Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact


Better than carbon neutral: Negative emission technologies come in many forms

Here are a couple of inconvenient truths about climate change that may come as a surprise, unless you are one of those people who reads the reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

One: To avoid severe global warming, we not only have to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is plenty hard. We will also need to figure out how to pull vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air.

Two: We know very little about how to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at the scale required. Planting trees probably won’t get the job done.

This is, to say the least, a problem for humanity.

It’s also an opportunity for philanthropy.

The good news: We’ve got some time — a decade or two, perhaps — to figure out how to deploy what are called carbon removal or negative emissions technologies.

The not-so-good news: Governments are doing very little research into these technologies, and there’s no business model to support them, for now, so investors and corporations are mostly uninterested.

So far, foundations haven’t paid much attention either, judging by their spending. Between 2008 and 2014, foundations donated an average of less than $1 million a year to projects or programs dedicated to carbon removal, according to Philanthropy Beyond Carbon Neutrality, an excellent new report from the Center for Carbon Removal. That’s less than 0.5 percent of their annual climate-change giving. To put that in context, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the largest climate-change grant-maker, spent more than $663 million on climate programs between 2008 and 2014.

Noah Deich, who is executive director of the Center for Carbon Removal, an initiative of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute at UC Berkeley, wants funders to step up their support for carbon removal solutions. Deich and Giana Amador, his colleague at the center, argue in their report that foundations that have previously focused on reducing CO2 emissions should now also promote ways to capture CO2 from the air.

“The lack of policy and industry support for carbon removal opens the door for philanthropies to ignite the development of the field,” they write.

I’ve been fascinated by carbon removal since 2010 when I met David Keith, who is now a physics professor at Harvard, at a day-long workshop on geoengineering organized by Steve Hamburg, chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund. Geoengineering differs from carbon removal, although some regard carbon removal is a subset of geoengineering. Geoengineering, which is often defined as “the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the earth to counter global warming,” is usually understood to mean schemes to reflect sunlight back into the sky, cool the planet and offset the effects of global warming. By contrast, carbon removal goes at the root cause–the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere–by pulling CO2 out of the air.

“Almost inevitable”

But how? Addressing that question is well beyond the scope of this post. Indeed, the research needed to answer the question could be financed with philanthropic dollars. Chris Mooney of The Washington Post surveyed the options recently in a story headlined The suddenly urgent quest to remove carbon dioxide from the air. In a blogpost on the Center for Carbon Removal website, Noah Deich and Giana Amador cite a 2015 report from the research arm of the National Academies of Sciences that recommended further research into

a portfolio of carbon removal solutions, such as bioenergy systems (PDF) coupled with carbon capture and storage technology; advanced farming and forestry (PDF) techniques that harness the power of photosynthesis to lock carbon in plants and soils; and even direct air capture (PDF) machines that “mine the sky” for carbon-based inputs to manufacture materials such as plastics and cements.

That 2015 report from the National Research Council described CO2 removal as “almost inevitable.” If it were just about planting trees, that would be okay. But the scale of carbon removal required is daunting, as Brad Plumer wrote last year in Vox:

The IPCC has estimated that, to stay below 2°C of warming, we’ll need to zero out our emissions and start removing between 2 and 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year by 2050. For perspective, all of the world’s forests and soils put together currently remove just 3.3 gigatons of CO2 each year. So imagine doubling or tripling that. Planting more trees could help, but we’ll need sweeping new carbon-removal techniques on top of that.

Again, it’s beyond this post to identify carbon-removal solutions, but I’ve come to believe in the potential direct air capture: Building many thousands of big machines to pull CO2 out of the air, to be either recycled or buried. I’ve great deal about direct air capture, in a 2011 FORTUNE story headlined The business of cooling the planet, in an Amazon Kindle single in 2012 called Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis and in a Guardian story last year headlined Startups have figured out how to remove carbon from the air. Will anyone pay them to do it? Bill Gates is one of a number of prominent investors in direct air capture.


Noah Deich

The truth is, though, that we know very little about carbon removal, other than the fact that we’re going to need it.

As Noah Deich put it the other day: “It’s uncertain which of the basket of carbon removal solutions will be able to scale in a way that is economically beneficial and ecologically sustainable.” Recycling CO2 into fuels is one possibility.

The opportunity for philanthropy, Deich says, is to foster more conversation about the issue, support research into the most promising technologies and help to develop markets and policies to foster commercialization.

Makes sense to me.

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