Technology / Innovation

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

 Image source:

Image source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest blog: Can NYC become a leader in carbon removal?

Christophe Jospe is a consultant working with the Center for Carbon Removal, and a New York City resident. In this guest blog post, he explores opportunities for his city to become a leader in developing and deploying carbon removal solutions.


As a New Yorker, I am proud to say that New York comes in first in a lot of categories. Finance. Fashion. Food. Advertising. Theater. Music. The list goes on. So what if New York could become a leader in urban carbon removal?

Carbon removal solutions work by cleaning up excess CO2 from the atmosphere. And while it is increasingly clear we’ll need to remove CO2 in addition to rapid reductions to meet our bold climate targets, carbon removal solutions have received comparatively scant attention to date.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of things that cities can do today to put us on a pathway to enabling large scale removal in the future. Here are 7 ways that NYC can add “carbon removal” to its long resume of leadership.

#1: Planting more trees

Planting more trees is probably the most commonly understood way to remove carbon from the air. Last November, NYC Mayor DiBlasio planted the millionth tree as part of the million trees NY project. Also, the work unfolding at the NYC Lowline is showcasing the city’s ingenuity for making the first urban park that is completely underground.

 Source:  NYC Million Trees  -- The planting of the 1 millionth tree in the Bronx.

Source: NYC Million Trees -- The planting of the 1 millionth tree in the Bronx.

But there’s a lot more that can be done and needs to be done. I caught up with Dr. Novem Auyeung, a senior scientist at NYC parks about how the parks thinks about carbon. “The thing people don’t always realize, is that you can’t just plant a tree and call it quits” says Dr. Auyeung. “You have to account for the carbon that gets the tree there and the maintenance of the tree. You have to look out for non-native invasive species. None of these solutions give instant gratification…” 

#2: Coastal ecosystem restoration

Good news is that trees aren’t the only plants that can sequester carbon. So too can wetlands, which not only are a great carbon sink, but they play a critical role in taking the brunt of large floods from hurricanes. Such "Blue Carbon" approaches often discussed as ways to restore, conserve, and manage ecosystems. The new $60m “Living Breakwaters” project is an example of a post-Sandy Blue Carbon restoration project that is able to connect both resilience and restoring ecosystems that can hold carbon. Not only does such a project slow coastal erosion, the reefs actively store about 4 times more carbon by area than forests!

 Source:  Rebuild by Design  – “living breakwaters" project in Staten Island

Source: Rebuild by Design – “living breakwaters" project in Staten Island


#3: Biochar for urban gardens

About a third of the waste New Yorkers produce – over 1 million pounds - is organic. Much of this waste can be converted into a stable carbon form called biochar. Biochar can have a number of benefits beyond carbon sequestration, including healthier and more productive soil and better water retention. The city could turn some of its organic waste into biochar instead of letting it decompose, and offer discounted biochar to urban gardeners. Of the four gardeners I surveyed, none were using biochar today, but all seemed open to the concept. Time to get on it! 

#4: Urban Greenhouses using CO2 from the atmosphere

Even indoor agriculture can serve as a carbon sink. Urban greenhouses are popping up all around NYC, and they are hungry consumers of CO2. While greenhouses are currently getting their CO2 from fossil sources, a number of companies have large aspirations to “mine the sky” for CO2.  startups such as Infintree, Global Thermostat, Climeworks and Skytree are developing technologies that are being tested in greenhouses to feed CO2 to plants, which can eventually be scaled to provide CO2 for myriad other applications, from fuel synthesis to underground storage. According to the owner of local NYC greenhouse operator Strata Farms, the option of CO2 from the atmosphere seems like a no-brainer, and an important fit for the growing indoor agriculture movement.

#5: Materials from mushrooms in your home

Carbon-sequestering agriculture doesn’t have to be all about food production either. Furniture, insulation, any structure that is as strong as wood, you name it, Ecovative can make it – out of mushrooms. Ecovative harnesses mushrooms to transform carbon in soils into building materials that lock carbon away in a safe and permanent form. Mushroom-based products can also help trees to stay in the forest and fossil fuels in the ground. New Yorkers already take pride in their LEED certified buildings, and they could take pride in structures that actively removed carbon and stored them in different forms. 

