From CO2 Emission Reduction to Removal: A Fresh Perspective for COP28

TK Arun

Carbon dioxide (CO2) removal on a massive scale alone can prevent a climate crisis, aided by full implementation of an earlier COP pact to plug methane emissions

“We know it is still possible to make the 1.5 degree limit a reality. It requires tearing out the poisoned root of the climate crisis: fossil fuels. And it demands a just, equitable renewables transition,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He was responding to the UN Environmental Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2023: Broken Record – Temperatures hit new highs, yet world fails to cut emissions (again), released earlier this month, laying out the context for the climate summit in Dubai that starts on November 30.

Guterres was typical in his response to the climate crisis: well-meaning, woolly-headed, and wholly misplaced. The urgent challenge before the world, in order to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, is not to root out fossil fuels in a hurry, but to deploy enormous resources — financial, scientific manpower, and laboratory — to identify the chemistry/biology that would make sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere an economically viable activity.

Carbon dioxide removal on a massive scale alone can prevent a climate crisis in the near term, aided in the short run by full implementation of an earlier COP agreement to plug emissions of methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. This could be supplemented, possibly, with geoengineering to reduce the amount of warming sunlight reaching the earth.

Reducing the scale of additional emissions, on top of the 2,400 Gigatonnes of CO2 already injected into the atmosphere between 1850 and 2019, as the solution to stop global warming is as useful as a suggestion to empty the fuel tank in order to stop a car hurtling forward with failed brakes. The car needs to be steered up a slope, till the momentum peters out and turned sideways, with the gear engaged.

Making CO2 Removal Economically Viable

Removing CO2 from the air in large quantities is the only solution. The technology exists to do this, but it is expensive when done on an industrial scale. The only way to make large-scale carbon dioxide removal economically viable is to use that removed CO2 as an input to produce things that have a market. Carbon is the basic building block of all organic compounds. In theory, it should be possible to use CO2 captured from the atmosphere or from flu gases to produce graphene, ethanol, methanol, or complex hydrocarbons, including synthetic fuels.

Imagine a situation in which processes to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into conventional organic compounds become inexpensive and technologically within the grasp of reasonably well-equipped production facilities. Then, instead of pumping out oil and gas from the ground or below the seabed, producers would mine the air for their starting molecules. Carbon dioxide removal would become a byproduct of the production of myriad hydrocarbons, including synthetic fuels. What was an unrecognised negative externality of early industrialisation and subsequent economic growth would become a vaunted positive externality of modern production.

There already are commercial operations, such as by LanzaTech, a Nasdaq-listed company, to use bacteria to convert CO2 into ethylene and compounds derived from it, leading up to polyester. Labs have demonstrated the ability to convert CO2 into all kinds of products. But such conversion calls for a lot of energy, initially to convert the highly stable CO2 into reactive carbon monoxide (CO). MIT reported in 2022 a method to achieve this conversion with relative energy efficiency by using assorted catalysts and DNA. The DNA’s role here is not to breed life, but to make molecules that need to interact – but are dispersed – cling together, caught in DNA strands.

The Research That’s Needed

Such research must become more widespread, and receive priority funding. The Joe Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act has, for the first time, made serious money available as subsidy for carbon dioxide removal technologies. But there is no reason to leave this field captive to US universities and companies. Universities around the world, including in developing countries such as India, must take this up as a priority research area. Governments must fund them, as aggressively as the Cold War rivals, the US and the Soviet Union, funded research for nuclear weapons, missile systems, and space domination.

Today, in addition to government funding, there are serious amounts of footloose venture capital scouring the world for profitable ideas to back. Ideas in climate technology, safe nuclear energy, and energy transport must receive largescale funding, such funding getting tax incentives to supplement their commercial prospects.

Climate action must be liberated from activists who have formed a green theology around the subject. The old Jewish and Christian tradition of mortifying the flesh with hairshirt and ashes would appear to inspire, in part, at least, the self-abnegation many favour, by way of giving up meat and air travel, in order to reduce emissions. Theology comes in the way of a rational approach to climate action, which must see it in terms of advancing and accelerating the energy transition, during which fossil fuels continue to play a vital role in improving living standards, particularly in the Global South.

It is this theological approach which underlies the severe denouncement of the COP28 chair, who happens to be the Chief Executive Officer of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, for planning to discuss oil deals on the sidelines of the climate conference. Transacting in fossil fuels while a climate conference is on strikes Green theologists as nothing short of apostasy. Such attitudes are counterproductive.

A major part of debate around climate action and of climate funding must go to research on conversion of atmospheric carbon dioxide into useful products, so as to make carbon dioxide removal a source of profit, instead of a cost.

The climate discourse must shift gears from fossil fuel elimination to carbon dioxide removal.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as  COP28 should focus on CO2 removal, not on eliminating fossil fuels on November 30, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.