Why Orca matters: long-term climate policy and Climeworks’ new direct air capture facility in Iceland

Authored by David Morrow & Michael Thompson

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Earlier this week, the Swiss company Climeworks fired up its new Orca direct air capture facility in Iceland, which will remove 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year and turn it into stone.

Obviously, 4,000 metric tons is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to today’s emissions. Each year, Orca will clean up about three seconds’ worth of global CO2 emissions at today’s rates.

But that’s not the point. Orca is a baby step toward a larger carbon removal industry that could one day clean up emissions from the hardest-to-abate sectors or, even better, start cleaning up “legacy carbon” that remains in the atmosphere from our past emissions. Without baby steps like Orca, though, we would never get there. In that respect, Orca is a bit like the tiny, 3.5 kilowatt solar power station that NASA’s Lewis Research Center installed on the Papago Indian Reservation in 1978; it’s only the beginning. Global solar power capacity now stands at more than 200 million times the capacity of that little installation. While direct air capture isn’t likely to grow at such a pace, the point is that we shouldn’t judge the potential of an industry by its output in its earliest days.

One reason that direct air capture won’t grow at the same pace as solar power is because solar panels provide energy, whereas direct air capture consumes it. So, at least for the next couple of decades, it will almost always make more sense, from the perspective of climate change mitigation  and energy justice, to spend money on installing more clean energy and replacing old fossil fuel infrastructure than on building more direct air capture facilities. The reason to spend some money on direct air capture now, though, is to help the technology grow so that once we’ve drastically reduced our emissions, we can use direct air capture and other approaches to carbon removal to get to net-zero and maybe even net-negative emissions. By analogy, four decades ago, the reason to spend money on solar panels was not because they offered a cost-effective way of reducing emissions or supplying energy, but because those investments helped the technology grow. If everyone had dismissed solar at the time as too small and too expensive, we wouldn’t have the solar industry that we do today.

At any rate, one of the compelling things about Orca is that it’s running on renewable geothermal energy that was basically stranded in Iceland. Because Iceland already runs almost entirely on renewables, the clean energy that Orca uses couldn’t easily have been used to displace dirty energy instead. (Arguably, one could have instead built a facility to produce green hydrogen to ship to Europe or North America, but again, the point of Orca isn’t to reduce emissions today but to help build a technology that will be useful in the future. Besides, there’s plenty of renewable energy to go around in Iceland, so why not both? Build a hydrogen plant there, too!)

Another compelling thing about Orca is that it sits atop the perfect geology for mineralizing CO2. Orca can inject its captured CO2 directly into basalt, where it will turn to stone in a matter of years. 

The combination of abundant, stranded clean energy and good geology for sequestration makes Iceland an ideal place to build early direct air capture facilities—which raises an interesting question: where else in the world can we find that combination?

ICRLP Webinar Series: “The Global South in the Imagining of Climate Futures: A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson and ICRLP’s Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò”

Authored by Isabella Corpora, Research Fellow, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy.

Accounts of climate futures typically advance a Northern perspective. Individuals and communities in the Global South are too often portrayed solely as victims of a changing climate, rather than as active participants in the crafting of climate responses. In his new book, The Ministry for the Future, speculative fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson presents a picture of what the near future could look like, with the Global South on the frontlines not just of climate impacts but of climate action. A world is depicted in which an international subsidiary body, created out of the Paris Agreement, attempts to ride and direct this climate rollercoaster. The novel reviews potential impacts of climate change and how strife, economics, and human ingenuity and perseverance go hand in hand. Along with global governance, Robinson evaluates, among many other things, carbon drawdown techniques and the creation of a “carbon currency” as methods to make change. 

On March 23rd, 2021 Robinson joined ICRLP in a recent webinar to discuss his book alongside Olufemi Taiwo, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and a Research Fellow with ICRLP, and Kate O’Neill, Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley as the session’s moderator. Taiwo looks at issues of environmental justice using the tools and perspectives of political philosophy with a specific carbon removal twist. The discussion over the course of the webinar ranged from climate governance to shifting economic systems and why environmental justice considerations must be held paramount. 

Common but differentiated responsibilities

The Ministry for the Future opens in a near-future India in the midst of a climate change-induced catastrophe. The event and its aftermath drive, in the novel, a set of actions building from and strengthening the Paris Agreement.

During the webinar, Robinson and Taiwo considered the prospects of the Paris Agreement as a global pact to address a warming planet. The idea of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has come out of the international climate response regime as a recognition that developed countries have polluted the most throughout history, therefore should bear more of the responsibility for addressing climate change, such as with increased funding. Taiwo’s work evaluates this from a political philosophy stance, reviewing what he described as “distributive mechanisms and issues of justice”. He suggested that it’s not just present-day carbon pollution that is at the heart of differentiated responsibilities and impacts. Both colonization and the Industrial Revolution have had inequitable effects on developing countries, physically from emissions but also societally. These today have transpired as divisions between the Global “North” and “South”.

With this comes recognition of “climate colonialism”, an acknowledgment that developed countries continue to pollute at the expense of developing countries. Moral dilemmas and difficult tradeoffs arise in the efforts to avert climate disasters, made particularly acute in Robinson’s novel when carbon removal and solar radiation management methods come into play. A theme in the conversation between Robinson and Taiwo was, who is to say what types of technology can or cannot be implemented by Global South populations when attempting to combat an issue they didn’t create? In Robinson’s book, this complex set of social and political choices is represented by India’s unilateral use of SRM technology. In real life this is, among other things, exemplified by the Green Climate Fund, which has had a $200 billion target to allocate for green development goals yet is currently operating around $10 billion. Though western countries are attempting to remedy their climate mistakes, they aren’t as forceful or consistent with their promises, and it is the South that will bear the brunt of these shortcomings. 

Governance

Moderator O’Neill asked the speakers what kinds of geopolitical changes are needed to make a fairer system. 