 This board from Ecovative is made from mushrooms, not wood.

This board from Ecovative is made from mushrooms, not wood.

#6: Urban “enhanced weathering” in your dog park

“Enhanced weathering” of minerals is a twist on a slow moving process that naturally turns CO2 in the air into rocks. By crushing and grinding certain minerals, it’s possible speed up a CO2 removal process that naturally takes millennia into a human-relevant timescale. These crushed rocks can also be used as a carbon-sequestering substitute for a wide range of gravel products that cities use today. “Our material could work anywhere where you want to put gravel,” said GreenSand founder Bas Zeen. “Parks, beaches, railbeds… you name it!” When I was in a dog park chatting with a fellow dog owner about what she thought about having a carbon negative dog park with enhanced weathering she loved the idea.

 Source: “amusing planet” – ground olivine which can store carbon with enhanced weathering

Source: “amusing planet” – ground olivine which can store carbon with enhanced weathering

#7: Algae lamps in the club

Forget lightbulbs. Someone needs to open up a club that uses algae powered lamps. This technology requires no electricity and can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. When I asked the owner of the Belfry – one of my favorite local establishments whether he would buy one, his response was “I’d be open to it. Anything that gets millennials in the door and is a draw is a good investment from our end.”

 Source: Europa -- artist rendering of a potential algae lamp

Source: Europa -- artist rendering of a potential algae lamp

Bottom line: NYC has lots of potential opportunities to be a leader in the carbon removal space, show its citizens that there are untapped climate solutions in the ground under our feet and lights above our head. By demonstrating that we can enact these solutions today to gain valuable information for the future,  cities such as NYC can pave the way for a future where we clean up more carbon from the air than we emit.

--Christophe Jospe


Guest Post: Gregory Nemet shares 6 key lessons to inform negative emissions technology innovation

Gregory Nemet, an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, writes in this post about how the history of other technological innovations can inform our expectations and policy around the development and deployment of carbon removal solutions. 

Meeting the ambitious climate change targets agreed upon in Paris last December will require deep transformation of the global economy—especially in energy systems, transportation systems, and industry—over the next several decades.  It is becoming increasingly clear that such a transition will almost certainly require substantial deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) during the course of the 21st century. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that such a transition will almost certainly require substantial deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) during the course of the 21st century.

One way to look at this challenge is through the lens of integrated assessment models (IAMs), which are optimization models that minimize the costs of reaching climate targets over the long term.  Even though they have so far included only a subset of potential NETs, these models deploy 5 to 20 gigatonnes (GT = 1 billion tonnes) of CO2 removal per year (global CO2 emissions are around 40GT per year today) in scenarios that correspond to the Paris targets (e.g. limiting warming to +2C degrees).  Deployment of NETs will surely increase as these models start to develop ways to achieve +1.5C degree targets, as the IPCC has been asked to report on.

 Integrated assessment modeling from the  Global Carbon Project  shows negative emissions prevalent across climate scenarios.

Integrated assessment modeling from the Global Carbon Project shows negative emissions prevalent across climate scenarios.

A less black box way to understand the challenge is through carbon budgeting.  Meeting those targets allows the world to emit about 1000 more gigatons of CO2—at current rates we’d reach that limit around 2040 and we’d have to be at zero from then on.  The budget for +1.5C degrees, which also was included in a more aspirational way in the Paris Agreement, would mean getting to zero in the 2020s if emissions were to stay constant until then.  More realistic scenarios include a peak reasonably soon and then smooth decarbonization thereafter.  But the math of +2C degrees, means that peak has to occur very soon and the decarbonization must be rapid, not gradual. 

