Nations Stalled on Climate Action Could 'Suck It up'

Photographer: Frans Lanting/National Geographic Stock

The Rolling hills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico. Close

The Rolling hills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico.

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Photographer: Frans Lanting/National Geographic Stock

The Rolling hills of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico.

By Marc Gunther

Twenty years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world’s governments negotiated a treaty — it’s known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — in which they promised to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Some 192 countries, including the U.S. and China, signed on.

Since then, the UN, politicians and climate campaigners all have labored to get the world’s major economies to curb the use of fossil fuels. They haven’t had much success. President Obama failed in his first year of office to move national climate legislation through Congress. Australia did recently enact a national greenhouse gas law, and several U.S. states, including California and parts of the Northeast, have cap-and-trade programs. China, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and at least a dozen other emerging nations are implementing emissions trading.

Even these nations are not making a dent in the problem. Annual global emissions of greenhouse gases have grown by nearly 45 percent since the 1992 Earth Summit. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, are climbing steadily. The past decade was the hottest globally on record, followed by the 1990s, followed by the 1980s. The longer we wait to address climate risks, the harder they'll be to address.

With roughly 50,000 assembling for the Rio+20 Summit, maybe it’s time for a new approach. Amid a faltering global economy, no country wants to stop burning oil, coal and natural gas. Might there instead be a way to clean up--or recycle--the CO2 they generate?

That’s precisely what a handful of scientists and entrepreneurs are aiming to do. They have launched startup companies that are building machines to capture CO2 from the air, with the backing of well-to-do investors including Bill Gates and Edgar Bronfman Jr.  They hope to develop what are called “negative emissions technologies” -- a technical phrase for machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the air. At least in theory, they could dial back CO2 concentrations if they exceed safe levels, as some scientists say they already have.

Direct air capture of CO2 “opens up the possibility of capturing more CO2 than is being emitted by point sources – in other words, taking them carbon negative, not just carbon neutral,” says Nicholas Eisenberger, a strategic advisor toGlobal Thermostat, an air-capture company started by his father, Peter Eisenberger, a physicist and the founding director of the Columbia Earth Institute.

No one doubts that CO2 can be drawn down through chemical processes. That’s essentially how CO2 is removed from submarines or spaceships, so that people can continue to breathe.  The trouble is, using today’s technology, it’s very expensive. Two peer-reviewed studies published in 2011 pegged the cost at $600 to $1,000 per ton of CO2. Since a mid-sized car emits about six tons a year, that means it would cost $3,600 to $6,000 a year just to recycle the CO2 from a, say, a Ford Taurus.

Scientists working on direct air capture think they can drive the costs down much lower. Carbon Engineering, a startup based in Calgary, Alberta, offers a “conservative estimate” on its website of  “less than $250 per ton.”  Others peg the costs at $150 a ton, or less. Cost is key to the future of carbon capture because there’s substantial unmet demand for CO2, at prices that can top $100 a ton. Most of the demand comes from the oil industry, which injects CO2 deep into the ground to extract oil, a well-established process known as enhanced oil recovery.  Algae biofuel companies are also in the market for CO2 because it helps algae grow more quickly.

Four companies are trying to turn direct air capture of CO2 into a business. Kilimanjaro Energy was founded by the industry pioneer, Columbia University physicist Klaus Lackner, initially financed with $8 million from Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End. (Comer died in 2006.) Last year, Kilimanjaro raised another $3.5 million in venture capital. Carbon Engineering is led by David Keith, a physicist and climate scientist who has a joint appointment at the University of Calgary and at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Bill Gates is an investor, as is his friend Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft executive who designed the first version of Excel. (The size of their investments hasn’t been disclosed.) Global Thermostat was formed by physicist Peter Eisenberger and Graciela Chichilnisky, an economist and mathematician. Its biggest investor is Edgar Bronfman Jr., the Warner Music CEO and heir to the Seagram’s fortune, who has put in $15 million. Finally, there’s Climeworks, which was spun out of ETH Zurich, a university where its co-founder, Christophe Gebald was a graduate student.

Their technologies and business plans vary. Kilimanjaro’s CEO, Ned David, is bullish on enhanced oil recovery. CO2, he says, could do for the oil business what hydrofracking has done for natural gas, unleashing vast amounts of fossil fuels that might otherwise remain in the ground. “A money gusher,” he calls it. Meantime, Boeing has been studying the technology to see if it could be used to make fuels at the military’s Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). That would be very expensive, but the military may be willing to pay a steep price to avoid the attacks on convoys that are used to move fuel through unstable regions.

Ultimately, direct air capture could be a way to recycle emissions. CO2 pulled from the air and hydrogen extracted from water can be combined to make hydrocarbons--transportation fuels. If the entire process is powered by low-carbon energy, the result would be low-carbon or carbon-neutral gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. “Closing the carbon cycle” is how Peter Eisenberger describes it. He says , air capture will enable any country, anywhere in the world to make its own sustainable transportation fuels.

It may sound farfetched--but, after two decades of trying, so does the idea that the world is going to give up fossil fuels anytime soon.

Nicholas Eisenberger's last name has been corrected.

Marc Gunther blogs about sustainability at www.marcgunther.com and is the author of the ebook Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis, an Amazon Kindle Single.

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