The speakers reviewed how updated policy and global governance could help address these issues, and discussed ways policy can be shaped from a scientifically backed rather than politicizing perspective. When it comes to carbon removal, the speakers suggested that the discussion should be regarding just usage of the technology. As Taiwo pointed out, even governance structures can be looked at as technologies. The conversation pivoted to forms of governance that emphasize local participation, with the discussion of “community control” through a “citizens assembly” where experts describe issues to the people and they can make an informed decision on how to address the problem, mitigating decisions made solely by a select few corporations and their executives and shareholders. Taiwo also described privatization as a governance structure, pointing out that a social budgetary decision-making system could instead be formed with “participatory budgeting” where the public decides more directly what programs funding goes towards. 

Robinson offered a related but different view on the question of markets acting as governance. Recognition was made that the problem of climate change is already quickly unfolding before us, therefore market mechanisms, or a shift back towards Keynesian economics and emphasis on financial institutions, could do the job faster than a reconfiguring of the capitalist order. A “pairing” of issues could help with this, such as development with regenerative agriculture that could simultaneously have carbon removal aspects such as biochar or soil carbon sequestration. 

This brought about a larger discussion between Robinson and Taiwo: how does one make a radical shift of economics in their current economy, and who chooses? Much of the North, currently operating from capitalist or hybrid systems, is continuing to abuse the environment through engrained market mechanisms. Not is but what radical change is needed to save us from this mass extinction event? How does one come about implementing a new economic system in one that, normatively speaking, is already functioning? How desperate does the system need to become in order for change to be made? At this point in the webinar, Robinson postulated whether westernization and modernization are all simply “capitalism”, and if modernization can occur without capitalism. Taiwo believes it can. 

The future, semi-based on the response to COVID

These are big questions. Yet, Taiwo reminded us that humanity has already experienced any number of civilization-shaping social shifts. Colonialism affected lives and physical environments around the world. Oil companies have already reorganized the coastline of Louisiana to build refineries. Adverse impacts for a portion of humanity are nothing new. A similar point, noted the speakers, can be made about technological interventions in Earth systems. Humans have already engineered the climate through carbon emissions; carbon removal options might be thought of as a way of engineering out of what has actually been done for almost the past two hundred years. Taiwo and Robinson described how we are “aestheticizing” the climate issue rather than using the tools we currently have to handle it: we evaluate issues of justice that can arise, but with inaction, actually exacerbate those problems. Thus, a radical shift needs to be made, and it needs to be made in the next ten years.  

When asked about the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the quarantine has affected emissions, both Robinson and Taiwo seemed on the same page. Vaccine distribution globally has been fairly inequitable, and the consequences for the rest of the world will backfire on the United States. This is similar to the climate crisis response, and where western countries occupy positions of power in global markets and political systems, their less egalitarian response will adversely affect them. Until social battles are met and reckoned with, we won’t be able to address the issue from the right framework. It’s going to take an assessment of the social systems and values of the North and the South to see the tools we have to generate change in a climate-altered world, and for consideration of the kinds of collective futures we want, or need, to build. 

Watch the entire webinar here.

Robinson and Táíwò responded in writing to participant questions that could not be answered during the event. To see questions and responses, click here.

 

A Praise for Basalt Potential: In situ mineral carbonation

Authored by Isabella Corpora, Research Fellow, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

A variety of igneous rocks and minerals are currently under evaluation as potential prospects to facilitate permanent carbon sequestration. Olivine, serpentine, and peridotite are some of the many that bind with carbon dioxide to form carbonates, hence providing a more permanent removal of captured carbon. This post is about a rock that deserves more attention: basalt.

Basalt is an igneous rock that is widely abundant globally and can bind to carbon dioxide more quickly than other options. Different forms of basalt stand as serious contenders for large-scale subsurface or in situ mineral carbonation, so why are they not a hotter topic in the carbon removal world? 

To set this up, there are distinct rocks used for removing versus storing carbon. Those evaluated to capture carbon can do so through the process of enhanced weathering. Enhanced weathering is usually completed on surface levels, such as with the mineral olivine that binds with ambient carbon dioxide along seashores. For storage purposes, rocks can be evaluated based on their presence in different layers below Earth’s crust. For both processes, the process of mineralization can occur where silicate materials and gases, like carbon dioxide, bind to form products like carbonates. Basalt is usually viewed for its storage potential. Carbon dioxide would need to first be captured through other technological processes and then injected into a basalt aquifer for carbonation. Though there is potential for basalt to be used for enhanced weathering purposes, the emphasis through this post will be on in situ storage.  

Changing atmospheric carbon dioxide into rocks is a complex chemistry trick. The ability of a rock to function as a carbon-storer is a function of surface porosity levels, gaseous pressure requirements, and temperature levels, among other factors. Some minerals, including wollastonite, tend to be less available in nature and have stricter requirements needed for successful carbonation to occur. Basalt, however, provides us a unique opportunity due to its scalability and characteristics as an igneous rock. Basalt forms from lava flows, notably along ridges in the ocean. These ridges span globally, making basalt the Earth’s most abundant bedrock and providing an occasion for further exploration and testing. It has a relatively higher porosity level (10-15%, compared to peridotite around 1%), allowing for larger amounts of carbon dioxide to bind in pores on its surface, and with a higher density in carbonate form can more easily fall to the ocean floor for storage.

More than 8% of Earth’s surface includes basalt, and Sanna et al. noted the ocean basaltic storage potential can be as high as 8238 gigatons available (at 2700m deep and with 200m of sediments forming a cap layer for trapping). This ocean storage is attractive because sedimentary layers in the deep sea would provide an additional natural permeability layer to maintain the carbon underground and decrease potential escapage, essentially acting as a “lid” to trap the carbon beneath it. Trapping is important because it helps prevent gas escapage while mineralization occurs. With other forms of rock, increased temperatures (think: energy requirements), higher carbon dioxide purification levels, and elevated pressures could all have stricter requirements for permanence below the Earth’s surface. This is an important consideration as proper storage can reduce the risk for escapage back into the atmosphere or ocean. 