If we want a more gradual transition, we need to start thinking about a warmer world than +2C or think seriously about negative emissions.  Many possible ways have been proposed to remove CO2 from the atmosphereI found at least six in which peer reviewed journal articles have included estimates of potentials of at least 1 gigawatt of CO2 removal per year.  Some have potentials of 10 GT/year or more.

 BECCS: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, DAC: direct air capture, EW: enhanced weatherization, AR: afforestation and reforestation

BECCS: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, DAC: direct air capture, EW: enhanced weatherization, AR: afforestation and reforestation

It would be a mistake to interpret this comparison as saying that our capacity for removal exceeds our need.  These are simply estimates.  There may be negative interactions among them so that they do not sum.  Each has potentially serious questions including: competition with food, permanence of storage, energy consumption, cost, public acceptance, and verifiability.  All of these issues merit serious consideration and may limit realistic potentials.  What is a valid insight from this comparison is that a diverse set of possibilities exists.  While it is far too soon to concentrate on any of them, it is also too early to write off any of these methods based on their challenges. 

While it is far too soon to concentrate on any of them, it is also too early to write off any of these methods based on their challenges.

To turn these possibilities into options—that is technologies that we can deploy if we need them—we need a set of policies to accelerate innovation in them so that they become scalable real world technologies.  I’d suggest that designing such policies should start with what we know about historical case studies of analogous innovations and government efforts to encourage them.  Here are a few to begin:

1. Historical case studies show that successful innovations are those that combine technological opportunity with a market opportunity.  Market experience is crucial; it informs new research and incremental improvements via learning by doing and economies of scale.

2. Research and Development (R&D) is needed, but to make these technologies real, look to early deployment, not scientific breakthroughs.  R&D can enable scale up and address challenges, such as in materials, reactions, and storage.  But NETs are not a challenge like the Manhattan- or Apollo Projects, even if it shares the urgency of ending a war or landing on the moon.  The challenge of developing NETs is more like rural electrification, the interstate highway system, and the green revolution.  These involved variation, gradual scale up, integration with a larger technological system, and serving diverse end-users.

3. Scale up is central to the challenge and is not trivial.  Both making larger units and deploying many units take time and continuous improvements that learn from previous efforts.  There are plenty of examples of failure due to scaling up too big, too fast. Iteration and gradual scale up would replicate successful strategies in analogous technologies. 

 The  Kemper CCS Project  shows the risks of trying to scale too big too fast.

The Kemper CCS Project shows the risks of trying to scale too big too fast.

4. Expect dynamic costs and non-linear deployment.  Learning by doing and economies of scale bring down costs.  Deployment is likely to follow an S-curve; slow at first due to technical problems and risk averse adopters; and rapid once scale reached, dominant designs achieved, and reliability proven.  Like many other technologies, expect adoption to be slower than expected in near term and faster than expected in the medium term.

 Successful innovation requires rapid iteration at small scales in both R&D and deployment. Via  Greentech Media and Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Successful innovation requires rapid iteration at small scales in both R&D and deployment. Via Greentech Media and Bloomberg New Energy Finance

5. Demand for NETs needs to be robust.  For those who invest in innovation in NETs, where do expected payoffs come from?  What if the credibility of policies is weak?  The long time scales involved suggest a boom and bust cycle of interest in addressing climate change, rather than a smooth monotonic increase in action.  Serving niche markets, creating co-products, and hedging across political jurisdictions are ways to make demand for NETs robust to policy volatility.

6. Public acceptance will be crucial for all NETs.  In simple terms, we know that public perceptions are favorable when there is familiarity, involvement in decision making process, and when scales involved are human rather than industrial.  Perceptions are unfavorable when deployment is rapid and adverse outcomes are experienced nearby.  If publics are skeptical, interim failures can become high profile and create insurmountable setbacks

To turn these possibilities into options—that is technologies that we can deploy if we need them—we need a set of policies to accelerate innovation in them so that they become scalable real world technologies

A technology strategy for NETs in the near term should focus on initial deployment and iteration.  It should target learning, intelligent failures, and improvement.  The quantity of CO2 stored, efficiency, and cost are secondary; they are progress indicators, not program objectives.  Later is the time for de-risking the technology and targeting cost reductions.  Look for places where many small units are deployed in real world conditions, rather than a few large installations…even if some units must be large eventually.

