaders on stage at the Forum advocated for additional/ongoing policy support. I worry that the focus on business model / financial innovation will only take the cleantech field so far (or will delay its development considerably), preventing us from achieving the rates of decarbonization necessary to prevent climate change.

When former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to speak at Berkeley on March 12th, she remarked that her job at Apple today is still to make good policy, it is just to do it from inside of business instead of inside government. I am eager to see if this philosophy will gain broader acceptance, and I look forward to the discussion at future Cleantech Forums to track how this dialogue unfolds.

The Ideal City in 2030: how Carbon "Negative" Cities can Generate the Greatest Positive Impacts

I've recently been thinking about how cities might contribute to a carbon "negative" future. So when I saw that the topic for the Masdar Engage Blogging Contest ( was "Describe the ideal city in 2030," I decided to take the bait. My submission is below -- please help send me to Abu Dhabi by liking my post (at the bottom of this page and sharing it on Twitter/Facebook (top right of the Masdar site)! Also, I’d love everyone’s thoughts on other ways to make the “city of the future” carbon negative, so please leave your thoughts in the "comments" section (either here and/or on the Masdar site).


The Ideal City in 2030: how Carbon "Negative" Cities can Generate the Greatest Positive Impacts

Today, the world's cities are a major source of greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions. With urban populations expected to continue growing, cities' exposure to climate change will only get worse unless they break away from this GHG-emitting status quo. Fortunately, the emerging field of carbon dioxide removal ("CDR") offers hope. CDR (or "negative" emission) technologies afford cities the opportunity to turn the current GHG emission paradigm on its head by enabling cities to go "negative" and remove more GHGs from the atmosphere than they emit. Just imagine: the more that a carbon "negative" city grows, the greater the positiveenvironmental impact the city would have! And best of all, in the process of becoming carbon "negative," cities will gain opportunities to build sustainable foundations that enable continuous advances in the health, prosperity, and well-being for their citizens.

Here's how cities across the globe might become carbon "negative" by 2030:

1. Start with the built environment

The physical structures of our buildings hold great potential to lock away carbon. Materials such as sustainably-harvested timber and carbon "negative"cements could one day trap large volumes of carbon in our cities' skyscrapers, roads, and sidewalks, preventing that carbon from escaping back into the atmosphere for decades.

Above: Sustainably-harvested wood can be used in myriad structures that serve as a carbon sinks, including this bridge in the city of Sneek in the Netherlands. Image Credit:

What's more, our buildings can literally begin to come alive: green walls and rooftop gardens not only suck carbon out of the air, but they also can provide healthy local produce, can reduce storm water runoff, and can decrease the urban heat island effect.

Above: "living" walls, such as this one in central London, already provide cities with GHG-removing capabilities. Image credit: Noah Deich

While the potential for rooftop gardens may be limited by the number of suitable roofs, the sky is the limit for carbon-consuming "vertical farms."

vertical farm

Above: rendering of the "Vertical Farm" concept. Image credit: T R Hamzah & Yeang via

And coastal cities could even expand similar agriculture projects offshore, as illustrated by the "Green Float" concept.

Above: rendering of a concept carbon "negative" city that floats in the ocean. Image credit: Shimizu Corporation

2. Harness the potential of public spaces to sequester GHGs

In addition to buildings, public areas hold the potential to be carbon "negative." For example, cities can employ biochar to enhance the ability of parks to sequester carbon. Cities can also manage public rights of way with landscaping techniques that enhance carbon sequestration. And for coastal cities, restoring wetlands and/or offshore areas can remove carbon from the air all while protecting the city (from extreme weather events and sea level rise) and providing outdoor recreation areas.

Above: The Living Breakwaters concept would protect cities from storm surges, as well as provide homes for carbon-sequestering shellfish -- and new outdoor recreation opportunities for city dwellersImage credit: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture

3. Unleash the power of innovation hubs to make carbon removal a reality

While many CDR concepts are nearing commercialization today, cities will have to accelerate CDR innovation to make carbon "negative" cities a reality by 2030. To accomplish this, cities can create CDR innovation hubs by providing workspace and seed funding for promising startups. Take Climeworks, for example, a Swiss startup that spun out of ETH Zurich and leveraged workshop space provided through the university and philanthropic seed funding to develop a machine that pulls carbon dioxide directly out of ambient air to make transportation fuels.

