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Inside the new carbon economy

We need to remove carbon from the air to avert disastrous impacts of climate change — good thing there's money to be made from carbon removal.

Want to meet the next Jeff Bezos? Better yet — want to be the next Jeff Bezos?

David Babson, program director at ARPA-e, posed this question to climate entrepreneurs at GreenBiz Group’s VERGE 19 conference in Oakland, California, last week. It’s a timely, relevant question — the emerging carbon economy is a trillion-dollar opportunity, according to estimates. That’s because the opportunities for scalable, profitable carbon removal solutions are embedded within every industry, and the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett could well be the person who finds a way to put all of them into a portfolio.

The emerging new carbon economy is an exciting, diverse, rapidly growing set of opportunities and challenges, and it’s bringing along a host of audacious innovators lining up to confront those challenges even as the sand in the planet’s hourglass is running out. It is a somewhat complicated picture, but when viewed from a top-down perspective, it’s really a matter of simple arithmetic.

According to Babson, scientists understand the relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature rise pretty well. They know the atmospheric carbon level we need to stay below to avoid the 2-degree rise that most experts agree would be the most that can occur if truly catastrophic consequences are to be avoided. They also know that we’ve put two-thirds of that carbon up there already.

The emerging new carbon economy is an exciting, diverse, rapidly growing set of opportunities and challenges, and it’s bringing along a host of audacious innovators.
Given the current rate at which we are adding excess carbon dioxide (which is still growing, last time we checked), we will need to begin reducing those additions by 9 percent annually to meet the 2-degree goal. But that is no longer achievable by simply cutting back. We need to begin actively subtracting carbon from the air — and not just a little. According to Babson, we’ll need to be subtracting as much as 20 billion tons annually by 2100. At current prices, that could be a $2 trillion undertaking.

Pioneering innovator Tom Chi looks at it a little differently. Discussing ecological regeneration at VERGE 19, he explained: "Since 1750, humans have emitted 2234 GT of CO2. 582 GT (26 percent) has been absorbed by the oceans, 648 GT (29 percent) has been absorbed by the land. The rest, 1004 GT or 45 percent remains in the air.” That’s why the atmospheric concentration has grown from 280 to a record high of just under 415 ppm in May.

"So, if we put 1000 GT, or a trillion tons of extra CO2 in the air, we should take that out, the sooner, the better," Chi said.

Either way, it’s an enormous job, one that will require "the biggest industry known to man" to address, according to Babson.

More likely, the carbon removal solutions will be dispersed among many industries, including some new ones. In fact, Marcius Extavour, Energy Lead at XPrize, a design competition focused on crucial societal issues, said that "every sector of the economy has a role to play."

Most experts put them into three groups.

More likely, the carbon removal solutions will be dispersed among many industries, including some new ones.
The first group comprises the various natural systems. On land, this is primarily through living systems such as forests and grasslands that are removing carbon via the carbon cycle. Preserving these, adding to them, and taking measures to enhance their activities, all fall under this heading. Every tree is assembled from somewhere between two and 10 tons of carbon, drawn directly from the atmosphere. Protecting trees and planting lots more are some of the most cost-effective measures that can be taken.  Chi described a drone that can plant 120 trees per minute. A little math says that 100,000 drones could finish the job in under 20 years.

But here’s where it gets a little complicated. Not all captured carbon is equal. How is it captured and how permanently is it stored? As Jennifer Wilcox, the James H. Manning chaired professor of chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an author of the National Academy of Science report cited above, told a VERGE audience, at the "Carbon Removal Will Create a Wealth of Opportunities. Are You Ready?" session, different methods have different storage durations and different risk levels.

Capturing carbon dioxide and using it to carbonate soft drinks, as Global Thermostat is doing, will only hold the CO2 for days or weeks at most. Turning it into rock, as Climeworks does, could last for eons. Trees fall somewhere in between. When they die, the carbon is slowly released again. But if there is a forest fire, then the carbon is all released at once.

The other major natural system intervention is in agriculture. Scientists have come to realize that our modern agricultural methods hardly could have been worse when it comes to their impact on the carbon cycle (and other things as well). In natural systems, communities of microorganisms work synergistically with plants to store carbon in the soil. Modern farming has disturbed or destroyed those communities to the point where massive amounts of carbon have been released rather than sequestered, which has made the soil less healthy and less resilient in the process. Regenerative agriculture, which includes both farming and ranching, aims to reverse that trend and the potential is huge. General Mills recently committed to employ the practices, which include cover cropping, no-till, keeping a live root in the ground at all times and incorporating animals, on 1 million acres of their contracted lands. Loren Poncia, a Marin County rancher who was part of the "Regenerative Agriculture, Carbon Drawdown and the Future of Food" panel, said that he sees himself in a few years as "a carbon farmer who produces food as a byproduct." The consensus today is that agriculture is responsible for as much as one-third of the excess carbon in the air. Regen ag proponents feel confident that if their solutions become widely adopted, they can provide at least that much of the solution.

Regenerative agriculture, which includes both farming and ranching, aims to reverse that trend and the potential is huge.
The second group of carbon capture methods contains the engineered solutions. Most people are talking about direct air capture machines that suck air in and extract the carbon dioxide from it. While still a fledgling industry, the Canadian company Carbon Engineering recently announced plans to build a plant capable of extracting 1 million metric tons of C02 per year in Texas. What do you do with all that CO2? You either pump it underground, as oil companies such as Occidental and others are doing. That traps the CO2 after the oil has been removed. Other options include pumping it into empty holes in the ground (sequestration), or making products out of it.

One of the most promising product applications, due to the sheer volume of material used globally, is concrete. One company, Solidia, makes concrete that both produces less CO2 in its production and also absorbs CO2 as it cures.

The third group of carbon removal solutions are the hybrids, which combine natural process with engineered products. These include bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which combines biomass energy with carbon sequestration, and advanced bio-materials that grow, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, and then putting them to long-term use such as in buildings. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is one material getting a lot of buzz lately. These pieces of timber are made from perpendicular layers, glued together, like plywood, only thicker — allowing them to be used as structural beams.

This industry has the potential to bring the global economy onto a far more sustainable footing, while providing tremendous financial opportunities at the same. Watch this space for lots more on the topic.

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