It has recently been identified that mineralization rates in basalt are also much faster than previously anticipated. The CarbFix project near the Hellisheidi power plant in Iceland conducted a test study in 2012 and injected more than 175 tons of pure carbon dioxide into a basalt aquifer. The original expectation was for the mineralization process to take several years, yet the study found that carbonate material was formed in just two years, impressing scientists for the fast turnaround time and storage potential. The sequestration prices are also generally cheaper than have been seen with other mineralizaton options. In areas like Wallula, WA and near Hellisheidi, sequestration is being achieved at about $10-30 per ton of carbon sequestered. Though the price of deep storage in ocean basalt is higher, early estimates suggest that it can be achieved at $200 per ton. By contrast, serpentine, with higher pressure, temperature, and purification requirements, can range from $200-600 per ton sequestered.

As the Earth is now approaching 420ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the need for long-term carbon sequestration is becoming more pressing. Other forms of rock continue to stand as competitive contenders for carbon removal due to their quick binding rates with carbon dioxide and potential to be brought to areas where carbon removal is conducted, rather than transporting captured carbon to at times distant injection sites. Processes like enhanced weathering can also both capture and store carbon, uniting both goals and requiring less resources. Yet, many of these above-ground methods can have direct environmental impacts in ecosystems due to their surface exposure, such as with olivine. In situ basalt storage has few external impacts due to deep injections, quick mineralization rates, and natural trapping mechanisms.

A second CarbFix project has started and should provide additional findings on carbonation rates in basalt in the coming years. Perhaps with further usage of the CarbFix technology, we have a widely scalable solution on our hands. Other externalities of basalt should also be considered, but while greater investigation is being conducted, basalt seems to be a promising contender. It could be expected that we will see more basalt in our futures. 

References

Goldberg, David S, and Angela L Slagle. “A Global Assessment of Deep-Sea Basalt Sites for Carbon Sequestration.” Energy Procedia, vol. 1, no. 1, Feb. 2009, pp. 3675–3682., doi:10.1016/j.egypro.2009.02.165.

Goldberg, David S, et al. “Carbon Dioxide Sequestration in Deep-Sea Basalt.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, no. 29, 22 July 2008, pp. 9920–9925.,  doi:10.1073/pnas.0804397105. 

Matter, Juerg M, et al. “Rapid Carbon Mineralization for Permanent Disposal of Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Emissions.” Science, vol. 352, no. 6291, 10 June 2016, pp. 1312–1314., doi:10.1126/science.aad8132. 

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25259.

Sanna, Aimaro, et al. “A Review of Mineral Carbonation Technologies to Sequester CO2.” Chem. Soc. Rev., 2014, pp. 8049–8080., doi:10.1039/c4cs00035h. 

 

 

Net-zero finance? An investor’s guide to a net-zero portfolio

Authored by David Morrow, Director of Research, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

It’s relatively clear what it would mean for a company like, say, FedEx to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions: it means that the company does not emit any more CO2 in a given year than it removes and sequesters in that year. There are some questions, of course, about exactly which emissions to count, but the basic idea is clear.

But what does it mean for banks, pension funds, and other financial institutions to achieve net-zero emissions, as a number of major banks have recently pledged to do? That’s the question that a group called the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) set out to answer through its Paris Aligned Investment Initiative (PAII).

Recently, PAII released it Net Zero Investment Framework, which PAII says “is designed to provide a basis on which a broad range of investors can make commitments to achieving net zero emissions and define strategies, measure alignment, and transition portfolios.” The Framework covers a lot of ground, as summarized in the table on page 8, but I want to focus on the role that carbon removal plays in the Framework.

In an appendix on “emissions accounting and offsets,” the Framework says:

As a general principle, investors should not use purchased offsets at the portfolio level to achieve emissions reduction targets. They should also adopt a precautionary approach when assessing assets’ alignment with net zero and the use of offsets. Recognising the finite availability of offsets from land use in particular, and the need to rapidly decarbonise all activities within sectors to the extent possible, investors should not allow the use of external offsets as a significant long-term strategy for achievement of decarbonisation goals by assets in their portfolios, except where there is no technologically or financially viable solution. The PAII will undertake further analysis in Phase II to assess the appropriate use of offsetting in specific sectors. Credits purchased by participants within regulated carbon markets that are designed to meet the net zero emissions goal can be used. 

Decarbonisation and avoided emissions should generally be treated separately. Similarly, investors should not offset emissions in one part of their portfolio through accounting for avoided emissions in another part. Given the necessity of effectively reaching zero emissions from investments over time, trading these two against each other is not consistent with creating incentives for investors and underlying assets to maximise their efforts to decarbonise their portfolios to the full extent possible.

There’s also a relevant line in the Framework’s “Paris Aligned Investment Initiative Net Zero Asset Owner Commitment” in Appendix C. Investors undertaking the commitment pledge to do a number of things, including:

Where offsets are necessary [because] there are no technologically and/or financially viable alternatives to eliminate emissions, investing in long-term carbon removals.

Overall, this seems like a sound approach that rightly prioritizes cutting emissions. Basically, it says that investors should avoid using offsets “except where there is no technologically or financially viable” way to cut emissions, and that they should not use avoided emissions as offsets. In other words, the Framework seems to be advising investors to view carbon removal as a last resort when decarbonization isn’t feasible, to prefer “long-term carbon removals” when offsetting is necessary, and to avoid investing in carbon removal themselves as a way to offset emissions from the companies they’ve invested in.