Above: Climeworks has developed a machine that separates carbon dioxide out of ambient air; Audi then uses this pure carbon dioxide to make transportation fuels. Image credit: Audi Encounter online magazine.

Cities can create innovation hubs for different CDR approaches -- for example energy, urban agriculture, waste management, etc. -- and in the process not only build the tools for cities to go carbon "negative," but also to create a durable culture of innovation designed to address cities' most pressing concerns in the future.

Carbon-Neutral Thermoplastics

Above: Newlight Technologies can create plastics out of methane coming from landfills; CDR waste management innovation hubs could stimulate the development of like-minded companies seeking to turn waste into valuable consumer products. Image credit:

So does this mean that any city be carbon "negative" by 2030?

Yes! No two cities will pursue the same path to being carbon "negative," but each can work to create an environment that encourages the development of CDR solutions best suited to their people, geography, and unique history. And in working towards being carbon "negative," cities will see immense positiveimpacts as they become healthier, more prosperous, innovative, and beautiful.


Word count (excluding image captions): 595

About the Author

Noah Deich blogs about all things carbon dioxide removal ("CDR") at (, where you can find commentary and analysis on the latest CDR news, links to CDR-related research, and opportunities to learn about CDR at upcoming conferences and events.

8 Lessons that CDR Businesses can Learn from the Clean Energy Industry

Even though the CDR “industry” is arguably quite different that the clean energy industry, CDR companies stand to learn a thing or two from the ups and downs that clean energy companies have experienced while commercializing over the past decades:

