You'll never guess how CO2 can save us

Shoes without a footprint
NRG
Shoes made out of waste CO2? They won't solve the climate change alone, but could help spur unexpected innovations that enable large-scale removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

What do blue M&Ms and sneakers have in common? What if I told you they could both help fight climate change?

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions generally have focused on two strategies: shifting to renewable and other low-carbon energy sources; and finding ways to sequester carbon through forestation, improved land use and carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Both strategies are critical. But both also miss an opportunity — namely that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are not just the primary driver of climate change, but also a potential building block for an almost infinite number of materials, fuels and products we use every day.

Here are just a few examples. 

The food company Mars has committed to switching from artificial colors to natural colors, and its biggest challenge is the color blue. One promising source is spirulina, a type of algae that a number of companies are producing using CO2.

In 2014, Sprint began selling iPhone cases made of plastics from waste CO2 captured at farms and landfills. This year, Ford announced it would use foam and plastics derived from CO2 emissions to make vehicle seats and interiors. The company Covestro is making CO2-derived foam for use in mattresses and upholstered furniture. And at New York Fashion Week this year, NRG Energy unveiled a "Shoe Without a Footprint" made from CO2.

So why aren’t technologies such as these a bigger part of the climate change conversation?

Some argue the potential markets for CO2-based products are inherently niche and, even in aggregate, would have only a very small impact on reducing carbon emissions. Others say that large-scale carbon capture paired with underground sequestration is a more certain path to address the enormous amount of CO2 emissions produced globally.

These arguments are not necessarily wrong, but they don’t tell the whole story. That’s because, as history has shown, what we think we know today can be turned on its head tomorrow. How?

First, raw materials are fungible and frequently replaced by better performing, more cost-effective alternatives. In the mid-1880s, aluminum was exceedingly difficult to produce, making it rare and valuable. In France, Napoleon III served his most honored guests with aluminum plates and utensils, while lesser visitors were given gold and silver. But before the end of the 19th century, new processes for separating aluminum reduced its cost dramatically and opened an abundance of new markets in everything from electrification and construction to consumer products such as cans and aluminum foil.

Second, innovation in adjacent sectors can create new markets for products once considered merely waste. The first U.S. oil wells were drilled in the 1850s to produce kerosene for lighting and a major byproduct — gasoline — was discarded as waste. But by the 1920s, the rise of the automobile transformed demand for gasoline, and today it makes up nearly 50 percent of every barrel of oil produced.

Third, we are living in an age where transformational technologies can replace not just materials and products, but entire industries. In 1975, a young engineer at Kodak invented the first digital camera, but the company did not pursue the technology because it was concerned about cannibalizing its dominant position in film. By 2000, revenue for digital cameras had surpassed film. By 2012, Kodak had filed for bankruptcy and the online photo-sharing platform Instagram had sold for $1 billion.

Will markets for every — or any — product we can make from CO2 follow these examples?

The answer is we don’t know. But it’s certainly possible that CO2-derived products can have a more significant impact than some analyses suggest today. One expert recently estimated products from CO2 could consume 25 percent of carbon emissions in 20 years.

What we need are better tools and methodologies to assess the potential economic impact — and environmental footprint — of these technologies and products. Teams competing in the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE will be judged on the net value of their CO2-based products, including the potential market size. More economic and market analysis such as this would help us better understand the potential of CO2 as an asset.

Climate change is the very definition of a grand challenge — big, complex and for which there is no single solution. When we talk about the power of innovation to solve grand challenges, we mean the power of solutions that don’t exist today to become commonplace. The wonder of science and technology is that we don’t know what solutions we may discover.

That is, of course, unless we don’t try at all.

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