One thing to note is that the appendix text here doesn’t explicitly mention carbon removal, but it seems to use “offsets” to refer only to carbon removal, and not to avoided emissions. “Avoided emissions” are emissions that would have happened if someone hadn’t intervened by, for example, buying electric heat pumps for someone else to replace their gas-fired furnace. That sort of action isn’t carbon removal because it doesn’t physically remove carbon dioxide from the air; it only reduces the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air. The term “offsets” has sometimes been used to include both avoided emissions and actual carbon removal, so it would be helpful for the next iteration of the framework to clarify what they mean by “offset.”

With that distinction in mind, let’s break this down point by point:

    1. “Investors should not use purchased offsets at the portfolio level to achieve emissions reduction targets.” What does this mean? Suppose a pension fund invests in a retail company, and the retail company emits more CO2 than it removes. This principle is saying that, as a general rule, the pension fund should not buy offsets to counterbalance the emissions from the retail company. This is an interesting approach in that it puts the burden on the companies themselves, rather than the investors, to clean up their own emissions. If this were widely implemented, it would mean that companies looking for investors would have a strong incentive to achieve net-zero or even net-negative emissions.
    2. Investors “should also adopt a precautionary approach when assessing assets’ alignment with net zero and the use of offsets.” This is saying that investors should also be cautious when the companies they invest in say they are going to use offsets to reach net-zero emissions. Exactly what a “precautionary approach” looks like in this case isn’t spelled out, but at the very least, it means scrutinizing companies’ claims about offsets. Are their offsets actually removing as much carbon from the atmosphere as the companies claim? How permanently is the carbon sequestered?
    3. “Recognising the finite availability of offsets from land use in particular, and the need to rapidly decarbonise all activities within sectors to the extent possible, investors should not allow the use of external offsets as a significant long-term strategy for achievement of decarbonisation goals by assets in their portfolios, except where there is no technologically or financially viable solution.” In other words, don’t let companies rely on offsets as a big part of their long-term net-zero strategies, except when there is no “technologically or financially viable” alternative. The phrase “financially viable” leaves some wiggle room, but hopefully it will be spelled out in more detail through the “further analysis” the PAII is promising.  
    4. “Credits purchased by participants within regulated carbon markets that are designed to meet the net zero emissions goal can be used.” The charitable reading here is that investors should avoid wildcat offsetters who operate outside of well-regulated carbon markets, but “regulated carbon  markets” aren’t necessarily well regulated, so there’s work to be done here.
    5. “Decarbonisation and avoided emissions should generally be treated separately. Similarly, investors should not offset emissions in one part of their portfolio through accounting for avoided emissions in another part.” For example, if a bank is investing in a coal company and a wind energy company, it shouldn’t count the emissions avoided by the wind energy company as offsetting the emissions from the coal company. In other words, don’t do what financier Mark Carney tried to do recently.

As the Framework acknowledges, there’s a lot of work to be done to clarify the approach to offsetting and carbon removal, including how to determine whether cutting emissions is “financially viable,” what counts as a “regulated carbon market,” and how to determine whether a particular approach or project offers “long-term carbon removal.” The fundamental approach, though, rightly prioritizes cutting emissions and rightly emphasizes long-term carbon removal over avoided emissions in cases where offsetting is the only way to get to net-zero.

United Airlines is Investing in Direct Air Capture, What Does That Mean?

Authored by Simon Nicholson, Wil Burns, & David Morrow

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

 

United Airlines announced on December 10 plans for a multimillion-dollar investment in a Direct Air Capture (DAC) plant. The investment is part of United’s plans to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

In this blog post we look at what United is proposing and how to make sense of it.

Bottom line: This kind of investment in early-stage investigation into and development of DAC is immensely positive and should be encouraged, particularly in light of United being a prominent player in a hard-to-abate sector. At the same time, United’s pledge for support of DAC development cannot and should not be read in itself as a credible commitment to cleaning up the airline’s past or future carbon pollution. Instead, what United is doing here is helping to establish a technological pathway that may, in the future, yield real and significant carbon removal benefits. Whenever companies are talking about DAC or other forms of carbon removal, money spent on near-term research and development should be viewed as distinct from money spent over a number of years on the actual sequestering of carbon. We flesh these points out below and also point to some other interesting aspects of the United announcement.

What is United Planning?

United has pledged to invest in a DAC operation being developed in the United States by 1PointFive, a partnership between Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (a subsidiary of Occidental, an oil and gas company) and Rusheen Capital Management. 1PointFive’s website proclaims that the initiative’s mission is to become “the leading developer of DAC facilities worldwide.” This Oxy + Rusheen partnership is relying on a DAC technological system developed by Carbon Engineering in Canada. An earlier announcement from Carbon Engineering sets out plans via the 1PointFive venture for a plant that will be developed in West Texas to draw up to 500,000 (later updated to 1 million) tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year and to sequester the CO2 in the Permian Basin.

United’s pledge comes via an already-signed letter of intent. United’s press release and reporting have not, though, yet revealed the exact amount of United’s investment, the precise purpose to which the investment is to be directed, and how United is viewing the investment alongside other efforts to tackle the airline’s carbon footprint. These will be important details to watch for in subsequent news about United’s DAC plans.

DAC could contribute to United’s efforts to reach carbon neutrality in a couple of ways. One way would be by United purchasing and utilizing synthetic jet fuel made from captured carbon. Such “carbon recycling” would lower the overall carbon footprint associated with a United flight. Another way, and this seems to be the intent of United’s deal with 1PointFive, would involve injecting captured carbon into long-term underground storage. Such geologic sequestration could conceivably be scaled to account for some large share of United’s CO2 pollution.

One final high-level point to note about United’s announcement is that United is distinguishing its interest in DAC from what the announcement terms “indirect measures like carbon-offsetting.” By carbon-offsetting, the announcement is referring to largely voluntary, consumer-driven efforts whereby customers on United flights pay a little extra money and in exchange United invests in tree planting or forest protection schemes. Forests and soils are hugely important carbon sinks and efforts to augment these and other nature-based solutions for carbon removal must be supported. Voluntary offsets programs are, though, problematic for a range of reasons, so this distinction being drawn by United between their DAC investment and offsets looks important. The main benefit will be if United makes the drawing down of carbon part of their core operations rather than as something that customers can add on a voluntary basis. 