NETs are only viable as a defense against rapid climatic changes if many units are deployed at small scale before they are needed.  Without this experience, rapid scale up from lab scale to address an emergency are likely to generate: large technical failures, public opposition, and lock-in to problematic designs. NETs only have “option value” once they have been deployed at a small but substantial level.  In short, an innovation strategy for NETs that learns from the past would include:

  • Build
  • Fail
  • Record
  • Improve
  • Repeat…many times, with a diverse set of approaches, at incrementally larger scale, and in increasingly realistic conditions.

Gregory Nemet is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. He is also chair of the Energy Analysis and Policy certificate program

His research and teaching focus on improving analysis of the global energy system and, more generally, on understanding how to expand access to energy services while reducing environmental impacts. He teaches courses in energy systems analysis, governance of global energy problems, and international environmental policy.

Expert Dialogue: Should we be pursuing strategies to remove non-CO2 greenhouse gases from the air?

Dr. Renaud de Richter from Montpellier, France recently reached out to the Center for Carbon Removal with an interesting question: “would the Center consider activities related to "greenhouse gas (GHG) removal" beyond the main most prevalent GHG, CO2?" An email exchanged ensued, which I have lightly edited and published below:

Noah Deich:  Can you explain the difference between “CO2 removal” and “GHG removal”?

Renaud de Richter: Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas (GHG) contributing to climate change. But it is not the only GHG—many other GHGs (such as methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs, HCFCs, etc.) also have a warming effect on Earth, and contribute around a third of anthropogenic warming (see two charts, below).

 Source:  US EPA

Source: US EPA

Natural processes in the atmosphere slowly destroy these non-CO2 GHGs over time, mainly by oxidation in the troposphere (0-20 km high), and by "photolysis" with UV rays in the stratosphere (>20km). But these natural processes take a long time, making the atmospheric lifetime expectancy of these non-CO2 GHGs quite long (see table below).

The chart above also highlights another key difference between CO2 and non-CO2 GHGs: non-CO2 GHGs are several orders of magnitude less concentrated than CO2. Sherwood’s rule postulates that the cost of separating a mixture into its components increases with dilution, which suggests that capturing non-CO2 GHGs will be even more challenging to capture than CO2. But if we can figure out an economically-viable way around this problem, non-CO2 GHG removal could provide a valuable tool in our negative emissions toolkit.

ND: Do non-CO2 GHGs serve any beneficial purpose in the atmosphere (that is, would destroying these GHGs lead to any adverse consequences to the environment / society)? 

RR: Almost all CFCs and HCFCs are non-natural, so destroying these would provide no adverse consequences (alongside a number of additional environmental benefits as these compounds can lead to dangerous ozone depletion as well). There are natural methane and nitrous oxide emissions, but destroying these GHGs will not lead to any adverse consequences to the environment / society because we can reduce removal efforts once their concentrations return to pre-industrial (i.e. sustainable) levels.

ND: How does your non-CO2 GHG removal idea work?

RR: Our proposal is to enhance the speed of destruction of the non-CO2 GHGs by catalysts (often natural common mineral oxides, like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or manganese oxide) that are activated by sunlight. Thus the destruction of these GHGs is accelerated and takes only minutes instead of hundreds of years.

The main problem is to put the highly-diluted GHGs from the atmosphere into contact with the photo-catalysts. To solve this problem we propose using "solar updraft towers" which is a novel type of renewable energy power plant (with no-CO2 emissions) that involves massive air flows through a concentrated tower to generate power. Because such a large quantity of air passes through each tower, it is possible to contact and remove the GHGs in this air stream with a much greater efficiency.

Small-scale solar updraft towers have been built throughout the world, but they can be capital-intensive to build at a large scale, and so no such projects have been undertaken to date.

ND: How scalable is this idea? 

