We Can End Climate Change, But Probably Not the Way You Think
How we can win the race to Carbon 350
Climate change is a solvable problem. We know what we need to do. Carbon in the atmosphere needs to decline from 417 ppm, which it is today, to 350 ppm, closer to what it was at the dawn of the industrial revolution. All evidence today is that we are going in the wrong direction, but that doesn’t mean it needs to continue. Our situation is dire. Climate impacts are getting worse faster than expected. Average temperatures are continuing to rise and extreme weather events are becoming increasingly frequent. We need to act fast, but as nearly everyone concerned about climate would agree, we are not acting fast enough. So, what do we do? How do we solve climate change quickly? There is a way, and there is good news supporting that way.
How We Can Actually Solve Climate Change
Let’s look at how this can actually be solved. At 417 ppm we are way out on a limb. Indeed, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “The atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased from 280 ppm in 1750 to 367 ppm in 1999 (31%). Today’s CO2 concentration has not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years and likely not during the past 20 million years.” IPCC targets carbon at 350 ppm as a safe level to achieve. Hence, both the problem and the solution are obvious. The problem is that there is too much carbon in the atmosphere. The solution is to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere and get the carbon that’s there out—and do enough of both that we can return to carbon levels of 350 ppm or lower.
The reality is that we are only going to solve this by everyone—individuals, businesses, governments, NGOs, churches, corporations (yes, even oil and gas companies), and everyone else—participating to the highest contribution possible. As the existential fear of climate change has been growing, increasing numbers of people are getting involved. That's good. But what they find when they get involved is dismaying. Many would-be solutions are hardly inspiring--a smaller economy, a lack of opportunity, the perceived diminishment of freedom and opportunity, or even an answer that doesn’t pass the morality test, like depopulating whole communities or depopulating earth. Advocates of all of these seem very passionate and ardent—even angry. No wonder so many people just think, “this isn’t for me.”
And that is precisely the one reaction we can't have: This isn't for me. Yes, it is. This is for you. This is for everyone. We must all participate. Here’s the solution we can all participate in.
Although almost everything in Naomi Klein’s book On Fire is wrong-headed and leads us in the wrong direction, one very powerful idea is right on—the world should be on a war footing over climate change. We have a common enemy, and the problem is every bit as existential as an invasion by a foreign army. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen because climate change doesn’t feel existential in the same way that an invasion does. It is likely that until we have even bigger mass casualties than, say, the 26,000 people who died in the European heat wave of 2022, or bigger disasters than the 1/3 of Pakistan that was underwater in the 2022 floods, people won’t feel it. And when we do start feeling it, the reaction is likely to be the use of massive geoengineering strategies, rather than actual solutions to carbon.
Even the existence of an existential threat isn’t enough to bring the world together. Why is that? Because it scares you. And me. It undermines our assumptions about the world and how it works, and therefore triggers enormous anxiety that freezes us psychologically. That is, people get scared of the solutions, so they freeze in place. Nothing happens. The world keeps getting worse.
So the only way to get everyone on board is to paint for everyone a better picture of the future. Life needs to look better, not worse, to engage the energy and creativity of people—both of which are needed to solve the climate problem. We are not engaged in a fight against climate change; we are engaged in a struggle to make life much better than it is.
Stop Burning Fossil Fuels to Eliminate Emissions
Your life, my life, and the daily life of most human beings on the planet can be powered without any emissions at all. We can easily electrify everything in our homes and offices—stoves, ovens, heating, cooling, hot water, clothes drying—all of it can be electrified. And so can our transportation, whether we used cars, bikes, motorcycles, trucks, or trains. Boats and planes are coming soon as well, and probably more recreational vehicles as well—ATVs, snowmobiles, and jet skis, for example. (You may, as I do, hate the idea of enabling more ATVs in the wilderness, but a lot of people don't hate them, and from a climate perspective, we have two choices—either convince them of how stupid their love of ATVs is (good luck with that) or provide them with an ATV that is free of emissions.)
You see, stopping fossil fuels is a two-step process. Electrifying everything in a home or office removes all emissions from the location, but it doesn’t alone mean that everything is clean. For the second step, you need to ensure an emissions-free source of electricity. That is, you get electricity from solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, or nuclear, although some other non-burning generation sources such as tidal power may also work. Such electricity can be generated through your own rooftop solar array, or it can be sourced from a grid that uses such sources for electricity.