Questions to Ask about the Investment

One article on the United announcement attributes to the company’s CEO Scott Kirby the claim that the 1PointFive project in which United is investing would capture enough carbon dioxide to offset nearly 10% of United’s annual emissions. A couple of things to note here:

1) Investing in early-stage research and development, or even in the building of working infrastructure, is not the same thing as paying for operations. It will be important to learn more about both what the United investment is intended for and what it is actually used for. Technological carbon removal, including DAC, is likely to be an important part of getting airlines to carbon neutrality. However, it will take sustained investment over decades to build up enough carbon removal capacity, and then successful operation of that capacity for some reasonable span of time for even a single airline like United to claim that DAC is offsetting emissions from business operations.

So, to be clear, an investment by United for infrastructure is all by itself a very positive thing. There is no need, then, to conflate that investment with emissions reductions or emissions offsetting claims.

2)  If United’s investment is going towards the operation of a successful DAC endeavor, there are some questions that should be asked and answered:

    1. How much of the potential 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year from the planned 1PointFive facility could United rightfully claim? Might others also be looking to claim credit for actually capturing and sequestering CO2 once the plant is operational? How do we avoid double, or more, counting of the “same” emissions reductions to ensure the integrity of the emerging carbon dioxide removal markets? 
    2. Even if United claims all of the CO2 stored annually by a working facility at the 1 million tonne scale, this alone would be far shy of 10% of United’s annual Scope 1 emissions, which United reported to be around 34 million tonnes in its disclosure to CDP.
    3. Storing CO2 directly in geological formations will have different climate effects than using captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery or for the creation of short-lived products like a synthetic fuel. As a recent working paper from David Morrow and Michael Thompson notes, the relevant questions to be asked here are, where does the carbon come from and where does the carbon go?
    4. From where will the energy come to power the new DAC facility? Just as directing captured CO2 towards enhanced oil recovery can obviate climate benefits, so powering DAC with fossil fuels rather than renewable energy makes for problematic climate math.

All of this is to say that the accounting around carbon removal claims by way of DAC is not a straightforward thing. It will be useful and important to watch how United’s investment relationship with 1PointFive develops. Transparency to enable robust evaluation will be essential.

One model for corporate transparency around DAC plans comes from tech company Stripe. Stripe has set out: a) a corporate intent to be an early investor in development of promising carbon removal approaches; b) a plan to help to build out a market for carbon removal by being a steady customer for actual carbon removal services over a period of years; and c) a clear method by which carbon removal options are being evaluated and selected. Details of the Stripe approach are here, and may provide guidance for other early movers like United.

Here’s a metaphor. Imagine a kid spilling Cheerios on the floor and then committing to cleaning them up. If the kid offers to invest in purchasing a vacuum cleaner, that’s a good first step. The kid should not get credit for cleaning up the mess, though, until the vacuum cleaner is running and is sucking up the cereal. (And if the kid’s sibling ends up being the one doing the actual vacuuming, it’s important to make sure that both kids aren’t claiming full credit for cleaning up the mess.) It’s also important to understand what the kid’s plan is if the vacuum cleaner doesn’t arrive or if it fails to operate as advertised. And, most importantly, what’s the kid’s plan for limiting the flow of Cheerios to the floor? The vacuuming component only works when aligned with a strong and robust reduce-the-dropping-of-the-Cheerios plan.

The United statement is to be applauded and, at the same time, United’s actions on the back of the statement should receive careful scrutiny.

 

Simon Nicholson and Wil Burns are Co-directors and David Morrow is Director of Research at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy in the School of International Service at American University.

 

 

 

Clarifying the overlap between carbon removal and CCUS

Authored by David Morrow, Director of Research, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Ask ten people what role “carbon capture” should play in addressing climate change, and you will likely get a dozen different answers, in part because the term “carbon capture” gets used in so many ways. It sometimes refers only to technologies that capture carbon dioxide from large point-sources, such as power plants or steel factories; sometimes only to technologies that scrub carbon dioxide from the ambient air; and sometimes to both. This terminological confusion not only makes it harder to understand one another in important climate policy conversations, but it leads people to run together different technologies that could play very different roles in climate policy.

In a new working paper, Michael Thompson (Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative) and I try to cut through one of the thorniest knots in this confusing conversation: what is the relationship between carbon removal and carbon capture with utilization and storage (CCUS)?

The paper encourages people to stop worrying so much about technological categories and focus instead on two simple questions:

(1) Where does the captured carbon come from?

(2) Where does the captured carbon go?

We argue that answering these two questions makes it easy to see which pathways lead to carbon removal, which to carbon recycling, and which to emissions reductions. The final figure in the paper, shown here, summarizes the results of this analysis.

A matrix showing how answering two questions--where does captured carbon from, and where does it go?--reveals the role that a particular technology can play in climate policy.

For more details, download the working paper, “Reduce, Remove, Recycle: Clarifying the Overlap between Carbon Removal and CCUS.”

California Announces New Actions to Fight Climate Change and Protect Biodiversity

Authored by Sydney J. Chamberlin, Ph.D. Climate Policy Associate, The Nature Conservancy in California

Record breaking heat waves. Massive mega-fires. Hurricane after hurricane. In a year wrought with disaster on global scales, these fingerprints of climate change serve as a poignant reminder that the time for climate action is now. With a recent Executive Order, California Governor Gavin Newsom lays out a new possible path for action – focusing on the role that natural and working lands can play in mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity.

