Reversing climate change means carbon removal

Imagine you’re in a runaway train that’s accelerating down a tunnel on a direct path to the inner core of the earth. As you continue down the track, the heat around the walls becomes more intense, melting the outer casings of the train. Your brakes begin to deteriorate. You feverishly pump the brakes, while simultaneously buttressing the walls of the train so they don’t melt, hoping that you can extend the precious last few minutes of your life.

These actions are a metaphor for how the climate community is currently dealing with the challenge. Today, we are focused on how we might adapt (build stronger walls) and mitigate (try to slow down) the effects of climate change. At Nori, we don’t dispute the importance of these actions to address the challenge and their necessity to give us a chance at long-term survival. However we are not going into business to make the problem less bad.

We have started a company to fix it.

For us, that means making it as easy as possible for volunteers who want to pay to fix the problem to be able to do so. Fixing the problem means making it possible to create a reverse gear that can take us back. The reverse gear is carbon removal. Here are five reasons why we are only focused on taking back CO2 from the air.

1. We already owe a 750 billion ton debt of CO2 to return to a sustainable planetary level

The quibble between shooting for a 1.5 and 2 degrees warming world is actually a distraction. It is like tinkering with the walls and hoping the breaks will get better. It should be what our comfort level is with the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Scientists agree that a safe level is 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’ve already over shot that level by 60 ppm and the total atmospheric concentration grows between 2 and 3 ppm per year. About the same amount also goes into the oceans and biomass — which, like failing brakes, are losing their capacity to store carbon which means more ends up in the atmosphere. To get back to the 350 ppm, we need to pull back roughly 750 billion tons, as well as negating the future emissions that we might be unable to stop.

2. Paying for emissions reductions is inherently flawed as a climate fix

In the current incentive structures, it is possible to get paid to put less CO2 in the atmosphere. These emissions reductions can be sold as carbon offsets and represent one ton of CO2 equivalent avoided emissions. Unfortunately, there are quite a few problems with this model. First, these offsets need to prove an additionality test; that it would be uneconomic to do them otherwise. In other words, an emission reduction might have saved someone money, but they were waiting to get paid for it. Worse, there has been collusion between suppliers and verifiers to prove that something was uneconomic when that wasn’t the case. Even worse, some of the CO2 offsets sold into the market that come from emissions reductions represent the destruction of a potent greenhouse gas, where the supplier of those offsets created a plant that generated those greenhouse gases after the market was set up so that they could get paid to not emit it.

3. Renewable energy is a means not an end

Deploying renewable energy has long been championed as the only way forward to address climate change. There is no doubt that renewables can play a major role in adding to the breaks of the train, but cannot put the train in reverse. The goal of 100% renewables is therefore misguided if it puts us on a path of more expensive breaks (while doing nothing to work on our reverse gear). Instead, the focus should be on 0 net carbon. 0 net carbon, and a target of a total amount of ppm in the atmosphere is agnostic to any one approach. It plays no favorites, and it sets the correct goal in mind.

4. Carbon removal provides a motivation to stop emitting

Let’s consider CO2 as a waste. Today, it is still more or less legal to freely to dump our garbage (CO2) in the street (the atmosphere). However the garbage is piling up and we already need to get rid of it (750 billion tons of it). Carbon removal is the metaphorical garbage collector. The existence of a garbage collector — backed by a universal price on what it takes to get rid of the garbage — therefore creates a new paradigm to find the most efficient way to deal with the problem. Because the garbage collector provides you with a bill, you are motivated to waste less (reduce your emissions), or not waste at all (replace your emissions by using fossil free energy). Ultimately, this means that for every ton of fossil carbon that we mobilize — or have mobilized in the past — that another ton can be paid for to be put away. Would you rather not pay? Don’t emit.

5. There is sufficient capacity to store all the excess carbon in the atmosphere

Here is the good news: if we add up proven and emerging techniques to take carbon out of the atmosphere, we will find that there is enough capacity to deal with all of our emissions. There is a sufficient potential to store carbon in soils, biomass, minerals, in buildings, underground, and in the deep ocean.

The challenge of reversing climate change therefore becomes a matter of having properly aligned incentive structures to pay for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, easy ways to trust that carbon has been removed, and a distributed and open-sourced system that can scale to address the scope of the problem. At Nori, we don’t see this as a challenge, but as an opportunity. We don’t consider others addressing this challenge as competitors, but as fellow travelers and collaborators. And we couldn’t be more thrilled than to address this opportunity by building a new voluntary marketplace for carbon removal using blockchain technology.