Klaus Lackner envisions a world where we treat carbon like waste
When I committed myself to spending the rest of my career working to fix climate change, I realized that it would be engineers and scientists who have many of the answers. Because I was neither, my plan was to return to school, get a masters in environmental science and policy, and find brilliant scientists and engineers, and learn how they think in order to scale their solutions more rapidly. I am incredibly grateful to meet this goal in when I was hired in a communications role at the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University. It was there where I got to know Klaus Lackner, the director.
Lackner is a world-renowned physicist and one of the first people to consider removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at industrial scale. Under his tutelage I not only learned about different direct air capture technologies, but also acquired a framework for thinking about costs, scale, and innovation. I began to understand that climate change is totally solvable, we just need a way to balance the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When I graduated from Columbia in 2014, I had the chance to move with Lackner to as chief strategist to help start the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. In 2016, I left CNCE to start my first company, Carbon A List, and expand the scope of what I worked on as a consultant and chart a new entrepreneurial path pointed toward making a marketplace. With Nori, we are fortunate to have Lackner as one of our advisors.
It brought back memories to walk into his lab in December 2017 to bring him onto the Reversing Climate Change podcast and get his perspective.
Lackner gave us a tour I’d given myself many times before. He took a carpet-like white sample — with an anionic exchange resin embedded in a hydrophobic layer (tyvek). Material that will capture CO2 when dry and release it when moist.
Lackner then put the material in a greenhouse. Paul sprayed the material with water to increase the humidity in the glovebox. After a few seconds began to increase the concentration of the CO2 in the chamber. The experiment shows how a material can passively extract CO2 from the atmosphere. This is one type of direct air capture technology that uses “the moisture swing.” Capture when dry, release when wet. Rinse. Repeat.
What drives Lackner to work on technologies pulling carbon dioxide out of the air?
As long as we pump out carbon concentrations will get higher. In his mind, there was never an alternative world where we wouldn’t have to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. When Lackner thinks about the magnitude of the global challenge he estimates that the global economy needs to be reducing emissions by roughly 8% each year for the next 50 years. At today’s rate, we’re only at 1%.
One place to begin is not with the technologies, but actually our mindset. Lacker and I published a paper in Issues in Science and Technology in Spring 2017. We make the argument that solving climate change is ultimately a waste management issue. Once we all agree it’s waste, then we agree that we have no choice but to clean it up. It’s not like we have not aspired to make no sewage. We have aspired that we should treat it and not put it in the rivers. In the end it comes down to how much does it cost to collect it and dispose of it. From Nori’s perspective, we want the cost of what it’s worth to buyers to always exceed the cost of collection. What we deliver is carbon removal as a service. Our hypothesis is that by building this for volunteers, we will learn a lot more quickly, and build the underlying infrastructure needed when this waste management service is in high demand. Lackner’s guess is that when it happens, the demand will occur suddenly.
If the world wants to dial the clock back from the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere — say from 400 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm; or 500 to 400, well that’s more CO2 that we emitted in the 20th century. It seems like a massive amount, but the good news is that there is far more capacity to store carbon than we need. In Lacker’s mind, for this all to work on a global scale two things need to happen. First, figure out how much carbon we’ve mobilized. This includes emissions all coal, oil, gas, concrete, and AFOLU (agriculture, forestry and other land use). Then say, if you must take carbon out of the ground, you must show me a certificate of sequestration. In other words, for every ton of CO2 we emit, another one must be paid to put away. Don’t want to pay? Then don’t emit.