When sustainably managed, our natural and working lands – our forests, wetlands, grasslands, farmlands, rangeland, deserts and urban green spaces – provide a multitude of services that support thriving communities and habitat: they provide food, fiber, and recreational space; store and transport water; bolster local economies; support wildlife; buffer communities against floods, storms, and other disasters; and capture and store carbon. 

In the same way that our lands can act as a carbon sink, changes that impact soil organic matter and ecosystem health – including land-use modifications, deforestation, wildfires, and more – can result in stored carbon being released to the atmosphere. Ultimately, the dance between carbon stored and carbon released determines whether our lands function as a net sink of carbon or net source of carbon – and consequently, whether they serve as an asset or a liability in the fight against climate change. 

In the United States, managed forests and other lands have traditionally acted as net carbon sinks (EPA, 2020). However, over the past 150 years, land-use changes have added almost half as much carbon to the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions (Houghton & Nassikas, 2017; Le Quéré et al., 2017) – and climate stressors are further driving changes in ecosystem carbon stocks, threatening to turn some of our lands into a net source of emissions (Sleeter et al., 2019). 

In light of this threat, decision-makers and governments are increasingly recognizing the role that strategic land management, conservation, and restoration activities (also known as nature-based climate solutions) can play in removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in soil and vegetation. 

These nature-based strategies provide climate mitigation benefits while they deliver a suite of additional environmental, economic and social benefits – enhancing both ecosystem and community resilience. Protecting people and nature from the worsening impacts of climate change will require swift and decisive action that recognizes the importance of natural and working lands and intact ecosystems. 

In 2020, California legislators led efforts to integrate nature into the State’s climate strategy. Assemblymember Kalra’s (aptly named) Assembly Bill 3030 aimed to protect 30% of the state’s land areas and water by 2030, aligning with an international “30 by 30” campaign that strives to avoid a point of no return for many of Earth’s species and ecosystems. Assembly Bill 2954, authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, would have required the State to set an overall climate goal for California’s natural and working lands and to identify methods to help the State utilize the natural and working lands sector in achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

California’s new Executive Order, signed in October 2020, builds on the leadership of Assemblymembers Kalra and Rivas and advances some of the outcomes that Assembly Bills 3030 and 2954 strove to achieve. The Order calls for the State to protect 30% of the state’s water and land by 2030, and directs the California Natural Resources Agency to form a California Biodiversity Collaborative to help achieve this goal. 

The Order also acknowledges the critical role that the stewardship of natural and working lands must play in achieving the State’s climate change, air quality, water quality, equity, and biodiversity goals. It tasks California agencies with establishing a climate target for the natural and working lands sector and firmly establishes carbon sequestration as a part of the State’s climate strategy. The Order further directs State agencies to identify and implement strategies that will accelerate the removal of carbon with nature – while building climate resilience in California communities.

Accomplishing these ambitious goals will require the State to reexamine its current priorities and funding commitments – though there are also a number of non-monetary policy pathways that the State can use to elevate the role of natural and working lands in its climate action. 

The potential rewards of this action are substantial; a newly released report by The Nature Conservancy shows that implementing a suite of nature-based climate solutions could reduce more than 514 million metric tons of carbon dioxide cumulatively by 2050, with economic savings from avoided damages of more than $2.4 billion (The Nature Conservancy, 2020). The report shows that, in many cases, nature-based strategies can be dramatically scaled up by better aligning existing California policies and programs – and at a fraction of the cost of other methods such as industrial carbon capture. The many additional multiple benefits that accompany nature-based climate solutions provide another incentive to achieve the goals laid out by the Executive Order. 

In the post-COVID-19 world, restoring the vibrancy of California communities will require the State to balance climate action against other competing priorities. Nature is a powerful and cost-effective tool that the State can and should deploy to remove carbon. Implementing this tool will require shifting priorities and funding to match the urgency of the climate crisis. The time to act is now – and in acting to protect nature, California ensures that nature can help to protect us. 

 

References: 

EPA. (2020). Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks-1990-2018 

Houghton, R., & Nassikas, A. A. (2017). Global and regional fluxes of carbon from land use and land cover change 1850–2015. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 31(3), 456–472. https://doi.org/10.1002/2016GB005546     

Le Quéré, C., Andrew, R. M., Friedlingstein, P., Sitch, S., Pongratz, J., Manning, A. C., …, Zhu, D. (2017). Global carbon budget 2017. Earth System Science Data Discussions, 10, 405–448. https://doi.org/10.5194/essd‐2017‐123   

Sleeter, B. M. , D. C. Marvin, D. R. Cameron, P. C. Selmants, A. L. Westerling, J. Kreitler, C. J. Daniel, J. Liu, and T. S. Wilson. (2019). Effects of 21st‐century climate, land use, and disturbances on ecosystem carbon balance in California. Global Change Biology 25(10):3334-3353. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.14677 

The Nature Conservancy. (2020). Nature-based Climate Solutions: A Roadmap to Accelerate Action in California. https://tinyurl.com/climate-policy-roadmap 

ICRLP Co-Director Dr. Wil Burns Explores Ocean Alkalinization’s Potential

ICRLP Co-director Wil Burns and co-author Charles R. Corbett recently published an important article in One Earth titled “Antacids for the Sea? Artificial Ocean Alkalinization and Climate Change.” This important article explores ways in which artificial ocean alkalinization (AOA) could serve as an important component of a large-scale carbon removal strategy. It includes an analysis of the risks and benefits of AOA, as well as governance considerations. 

Despite the world community coming together in 2015 and signing the Paris agreement, it has since become clear that the reality of meeting the 2.0/1.5°C temperature targets are becoming increasingly unrealistic, as countries continue to lag on meeting even the already lackluster pledges they have made. Furthermore, 87% of the scenarios run in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report that meets the Paris Agreements targets incorporate large-scale adoption of carbon dioxide removal strategies.

