The question of how to reverse climate change is one that keeps me up at night. It’s also something I’ve committed the rest of my career to make a reality. We’ve got “reversing climate change” on the back of our Nori business cards. It’s also the name of the podcast I co-host with my colleague Ross Kenyon. While we know we aren’t doing it alone, and that humans may have already done irreparable harm to the climate, it’s still our company mission. We’re delusional enough to believe that climate change is a solvable problem, and one we will solve in our lifetime. We approach this challenge with curiosity, humility, and unbridled enthusiasm for innovation. For us, reversing climate change means reversing the driving cause of climate change: excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And at the end of the day, it’s simple math:
Stopping the damage we’ve done to the climate comes down to balancing the carbon books.
In this light, here are 10 things the world can do to reverse climate change add up to pieces that will get us there.
Change our mindset by focusing on the end
Paradoxically, many of the mindsets within the environmental community are the environmental movement’s worst enemy. We’ve accepted that climate change is something we can make less bad, or simply adapt to as opposed to stopping entirely. We pick favorites at the expense of the system, such as when we shut down nuclear plants or advance vanity projects that have negligible impact. And we marginalize those who are responsible for the problem from being part of the solution. These are not productive ways of thinking, and can result in spending precious resources and time going in the wrong direction.
The underlying cause of climate change is the greenhouse effect. When we add carbon dioxide from to the atmosphere the greenhouse effect gets stronger. The “end” therefore is keeping the greenhouse effect in check by maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations below a safe threshold.
Simply put, the end can be achieved from two broad activities. We must:
- Stop the carbon from reaching the atmosphere.
- Remove the carbon from the atmosphere.
Change our ambition to one that solves it entirely
By changing our mindset we can change our ambition. If we accept the premise that removing carbon is something we must do, we then have the opportunity to solve it entirely if we can address the root cause in its entirety. Then we can think of solving climate change as a waste management problem. It’s like there’s all this trash piled up in the street and it is causing us health problems. The removal of carbon is taking the trash out we have put there in the past so we can live healthy lives. Once we accept that we can remove our trash, questions like how much trash do we want in the street and who is going to pay for it become coordination challenges. In this light, carbon removal presents the option to say that living in a world two degrees C warmer from pre-industrial times is not sufficient. Instead, we should aim to live with a restored climate with CO2 safe levels. Nori’s ambition is to be part of the system that is getting us back to a climate from with a CO2 concentration of 410 parts per million (ppm) to one with 300 ppm. This requires removing 1.5 trillion tons of CO2. Once we can fully accept that without removing carbon that we can’t actually solve the problem, then we can establish that:
- If we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere then we need to remove them.
- If we remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the problem goes away.
- Putting a price on removing carbon can motivate the things we need to do to not put it there.
- Climate change becomes a challenge of financing and incentives.
Change our incentives
Perverse incentives and special interests have permeated the environmental markets and have not actually been effective at solving the problem. Much of the market has viewed paying for environmental clean up as philanthropic, part of corporate social responsibility, or as a tax break. That should not be the case. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are an externality that have not yet been paid for. We must. If we add carbon to the atmosphere, we need to pay to pull it back. If we don’t want to pay, then we shouldn’t put it there. This requires entirely new incentive structures, and market mechanisms that allow people and entities to pay for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while motivating the activities that stop it from reaching there.
Coordinate research efforts more effectively
There is plenty of promising research that can allow us to stop and remove carbon emissions. Unfortunately, hubris, greed, and incompetence has gotten in the way. Our intellectual property system has allowed early adopters to own swaths of patents on ideas which have not yet proven their scale, but could be highly profitable in the future — some of which are owned by patent trolls who block efforts to improve innovation through litigation. What ends up happening is that good ideas remain at the demonstration or prototype scale without being in the hands of the right people to take the idea forward. Oftentimes the motives of these patent trolls are not to solve the problem, but simply to make a lot of money. Start-up companies trying to figure out breakthroughs often times need to stay in stealth mode so that no one “steals” their idea, which means that funding agencies and nonprofits are getting an incomplete version of what is possible, and what is needed. It doesn’t need to be this complicated. A global patent pool that kept innovations to solve climate change that allow great ideas to be entirely open-sourced and build upon improvements could go a really long way.