  1. Government incentives and mandates are critical for early projects. Efforts such asRPS mandates, tax incentives, feed-in-tariffs, loan guarantees, science and technology grants and net metering programs have been (and remain) critical in enabling renewable energy project developments. Notably absent from this list in many regions are carbon prices; this swath of clean energy incentives has pushed the industry forward and helped it “defy” predictions that renewable energy installations would not proliferate without strong carbon prices. Seeing how tenuous and unlikely large-scale carbon pricing seems over the next decade, CDR businesses and project developers would similarly benefit from a wide-ranging portfolio of government incentives and regulatory support; something that will only happen once regulators and policy makers acknowledge the urgency of the need to start developing CDR programs.             Billion-dollar government loan guarantees help get solar projects in the US installed. Credit: Gigaom
  2. Corporate procurement and CSR departments can provide "early adopting" large customers, but offerings targeting large corporates need to have significant (and measurable) bottom line benefits. Many early clean energy startups have had success with B2B sales – especially in areas that help corporations reduce operational costs (such as by providing tools to help reduce building energy expenses). Frequently, these projects also feature prominently in corporate citizenship reports, providing the companies that purchase clean energy offerings added investor-relations and brand benefits. CDR companies can potentially help large corporations improve their bottom lines while enhancing their environmental image in many ways, as Audi shows us with their Direct Air Capture partnerships to create low-carbon fuels.
  3. Taking projects off-balance sheet helps improve B2B sales. Many of the greatest clean energy success stories have employed SaaS and technology-leasing models. CDR companies can take this lesson by seeking to provide "CDR-as-a-service" (or providing a CDR co-product as a service – like fertilizers, low carbon fuels, even agricultural products...). Such a model might be more difficult to finance initially as the CDR business will have to bear the up-front capital costs, but could help gain customer traction much more quickly.Technology-leasing has turned SolarCity into a clean energy powerhouse. Credit: SolarCity
  4. Individuals like well-designed technology with environmental benefits... even if environmental benefits are small. Many CDR companies with B2C sales potential would be wise to heed the Nest strategy of selling “boring” products in an enticing way. Industries with large CDR potential tend to sell traditional, commoditized offerings not typically known for their design and functionality. Simply trying to compete on price in these industries is a challenging proposition. If biochar/olivine companies, for example, can market their fertilizer products in ways that engage customers beyond the application in a home garden, they could simultaneously increase sales and the awareness/demand for CDR more generally.              Customers will pay $250 for a thermostat? Nest's design, functionality, and customer engagement features proves it's possible (above)Credi: Nest
  5. Clean energy companies have pursued a range of alternative financing vehicles to reduce finance costs and increase access to capital. YieldCo, REIT, and MLP financing strategies have all recently gained traction in the renewable finance arena. Such innovations are likely to help the CDR industry scale up once technologies have de-risked further and the demand for CDR is more clear and predictable. Structuring initial project development efforts today in ways that enable future participation in these financing schemes is critical to preserve option value for CDR companies.
  6. To borrow Don Sadoway’s line: to make something cheap as dirt, use dirt. Thin-film solar PV development boomed during the 2000s not because thin-film was more efficient at converting solar energy into electricity, but rather because many thought that thin-film systems could be produced so cheaply that their per-unit energy costs would be considerably lower than silicon-based systems. While enhanced weathering systems might not be as thermodynamically efficient as fossil-fueled CCS systems for capturing CO2 emissions, their readily-available inputs could provide economically competitive, carbon negative alternatives. Thin-film solar PV panels (shown above) gained popularity not based on their physical efficiency, but rather on their economic efficiency. Credi: Wikipedia
  7. High Net Worth individuals that believe in the greater mission of the company can be critical for early financing. First Solar, for example, relied on investors that truly believed in the long-run need and benefits for their technology – like Walmart heir John T. Walton – to survive early commercialization obstacles. Where other venture funds might have forced First Solar to liquidate in order to stem potential losses, Walton was able to re-invest in the company to help it weather tough financial times. In the coming years, CDR companies will likely face similar stormy seas that solar companies faced in the 1990s. As a result, finding the right investors with patient capital, deep pockets, and a belief in the potential of CDR (not typical descriptions of the venture capital and private equity world...) will serve CDR startups particularly well.
  8. Good entrepreneurs have to pivot away from their initial mission if the time isn’t right. C12 Energy provides a great example of this principle. At the company's founding, C12 set out to monetize the carbon abatement value of CO2 capture and storage services. As the prospect of carbon markets in the US crumbled, C12 faced a choice: a) shut down until carbon prices strengthened, or b) pivot to provide similar (but less environmentally beneficial) services  for enhanced oil recovery businesses. By deciding to take the second option, C12 continues to innovate its technology that one day can be used for pure-play CO2 sequestration, employ the human capital drawn to its mission, and help shape dialogues around developing carbon markets. If companies find pure-play CDR offerings too economically challenging in today's macroeconomic/political climate, then finding similar non-CDR offerings to pursue today can be a good interim solution so long as those offerings do not preclude the companies from pivoting back to CDR once market conditions improve.

3 ways food and beverage companies can lead on CDR

Andrea Moffat has an article up on Greenbiz titled: "3 ways food and beverage companies can lead on sustainability." Food and beverage companies can also lead on CDR, in the following ways: 1.Source CO2 from direct air capture (DAC) systems. CO2 is widely used throughout the food and beverage industry, from the carbonation in sodas to an input to improve productivity in greenhouses. DAC systems are able to capture and concentrate CO2 from ambient air -- and offer a potentially substantial improvement in terms of life-cycle carbon emissions when compared to the standard practice of sourcing CO2 from underground reservoirs or from industrial processes.

Source: Climeworks

2. Source beef from carbon-sequestering farming operations.Holistic ranch management practices offer the potential to increase carbon sequestered in soils -- potentially turning cattle into net CO2 sinks, instead of sources.


Source: Soil Carbon Cowboys

3. Source palm oil and other forest products from afforestation / sustainably managed operations. Palm oil has received lots of heat recently for its massive impact on deforestation in many tropical countries -- but groups like the World Wildlife Fund have demonstrated that palm oil plantations can actually increase carbon sinks when properly managed.