Thus far, the majority of the focus on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) has been on terrestrially based technologies such as bioenergy and carbon capture (BECCS), afforestation and reforestation, and direct air capture. Although these are all methods deserving of consideration and assessment, there are also many associated shortfalls and risks, providing a compelling rationale for assessing the potential role of ocean-based carbon removal approaches. 

Ocean-based approaches to CDR are under-developed, under-funded, and under-tested. This is despite the fact that the ocean comprises 71% of Earth’s surface and is already passively absorbing 10 gigatons of carbon every year, with the great potential to store more. In light of the climate crisis, this potential is something the global community cannot afford to overlook.

Thus far, most of the ocean-based CDR has focused on ocean iron fertilization (OIF). However, recent research has concluded that OIF’s sequestration potential may be low, and it could pose serious risks to ocean ecosystems. As a consequence, it has largely been abandoned as the most viable ocean-based CDR method.  

 However, despite the shortcomings of OIF, the method does provide some incentive to look into other ocean-based methods of CDR. AOA may provide some of the greatest potentials in that regard. 

AOA is the method of adding alkalinity to ocean systems, increasing pH levels, which in turn leads to greater carbon absorption and a reduction in acidification. AOA has the potential to represent meaningful contributions to the battle against climate change and carbon sequestration, even at the low end of its potential. Several methods have been proposed:

  • Addition of powdered olivine (highly reactive lime)
  • Addition of calcium hydroxide, produced by the calcination of limestone, applied to ocean surfaces or into deep currents that end in upwelling regions
  • Utilization of local marine energy sources to manufacture alkalinity
  • Combining waste CO2 with minerals for reaction, which result in dissolved alkaline material, and pumping it into the ocean

AOA also has the added benefit of potentially combating another detrimental side effect of climate change: ocean acidification. Acidification of the ocean:

  • Reduces levels of carbonate, compromising the formation of calcium carbonate shells among coral, bivalve, and crustaceans
  • Harms finfish species, which has a detrimental impact on habitat, food source and larval survival

Ocean Acidification has increased 30% since the beginning stages of our current anthropogenic CO2 emissions, and pH levels are the lowest they have been in 2 million years.

However, AOA is not without its own potential risks, including:

  • Inhibiting photosynthesis in phytoplankton communities;
  • Threatening species that may not be able to easily adjust to increasing levels of alkalinity;
  • Introducing new and heavy toxic materials to ocean ecosystems

When facing both the uncertainties and the potential benefits of AOA deployment, good governance is critical. It enables the facilitation of research by providing clear guidelines and assessment protocols. Additionally, it identifies risks, creates rules and guidelines, and enforces them. Lastly. it provides the research legitimacy by establishing responsibility and helping to build societal support.

The provision of guidelines and structure around the international laws pertaining to oceans is also another important component of AOA implementation. Coastal countries have sovereignty over bodies of water within 12 nautical miles of their shore, and AOA would need to comply with the national permitting process of each nation. When the practice expands into a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which is the area about 200 nautical miles from the coast, things begin to get more complicated. However, the coastal country still has the authority to regulate activities that affect the marine ecosystem, so research protocols should remain similar to those being conducted in the waters just beyond the territory. Beyond the EEZ, AOA research would be permitted, but subject to principles of state responsibility should harm occur to the interests of other States under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, principles of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, an agreement being developed under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, could be apposite, including the requirement that the parties establish conservation areas and environmental assessments pertaining to the marine biological diversity of areas beyond their national jurisdiction.

In order to ensure that a standard of compliance with acceptable environmental standards is set, looking at this matter with regard to OIF is a good starting point. In 2013 the London Protocol passed an amendment prohibiting ocean iron fertilization scientific research without a national permit and engagement in a stringent risk-assessment procedure.

Despite its potential AOA still comes with uncertainty around potential risks, questions about who has control over deployment decisions, and who bears the burden of liability. Local AOA treatments could serve as a good starting point for a gradual understanding of its impacts, and a means to allow government structures to mature alongside advances in technical understanding.

Integrated assessment modeling of carbon removal at ICRLP

Authored by David Morrow, Director of Research, Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is sometimes described as the only technology ever invented by modelers. There’s a grain of truth to this: the idea of combining bioenergy with CCS to produce a negative emissions technology rose to prominence because of its adoption by integrated assessment modelers in the early 2000s. Since then, these models have provided one important tool for thinking about how carbon removal might play a role in climate policy. The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy is helping to push the boundaries of integrated assessment modeling of carbon removal with two ongoing projects.

What are integrated assessment models?

Before we get to ICRLP’s modeling projects, let’s back up a bit. What are integrated assessment models (IAMs)? Basically, IAMs are computer models that combine a model of the climate system with models of the economy, the energy sector, and land use to help researchers think rigorously about possible climate futures. For instance, researchers can use these models to ask questions like, “What would happen to the energy sector and the climate if coal were phased out worldwide by 2050?” or, “How would the energy sector change over time if the whole world put a gradually rising price on carbon beginning in 2040?” Researchers can also use these models to identify decarbonization pathways by which the world could meet various climate policy goals, such as the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming “well below 2°C.” When you read headlines saying that the world needs to cut its emissions in half by 2030 in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, you’re reading a conclusion based in large part on integrated assessment modeling.

CarbonBrief offers an excellent introduction to IAMs and their role in studying climate policy. If you prefer to learn by doing, check out Climate Interactive’s EnROADS model, an IAM that’s fast enough to run in your web browser.

How are IAMs used to study carbon removal?