RR: In theory, if all our world's electrical energy needs (by 2050) were satisfied by 200 MW solar updraft towers, one atmospheric volume would pass under them every 15 years. If 25% of the non-CO2 GHGs were destroyed passing through these towers, they would destroy hundreds of millions of tons of CO2-equivalent GHG emissions each year, and at the same time produce CO2-free renewable electricity. 

This many solar updraft towers will take a lot of land – equivalent to the size of Montana (but so will many other carbon removal solutions). So even if we only had a small fraction of our energy needs met by such “carbon-negative” solar updraft towers, they still could provide a meaningful contribution to the portfolio of carbon removal solutions

ND: How much is it likely to cost?

RR: The cost of one of these 200 MW solar updraft tower power plants is estimated to be around US$1 billion (less according to some experts). Researchers have estimated that it will cost more or less 0.08 €/kWh to produce electricity from such a plant.  

On a carbon basis, enough air would pass through one 200 MW solar updraft tower to destroy about 0.4 million tons of CO2-equivalent GHGs per year (at a 25% net non-CO2 GHG-removal efficiency).  The marginal cost of adding photocatalysts to the towers for GHG removal would be approximately $20 million—if these photocatalysts remain active 5 years, this costs translates into $10/t CO2-equivalent cost of GHG removal.

Assuming a 25 year book life and small opex for such a 200 MW tower, this translates into roughly a $100/t CO2-equivalent cost of GHG abatement. If you also include the value of avoided fossil fuel use in this calculation, the total GHG abatement cost of the whole system would come out even lower(i.e. around $10/t CO2-equivalent).

As for economic viability of solar updraft towers compared to solar PV systems is very difficult to estimate. There are many different prices for energy production from solar PV systems depending on location, insolation and on year of installation of the plant. While we can expect that PV will likely be cheaper in the future, solar updraft towers could provide an economically-viable alternative to "PV + energy storage" for peak load (as solar updraft towers can store thermal energy in the ground for night electricity production to greatly reduce intermittency at minimal additional cost). (These two articles, here and here, mention possibilities for night capture of these non-CO2 GHGs and then their release and photocatalytic destruction during the day, which can improve the amount of GHG destruction.)

ND: So what is needed to better understand the potential of this non-CO2 GHG removal approach?

RR: A "big" prototype of solar updraft tower has already been built and tested (in Manzanares, Spain, 1982-1989). But a large-scale prototype is less important to test the efficiency of non-CO2 GHG removal. For this purpose, we can start with a greenhouse used in agriculture where sewage sludge or pig manure are drying, and measure the amount of some GHGs inside and outside after passing through a large surface area of photocatalyst exposed to sunlight.  Critically, this will help us understand whether our assumptions on efficiency and cost can be confirmed, which will then help validate the move to a larger-scale prototype.

It will likely only cost around 200 000 € ($250 000) for next steps (half of this amount for the apparatus to analyze the quantity of the GHGs gases before and after removal). Similar experiments have already been made in Italy, which we hope to build upon by testing nano TiO2 doped photocatalysts, active under UV and also under visible light, under a greenhouse and sunlight.

ND: Thanks Renaud!

RR: Thanks Noah! Also thanks to the Center for Carbon Removal for informing your readers about the possibilities of non-CO2 GHG removal from the atmosphere.

What are your thoughts on non-CO2 GHG removal? Share in the comment section below or on Twitter @CarbonRemoval!


Science Special: ARPA-E 2016 Edition

The Center for Carbon Removal was on display at the Technology Showcase at the 2016 ARPA-E conference last week in Washington D.C. It was a great forum for engaging, technology developers, investors, and policymakers in our efforts to accelerate the development of economically-viable carbon removal solutions.

In fact, the conference featured three "fast-pitch" sessions for new ARPA-E programs related to carbon removal technology innovation. Check out the slides from these pitches, below:

We were also really exited to see other friends showcasing technologies for a negative emissions future, including the ASU Center for Negative Carbon Emissions

Lastly, for your weekend viewing pleasure, check out these videos from ARPA-E on carbon sequestration, and our older post on the idea for an "ARPA-C" (for carbon)!