While you may prefer the independence of rooftop solar, climate change will be far more broadly affected and emissions reduced as utilities create large-scale generation sources they can distribute over their existing grid. The reason is simple—rooftop solar requires you as a homeowner or building owner to opt-in, make an investment, and manage your own system instead of simply paying your monthly bill. When utilities go to non-emitting sources of electricity, everyone participates—even climate deniers—and participating is every bit as easy as life is today. All you do is pay your bill—no investment, no management, and no maintenance. Hence, even climate deniers can see no change in their lifestyle yet still participate in cutting emissions. If your utility cuts its emissions by 20%, when you use that electricity, you have also cut your emissions by 20%. System changes get everyone on board.
The other essential element to getting the climate deniers on board is to make their lives, and all of our lives, better. How? By making better cars. By cutting costs. By improving comfort from home heating and cooling. These are benefits that have nothing to do with climate change, but everything to do with improving modern life through better products and design. Hence, you don't need to sell the product based on its impact on climate change and emissions—rather, you sell it based on the improved product features. And just like the utility adoption of non-burning energy, climate deniers participate because it makes their life better. They buy the better electric ATV. They get the cheaper heat pump. They become part of the solution, and so do you.
Not only can we electrify everything, but we can also make it far more efficient. Hot water, home heating, and home cooling can all be accomplished with heat pumps of different kinds, and heat pumps are far more efficient than direct electrical heating or cooling. Lighting can be accomplished with LED lights. Electric vehicles (EVs) are inherently far more efficient than gas-driven internal combustion engines (ICEs), EVs are gaining efficiency, range, and longevity—driving further on less and less battery energy. Plus, all of these daily use tools can be made more efficient in and of themselves with their own gains in technology improvements.
Scrub Fossil Fuel Emissions Where There Is No Alternative
As much as we will try to eliminate all emissions, there are some industries that today cannot totally eliminate carbon emissions. Steel, cement, chemicals, and the fossil fuel industry itself all burn fossil fuels to manufacture their products, and cement releases carbon in the process of making lime. Because the world really can't do without the products of these industries, we have to find a way to make them without emissions. This reality offers two possibilities—either invest in a new way of making them or scrub the carbon out of the process. The other one, argued for by many activists, is to just shut these industries down.
While it is a tempting call to arms to argue that these industries should just shut down, that is not realistic. Steel, for example, is in most of the new appliances the world needs to switch to for electrification—refrigerators, stoves, heat pumps, air conditioners, etc. Steel is also necessary for EVs, building construction, solar arrays, wind turbines, and geothermal energy. Likewise, cement is essential for the foundations of wind turbines, roads and bridges, marinas, and of course, housing. Chemicals are used in everything from circuit board manufacturing (therefore, phones, computers, and everything that has a digital anything in it) to food production (yes, even organic chemicals) to consumer products like toothpaste, lighter fluid, and hair styling products. Inks, printing, and art supplies; fishing line and poles; even alcohol manufacturers use chemicals. There’s just no way around it—contemporary society needs these industries.
A second approach to this problem is to find a new way to make steel, cement, chemicals, and fossil fuels that we do still need. Indeed, some of this is happening today but with mostly incomplete results. For example, about 30% of the world’s steel is made with Electric Arc Furnaces, which is great, but the furnaces require pig iron, which is usually made only by burning coal. Other aspects of steel production can also be improved from a carbon perspective, but the displacement of massive investments in current technology makes this harder for the industry to do. It's not that these things are impossible, it's just that they will be slow to adopt without massive investment, whether by the companies or their governments.
A third approach is the most timely—creating carbon scrubbing technology and deploying it in the manufacturing processes of these and similar industries. Known as CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) or CCUS (carbon capture, utilization, and storage), carbon capture is essential to success. Indeed, an IEA report says, “Reaching net zero will be virtually impossible without CCUS.” This approach is surprisingly robust in industry today with many projects being researched, developed, and tested. More importantly, industry is investing in them.
The process involves capturing carbon in the effluent stacks and then sequestering it. Some players are focused on the capture while others are on the storage. Pipelines are being invested in to move the carbon to safe storage locations. These aren't just smoke and mirrors (although there is plenty of that as well). Industry news is full of large investments in carbon capture and sequestration projects. Companies are investing in scrubbing their operations, offering sequestration services, and building pipelines to move the carbon. Here is a sampling:
· Occidental’s BlueBonnet Hub is a Texas-based sequestration hub served by pipelines being built by Enterprise Produce Partners and others. It includes a lease commitment on 55,000 acres for sequestration.
