Carbon Dioxide Removal: All the Rage

Carbon Dioxide Removal: All the Rage

September has been a big month for carbon wrangling, especially the work of pulling CO2 from the air and oceans.

Call it CO2removal, CDR or carbon harvesting, a bunch of policies, reports, and studies are live that take the work head on. CDR is built on a fundamental understanding of climate math, namely that conventional mitigation approaches to GHG emissions won’t be enough. The basis for CDR is acknowledging that we’re losing time, we’re likely to “overshoot” emissions, and that we have a moral responsibility to clean up our mess and restore the world’s atmosphere to how we found it (a breezy 300 ppm CO2).

September brings us five noteworthy announcements on CDR. Enough to band out a quick blog for your consideration, gentle reader.

Let’s start with the big news from California, specifically from Governor Brown’s office. Just in time for the Global Climate Action Summit (here is sunny San Francisco) he announced two major actions.

The first was signing SB100into law. Led by Kevin DeLeon in the CA Senate, it calls for big power sector goals, including a 60% renewable portfolio standard by 2030 and a 100% zero-carbon energy standard by 2045. This bill puts the state power sector on track to zero emissions, and puts carbon on the front burner as the target and the goal. I refer you to David Roberts excellent write upon the specifics.

This will likely mean that some kind of CDR will be needed to balance the books.

The same day he signed SB100, Gov. Brown also signed an audacious executive order — by 2045 the whole energy sectorof the state should be carbon neutral and net carbon negative emissionafter 2045. The italics reflect my gobsmacked delight — California has declared that the whole state’s power, transportation, building, and industrial sectors combined should remove more carbon they emit iafter 2045.

This is the first major policy framework for the climate counter-strike. It states explicitly that zero emissions is not good enough for the world’s 5thlargest economy. Sure, it’s only an executive order, not a law. Nonetheless, the State has historically built momentum for major environmental legislation from the platform of executive orders.

Needless to say, there’s much to be done to implement large-scale CDR (to “go negative”). We need new technologies and practices, we need experts and experience, we need policy and money and financeable projects (this is true for both land-use and engineered approaches).

That’s where the other four announcements come in.

The first is a set of three reports coming Sept. 17th from World Resource Institute. Led by the mighty James Mulligan, it tries to make sense on what we should do collectively about CDR. The first report discuses foundational questions on CDR and how to think about the whole enterprise. Two reports focus on the specifics of natural pathways (e.g. forests, soils) and engineered pathways (e.g., BECCS, DAC) and lay out the needs to make progress in each arena. Their excellent scholarship and clarity of writing is noteworthy, as is their short video explaineron CDR.

One important finding is the need for a CarbonShot; in essence, a major R&D initiative like the SunShot initiative launched by the US Dept. of Energy in 2009. SunShot added ~$300 million/year into solar R&D, and helped dramatically reduce costs for commercial photovoltaics — something we benefit from today.

If WRI talks the talk, a bunch of universities and National labs are walking the walk. Called the New Carbon Economy Consortium, they want to help create a just and vibrant economy that draws down more CO2than it emits. Towards that end, they released a major report and executive summary on what’s needed to create that vision in an Innovation Plan, with clear, straightforward R&D goals.

Importantly, the report realizes that universities and Labs can do more than create knowledge. They can create human beings who will build and operate a new carbon economy. They can build testbeds, standards, and data archives. They can convene and marshal work on social, economic, political, and legal concerns. In short, the NCEC adds flesh to the CarbonShot idea, and makes clear that a generation of investment, training and learning is the work needed to make it happen.

They are not alone. The Energy Futures Initiative, led by former DOE Secretary Ernie Moniz, announced a new effortthis week. Their goal: to assemble a federal R&D program for all things carbon, focused on direct air capture, bioenergy w/ CCS (BECCS), carbon-to-value, and other engineered pathways to carbon harvesting. This major effort looks to deliver plans to current and future administrations and Congresses on how to invest for carbon management.

Finally, the UK’s Royal Society published a major studythis week on CDR. This report not only assesses natural and engineered pathways to CO2removal, but also proposes actions that the United Kingdom might take today! Some recommendations are straightforward (invest in R&D and innovation) — some are not (add a new forest the size of Yorkshire). But the pivot from pure scholarship to specific recommendations is noteworthy and reflects the urgency of the times.

If you’re wondering why the US hasn’t done the same things, watch this space — the National Academies publishes its version of these reports in the next month or two.

The backdrop for all this is fraught. Some consider CDR an admission of failure. Others consider it a moral hazard. Others call it a “get out of jail free” card.

I call it required (see blogs 1 & 4, and future blogs). In my assessment, the true moral hazard is equivocation and delay. If the climate math demands more investment and action, especially creating whole enterprises for carbon removal and harvesting, then we need to start today. That’s a big point of both the NCE and the Royal Society reports: we must start today on what we know we’ll need tomorrow.

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Disclosure: I should mention that I’m directly or indirectly involved in all these efforts, reports, and more. Your friendly neighborhood Carbon Wrangler is busy on the case.