NGO Spotlight: Bellona

Here at the Center for Carbon Removal, it is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (Bio-CCS) theme month, so we are particularly excited to turn our spotlight on EU-based NGO Bellona. Bellona has been a leader in the Bio-CCS field for many years -- what follows is a recap of an email exchange with Bellona Bio-CCS expert Marika Andersen to share more about their work and their views of the importance of Bio-CCS in meeting climate goals. 

Q: Who is Bellona?

A: Bellona is an independent non-profit organization that aims to meet and fight the climate challenges, through identifying and implementing sustainable environmental solutions. Our slogan sums up our optimism: From Pollution to Solution! Bellona is engaged in a broad spectrum of current national and international environmental questions and issues around the world. Our area of expertise is broad, and the staff is comprised of individuals with a wide range of professional backgrounds. With close to three decades of experience, we have established a unique network both nationally and internationally.

Q: Why is Bellona interested in Bio-CCS?

A: The scale of the climate change challenge requires that we roll-out all available solutions, including Bio-CCS. Limiting global warming to 2°C will require a tremendous effort in transforming the economy into a low carbon economy. This can only happen quickly enough through a combination of an unprecedented increase in energy efficiency, massive deployment of renewable energy technologies, accelerated deployment of CCS and application of Bio-CCS to achieve carbon negative emissions. The use of sustainable biomass in a plant fitted with CCS produces a double climate benefit that we cannot afford to ignore: Emissions from combustion of fossil fuels are prevented from entering the atmosphere and the CO2 contained in the biomass is captured, thereby removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report is clear that the need for Bio-CCS will only increase the longer we wait to take action: “Delayed mitigation further increases the dependence on the full availability of mitigation options, especially on CDR [Carbon Dioxide Removal] technologies such as BECCS [BioEnergy with CCS]” (IPCC, 2014).

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges to getting Bio-CCS off the ground?

A: The technical solutions for Bio-CCS exist. The challenges are on the one hand, making the political and industrial decision-making process on CCS more efficient, and on the other hand, to re-build confidence in sustainable biomass production and use. Bellona is involved in developing the sustainable biomass component of Bio-CCS, especially focusing on advanced sources that do not compete with land and food, such as the integrated solutions presented by Ocean Forest and Sahara Forest Project. Regarding CCS roll-out, it’s important to note that Bio-CCS is in many ways a low-hanging CCS fruit: The cost of CO2 capture from biofuel production such as ethanol fermentation, is generally very low, as the CO2 by-product streams are often of high purity. The pure stream of CO2 negates the need for additional separation equipment, with only driers and compression units necessary to prepare the CO2 for transport to a storage site. And speaking of storage: This is the linchpin of both fossil and Bio-CCS. Without storage capacity, capture is futile. This is why Bellona is also working to speed-up storage site development.  

Q: What is the outlook in the EU for Bio-CCS over the next few years?

A: In Europe, upheavals in the energy system caused by expansion in renewables and outdated business models, coupled with concerns about energy security, have led to renewed emphasis on the role of fossil power and CCS. On the matter of energy security, Bellona is clear that any enhanced use of indigenous fossil resources must be coupled with CCS and that opportunities for Bio-CCS must be scoped out. But of perhaps greatest importance, is the current lack of incentives to apply CCS to biomass facilities. This is because the EU focus remains on zero, not negative, emissions. As biomass is already counted as carbon neutral in the EU Emission Trading System (ETS), there is no incentive for someone using biomass to add CCS and bring their emissions below zero. A debate on reform of the EU ETS is due to begin in 2016. Bellona has already published some ideas on rewarding negative emissions in the EU ETS and will engage in this debate.  

Q: What are you planning to do at COP21 to raise awareness for Bio-CCS?