OK now that I’ve got the philosophical and market related solutions out of the way, onto the actual solutions of things that we can do today…
Return carbon to the soil
The regenerative movement is already underway. The good news is that this form of “innovation” has been around for millenia. It is actually quite straightforward to return carbon to the soil. We can stop practices that are intensely tilling our lands, over-relying on nutrients, and planting monocultures. We can switch to a more harmonious connection between grazing animals and agricultural lands, planting cover crops, rotating crops, and using no till agriculture. Not only is this good for balancing CO2 in the atmosphere, but the soil becomes healthier and more abundant, retains more water, the land becomes more productive, farmers save money, pollution is lowered.
Hold carbon in the trees
Deforestation is a major driver of carbon emissions, but by storing CO2 into biomass we’re not putting it in the atmosphere. Cutting down old growth trees is not only removing a critical carbon stock, but also uprooting the resilience of an entire ecosystem. We must ensure that logging occurs in places where it can be done responsibly, and the trees being cut down are those which are marked for that purpose. And if we are truly holding carbon in trees as a climate strategy, then we need to plan for the future — and probably shoot to plant 1 trillion of them.
Advance a circular carbon economy
All this fossil carbon that we freely emit into the atmosphere needs to be balanced either by removing it after the fact, or ensuring that it doesn’t get there in the first place. It can be stored underground or into different goods in our economy. Carbon can go into fibers, biopolymers, concrete, wood, and other building materials. Imagine buildings — like wooden skyscrapers which can ensure that carbon stays put much longer than it would in a tree. Moreover, by reimagining where the carbon can go, we can use processes which negate the need for refining oil to make plastics, for example. The question of where that carbon comes from is tantamount. Some companies are working on making carbon — based fuels from air. This would obviate the need for burning fossil fuels while allowing us to keep much of our transportation infrastructure.
Decarbonize energy production with large carbon neutral systems
The entire energy infrastructure needs to change more quickly. By this I mean large power plants that can provide energy with no carbon emissions. The billion dollar investments that go to building new carbon neutral plants need to happen at scale that is several orders of magnitude more than it is already. Getting anything over a billion dollars funded requires extensive planning. We should plan for this now. The technology is there; it needs political will and people who will foot the bill. Different geographies will build plants that look differently, but systems that can provide baseload energy — whether utility scale renewables, nuclear, or carbon capture and storage have the potential to scale rapidly.
Decarbonize our energy system with modular technologies
One of the great advantages of solar energy is its modularity and capacity for mass production and dramatic cost reductions. Rooftop solar, batteries, fuel cells, and industrial units that can all be churned out on a factory floor are promising for a number of reasons. These modular technologies will make us more resilient, and better equipped to adapt to changes. These also don’t require a centralized grid, or planning structure, which can lead to rapid deployment. As a consumer, we can support these options when we understand how much carbon they take out or don’t put into the atmosphere.
Improve efficiency in places where it creates value
There are so many things we can do to increase efficiency and lower carbon emissions. These activities oftentimes create additional value beyond just stopping carbon from reaching the atmosphere or just saving money. Passive homes consume 95% less energy than conventional homes, but also allow for better air quality. Walkable cities with more public transportation create stronger community bonds. Food that doesn’t go wasted can help feed hungry populations, or support local composting systems.
Ultimately, there is no one right answer to how to solve climate change and this blog post is not written to be prescriptive. Instead, all approaches that can lead us to drawdown — that is, the point at which we’ve reached peak carbon and then start to pull back — are needed, and can work together. And it starts with believing that we actually can do it!