· Petronas in Iraq initiates carbon capture in Iraq.
· Aker Carbon Capture is building plants in Norway and The Netherlands. It is a pure carbon business focused on CCUS — carbon capture, utilization, and storage
· Project Tundra in North Dakota CCS is a $1.5 billion project to move carbon captured from five states to a location in North Dakota for sequestration.
· Chevron and JERA sign an MOU to figure out carbon capture projects together for the US and Australia.
These investments are mostly driven by what companies can see as inevitable—new costs imposed on carbon releases by governments around the world. Carbon taxes, carbon markets, and similar mechanisms are forcing industry’s hand, and while companies prefer to maintain their profits, they can also see where the world is going. They are investing billions of dollars in these facilities and systems, and when the money gets real like that, there is a reason for it. Powermag.com, an industry magazine, sees it as a booming business. Some, where they cannot scrub effectively, are buying offsets in carbon sequestration from the air, particularly with reforestation projects, and that gets us to the third approach to hitting Carbon 350.
Take Carbon Out of the Air.
If the goal is carbon at 350 ppm and our current level is 417 ppm, you can see the problem. Even if we suddenly stopped emitting all carbon into the atmosphere, we would still need to find a way to remove a lot of what is already there. This is no easy task. Although the increase from 350 ppm to 417 ppm is creating havoc with earth’s ecological systems, carbon is relatively diffuse in the atmosphere. This reality makes it hard to remove. We have two basic approaches—natural systems and technological systems.
Technological systems for direct carbon capture from the air remain in their infancy. Universities around the world are conducting research, with one recent $1.5 million grant being awarded to the University of California-Davis. Likewise, companies are making investments in this area as well, such as Carbon Clean, which captures carbon and uses it in a new process for making green cement. Another project is Baker Hughes's recent investment with HIF Global. This project is designed to take carbon out of the air and make use of it in manufacturing synthetic fuels. Increasingly, one can imagine that as carbon comes out of the atmosphere, it could become an input for other projects—materials used in manufacturing or as a 3D printer feedstock. It could also be shipped, piped, and stored.
Companies around the world are racing to prove they can pull carbon out of the air and store it. Climeworks, a Swiss company, recently announced its new process for doing just that, and others are following suit. Climeworks appeals to individuals who want to neutralize their so-called carbon footprint, as well as businesses who must do so to control costs. The challenge all these companies have is that most of the technology for carbon removal requires a lot of energy, and thereby creates as much or more emissions than it can capture. If the energy provided is non-emitting, such as geothermal or solar electric, for example, then there is a net gain. On the other hand, those sources could also be displacing other carbon-creating sources. Technological solutions are, nonetheless, developing, and we can expect that they will emerge in a highly viable way. The fact that we are not quite there today does not mean we can never get there.
The other option is natural, and the two dominant approaches are through forests and oceans. There is ongoing research regarding methods to enhance the carbon absorption capacity of the earth's oceans, as well as how to take the carbon out of the oceans to create more capacity again. Neither of these approaches, however, appears to be very practical or effective so far. So that leaves us with forests.
The climate community has been focused on forests for a long time. Forests, especially lush forests like the Amazon in South America, soak up a tremendous amount of carbon into the flora grown in the forests—through leaves and into the trunks of the trees. So as the climate crisis has worsened, more and more attention has been paid to the deforestation happening in the Amazon. And the situation has been very bad. Seventeen percent of the Amazon is gone already, and researchers say there is a tipping point at 20-25%. And the BBC reported that 2021 had the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon of all time.
But the Amazon is not the only place where forests matter. Deforestation is a problem pretty much all around the world. The question is how to end deforestation and let the forests do their natural thing—absorb carbon to grow trees.
Activists have focused on regulation to stop deforestation, and to some extent, this works well. The recent election of Lula in Brazil, along with his pledge to stop cutting the Amazon, is a case in point. But the challenge is that a man like Bolsonaro can always be re-elected, thereby unwinding the progress. Indeed, all regulatory approaches have this challenge. Policies can be reversed, and if all else is the same, one can predict that such regulations will, in fact, be overturned once the focus on climate change has shifted. Right now, it is the hottest issue out there for billions of people. In the future, other concerns will overwhelm it, especially once we seem to have it under control. Then, all of sudden, people will forget, and the policies will likely reverse.