A: Bellona will be heavily present at COP21 with a pavilion that we have named Action Through Connection and are hosting jointly with the Norwegian climate research institute CICERO. Here we will host a number of events and gatherings throughout the two weeks, including two events specifically addressing Bio-CCS. The first will address why the world’s foremost climate scientists agree on the need for Bio-CCS, while the second will aim to place Bio-CCS in perspective with other carbon removal technologies and ask what we can do to get the roll-out of this vital climate technology to move faster.

Q: What publications have you released about this topic?

A: Bellona led the work of the Joint Task Force Bio-CCS of the Commission’s Technology Platforms for CCS and biofuels, ZEP and EBTP respectively, to develop a report on the Bio-CCS potential of Europe – Biomass with CO2 Capture and Storage (Bio-CCS), the way forward for Europe. Furthermore, Bellona’s CCS Roadmap for Romania – Our future is carbon negative: A CCS roadmap for Romania – addresses the country’s carbon negative potential. In the lead-up to the EU’s debate on reform of its Emission Trading System, we have released a short brief on incentivizing negative emissions – BellonaBrief: The Carbon Negative Solution – Incentivising Bio-CCS in Europe


Thanks again Marika and the Bellona EU team!

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. 

What the McKinsey GHG Abatement Curve tells us about CDR

McKinsey Supply Curve
McKinsey Supply Curve

The CDR field has begun to emerge out of relative obscurity recently as scientists have grown more confident that we will need to remove carbon from the atmosphere to prevent climate change. But CDR is not a new concept. In fact, there are a handful of CDR approaches that have been hiding in plain sight. Take the following supply curve of GHG abatement options that the consultancy McKinsey has prepared.

The approaches highlighted in orange are all CDR techniques. So what does this chart tell us?

  1. CDR isn't new.  McKinsey first produced this widely distributed chart in 2007. While CDR might not have been a concept that was widely known at the time, this chart shows that many CDR techniques were clearly on the radar of climate change analysts.
  2. CDR is relatively inexpensive. The handful of CDR abatement options considered here all are expected to cost less than 20 Euros / tCO2 by 2030 (note: this chart shows estimates for McKinsey's expected cost/potential of different GHG abatement options in 2030 -- not actual  costs/potential as they stand today).
  3. CDR Supply Needs
  4. The supply of CDR techniques is potentially quite large. The techniques considered by McKinsey are able to provide around 5 tCO2 per year, which could provide a significant fraction of the likely demand for CDR, as shown in the chart below:  Source: The Climate Institute
  5. CDR is a complement to mitigation -- not a competitor. Many worry that CDR will be used as an excuse to delay decarbonization of the economy. This chart shows that CDR isn't a substitute for decarbonization, but instead part of the portfolio of solutions we can deploy to minimize the overall costs of decarbonization.
  6. Only a small fraction of the CDR approaches that have been proposed are expected to be "viable" by 2030 according toMcKinsey. Many other CDR approaches besides the ones considered by McKinsey have been proposed, as shown below:
CDR Approach tree
CDR Approach tree

The McKinsey curve focused only on the orange box under the "biological removal" branch of proposed CDR approaches. I've constructed a supply curve of many of the prominent CDR options based off of data and estimates from the IPCC and the Virgin Earth Challenge, reproduced below:

CDR Supply Curve
CDR Supply Curve

Of note is that McKinsey only considered GHG abatement options that they expected would cost less than 80 Euros/tCO2 in 2030, whereas the full CDR supply curve includes a number of approaches well above that threshold. The cost estimates in the full CDR chart also are current estimates (not projections for 2030), and so are likely to come down in cost significantly by 2030 if significant R&D spending flows to these approaches.

6. McKinsey is bullish on the technical potential for "biological" carbon removal approaches. The science behind several of the proposed land management CDR approaches that McKinsey considers remains uncertain. The degree to which grassland management, for example, can sequester the amount of carbon McKinsey suggests still requires significant scientific analysis to confirm. It is certainly possible for McKinsey's supply estimates to be validated, but first considerable investment in basic science behind some of the CDR approaches is required.