Integrated assessment modelers realized almost twenty years ago that they could combine two technologies that were already represented in their models—bioenergy and CCS—to model a technology that actively removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Research over the past two decades suggests that developing and scaling negative emissions technologies makes it much likely that the world can keep warming below 2°C or 1.5°C. In fact, modeling studies suggest that unless the world reduces its greenhouse gas emissions extremely rapidly over the next two or three decades, it may not be possible to limit warming below 1.5C without large-scale carbon removal

Until recently, however, few integrated assessment modelers had incorporated any kind of carbon removal into their model besides BECCS and reforestation. (For some notable exceptions, see recent papers led by Jessica Strefler, Giulia Realmonte, and Jay Fuhrman.) As a result, BECCS has long operated as a kind of stand-in for the wide variety of approaches to carbon removal that have been proposed. Actually implementing BECCS at the scales projected in many IAM scenarios would likely be disastrous because it would require devoting such vast tracts of land to bioenergy. Overcoming the conceptual and technical hurdles to modeling other approaches to carbon removal would be an important step in understanding what role carbon removal can realistically play in just and sustainable climate policy.

Integrated assessment modeling at ICRLP

Earlier this year, ICRLP launched a project to produce a variant of the Global Change Analysis Model (GCAM), a major IAM developed by the Joint Global Change Research Institute. I’m working with Postdoctoral Researcher Raphael Apeaning to extend GCAM’s ability to model carbon removal. That involves both incorporating additional approaches to carbon removal, starting with direct air capture, enhanced weathering, ocean alkalinization, and soil carbon sequestration; and giving GCAM the capacity to model various policies for incentivizing and supporting carbon removal. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for this project.

I’m also supervising an undergraduate in American University’s School of International Service, Garrett Guard, as he uses GCAM to write his senior thesis on the role of BECCS in climate policy. His thesis grew out of a research project he did for a course I taught last year on using integrated assessment models for climate policy analysis. Garrett’s research looks at what happens when the world tries to meet various climate targets if we exclude fossil fuel CCS, BECCS, or both from the climate policy portfolio, as well as how that varies across different socioeconomic pathways.

ICRLP Webinar Explainer Series Provides A Deeper Understanding on Many Issues Surrounding Carbon Dioxide Removal

One of the streams of work for The Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy is to provide broad education on carbon removal approaches and implications. Carbon removal is a big and complex subject matter, with much to unpack and debate. With this in mind, we launched our “Assessing Carbon Removal Webinar Explainer Series” in 2018. 

These one-hour webinars bring together Institute staff and guest speakers to explain what is known about varying carbon removal approaches and to explore big themes. The presentations and conversations delve into research needed to assess technical, legal, and social aspects and considerations of carbon removal technologies.,

Most recently presented in this series have been webinars on Agroforestry and Carbon Removal and Corporate Commitments, both of which have accompanying blog entries that outline the main points covered in the presentations, which can be found on ICRLP Carbon Removal Blog Posts page.

In addition to these recent webinars, there are a number of past presentations that provide a wealth of knowledge on carbon removal:

  • Enhanced Oil Recovery: A discussion on the technological, economic, and political issues associated with Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), including the costs involved, the project development perspective, EOR relative to saline storage necessary to scale up carbon storage, and why EOR should be decoupled from the decarbonatization agenda and policy.
  • Mitigation Deterrence: Mitigation Deterrence (MD) is where the pursuit of greenhouse gas removal (GGR) delays or deters other mitigation options. This webinar presents the results of a project that analyzes this issue and explores conditions in which GGR technologies can be used with minimal MD.
  • Direct Air Capture: The presentations within this webinar provide a comprehensive overview of mechanisms behind Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide, which is the practice of utilizing chemicals to remove carbon dioxide from the air. 
  • Enhanced Mineral Weathering: This webinar presents the ins and outs behind varying proposed methods of Enhanced Mineral Weathering utilizing an array of minerals on land and in the oceans. 
  • Governance of Marine Geoengineering: This webinar followed the release of a CIGI Special Report on this topic. The presentations dig into the potential role of marine climate geoengineering approaches such as ocean alkalization and “blue carbon,” with a focus on the governance, research, deployment and potential risks associated with these approaches to carbon dioxide removal.
  • Communicating Carbon Removal: This webinar was presented following the release of ICRLP report “The Carbon Removal Debate” and explores the challenges associated with communicating the necessity for, and options behind, carbon dioxide removal.
  • The Brazilian Amazon Fires: What Do They Mean for the Climate?: As thousands of fires ripped across the Amazon in 2019, wreaking havoc and devastation, this webinar seeks to explore what these fires mean for the climate, and lessons are to be learned regarding global forest protection.
  • Soil-Based Carbon Removal: Soil harbors three times more carbon than is present in the atmosphere, and this webinar investigates whether healthy soils can help tackle climate change. Experts on the panel provide a scientific overview of soil carbon sequestration while examining the risks, benefits, and uncertainties.  
  • NAS “Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda” Report: This report released by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the focus of discussion in this webinar. A few of the points addressed are the current state and potential for negative emissions technologies, conceptualizing scale in addressing climate change, and the impact of carbon removal on land use and soil, among others.
  • Potential Role of Carbon Removal in the IPCC’s 1.5 Degree Special Report: The panelists in this webinar examine this special report, released by the IPCC in 2018, examine what this report says about many aspects of carbon removal such as the potential need, governance, and classification. 
  • What We Know and Don’t Know about Negative Emissions: This webinar is aimed at providing a systematic overview of negative emissions technologies, discussing the status of research, ethical considerations, and how to spur future innovation and upscale research for advancing utilizations.
  • Accessing Carbon Dioxide Removal: As the introductory webinar that kicked off the series in 2018, the panelists dive into what carbon removal technologies are, their role in the portfolio of response to climate change, risks, ways to manage technologies in beneficial ways, and what the future could potentially hold. This webinar in particular serves as a valuable springboard for those who are relatively unfamiliar with carbon removal and seeking to learn more. 

All of these webinars are also available to view on our YouTube channel and on the ICRLP website. As this series continues to evolve, we encourage you to stay tuned for upcoming webinars going forward. If you are interested in joining our mailing list to receive notifications of upcoming webinars and our Newsletter, feel free to reach out to us at icrlp@american.edu.