The other method is through private contracts, most of which are monetized on carbon markets. An increasing number of companies are working with landowners to manage their lands in accordance with carbon management requirements. The best of these certify the management, much like organic farms are certified with a third-party certifier, though some have their own internal certification of compliance with the contractual obligations. Strong certifications are required for monetization, and the carbon credits are then sold to companies or individuals wishing (or required) to offset their carbon production. The firms involved in this financialization of carbon operate in various niches—some with large corporate landholders, others with small landholders; some more with the management of existing woodlands, and others more focused on reforestation.
Beyond the compliance issue, these programs have other problems—namely the greenwashing of carbon production. The first to buy these credits were those with green brands to maintain—outdoor companies, eco-tourism companies, organic companies, and so on. These companies may sincerely wish to further reduce their carbon production, but have instead bought credits, and therefore may skip the harder work of carbon reduction.
Whether the green brands skip the hard work or not, big carbon emitters will use these credits to avoid the necessary changes in their operations—at least to the point where it is cheaper to maintain operations and buy credits than it is to change how they operate. Big carbon emitters can always buy more credits, provided their main operations remain profitable. Hence, there is a sense of letting companies off the hook, as it were, by enabling them to buy carbon credits.
While individually, there may be an escapist purpose and a lack of true accountability, the overall picture is more important. If companies, for whatever reason, provide money to enhance forestation practices, it is a good thing. Healthy forests capture carbon. Whatever the mechanism may be, the expanded management of forests to capture carbon is essential. It eliminates the need for pipelines, sequestration locations, and capture technology since it is all there in the natural process of forest growth.
I view funding vigorous forests by whatever mechanism as essential to solving climate change. Given our political-economic system, it seems natural that two forces would come into play—government regulation and a creative private sector that financializes carbon. Many people will hate to see the financialization of carbon, while others will detest regulations. The criticality of our situation, however, suggests that the means are far less important than the outcome. If these approaches can manage forests to improve carbon capture, forests can play a significant part in our overall solution.
Technologies are going to improve and other methods will be developed for taking carbon out of the air; the only question is, as with other climate solutions, will it happen fast enough? Can we reduce emissions, stop emissions, and reduced existing carbon in the atmosphere? We don't know. All we know is that we need to keep moving and move faster than we are today. Too many people have already experienced the catastrophic impact of climate change, and more are to come. We need to solve this now.
In the final analysis, we must get carbon to 350 ppm in the atmosphere or less—preferably 300 ppm, which was closer to pre-industrial levels. To get to carbon 350 ppm in the atmosphere, we are going to need a total effort with everyone contributing. As an individual, your part is two things: find a job that allows your best efforts to be dedicated to climate solutions and adopt the technologies that are carbon-free, save money, and make your life better. That shouldn't be hard. Eliminate your direct emissions, and don't get confused by "carbon footprint."
The government needs to put a price on carbon that will motivate industry to do its part. Taxes, markets, or other mechanisms… you'll know if they are successful by their impact. If they motivate industry to eliminate carbon, they are doing their work.
An industry that needs to scrub needs to scrub—there's just no way around it. The world needs the chemicals, steel, cement, and other products of industry, and until we have another way to make them, scrubbing the production is our only alternative.
Finally, we need to capture carbon. In forests, in oceans, underground, by mechanical or technical methods. These are all critical. There is no option. Government, investors and financiers, scientists, social planners—everyone needs to participate to get this to work as well.
You see, there is a way. We can do this. We just need to do it.
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Today, we installed solar panels on our home and I'm hoping it's enough to take us completely off the grid. I'm excited to take the first step of many. I agree that the utility companies need to move to non polluting sources so more people can participate this way.
Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful essays. You always take a balanced approach and I appreciate that.
Great subject; Thanks again for insights. I agree 100% except I'd add to the part
about "Attitude". Climate is in crisis. It is an existential threat. I'm positive.
But this threat (IMHO) doesn't only freeze people in place because it is so scary/overwhelming. I think it's also because neither extreme (left or right) understand the issue. And the majority are quietly listening and often misdiagnosing the problem as a result (and therefore the "urgency").**
On the right - they think we want "cleaner air" while we've been improving AQI since the 70s. Bottom-line: they fear government control freaks.
On the left - they think there's good guys vs bad guys (workers vs greedy industrial corporations). I call them "pitch forkers" after the French Revolution days. And the right-leaners get defensive and it verifies their paranoia about "control freaks."
** They're misdiagnosing (IMHO) because they're missing "how we got here in the first place" which our side never seems to address. EG was my grandfather "EVIL" for driving internal combusion engine or his wife for using a gas stove?