An Economically Incentivized Climate Solution

Alexander Ostrovsky

It might be a bold statement to make, but the truth is that the majority of global climate initiatives at this point will not be a fix for all the carbon that we have released throughout the industrial and into the digital age. Even if the developed world becomes completely carbon emission neutral, we will still have to contend with the emergent economies of this world such as Brazil, India, and China, which have zero interest in curtailing their rapid growth to take on the massive economic costs that coincide with climate initiatives. 


The bottom line is that the earth’s natural ability to pull carbon out of our environment is beyond strained. From deforestation and carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the path that we are on is not sustainable. Wind and solar farms are great except that they are costly to build, do not produce enough energy to sustain any of our large cities, and require subsidies from our public institutions to be built and maintained.


At this time, where is the incentive to take such energy seriously, or more importantly, where is the incentive to take climate change seriously? That equation might just be changing as a conceptual technology to pull carbon right out of our atmosphere is in the last few years and seeing real progress. Imagine if carbon spewing from a car tailpipe in India can be cleaned out of our atmosphere by a theoretical facility situated anywhere in the world. This technology has the ability to revolutionize our perspective on climate change. However, it has many hurdles to overcome first.


America, compared to many other nations, has made significant strides in overcoming global climate issues. In particular, we have worked to rein in the use of fossil fuels for creating energy, which is key in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. This effort has not been in vain. In early 2013 it was reported that American carbon emissions were on the decline, as reported by the Wall Street Journal this past April, “Energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that is widely believed to contribute to global warming, have fallen 12 percent between 2005 and 2012 and are at their lowest level since 1994.”


A major reason for this domestic victory is the increased use of natural gas to making electricity instead of coal, the worst natural resource for greenhouse gases when burned to create energy. Things are looking up domestically. However, with climate change, it is important to look globally. Where there is money to be made on energy, there is a strong chance that America is a part of it, and just because we are switching to natural gas does not mean that the rest of the world will also. National Geographic explained this previous March,  “the dramatic changes in energy use in the United States—in particular, the switch from coal to newly abundant natural gas for generating electricity—will have only a modest impact on global warming, observers warn. The Earth's atmosphere will continue to absorb heat-trapping CO2, with a similar contribution from U.S. coal. It will simply be burned overseas instead of at home.”


The only way to truly curb global greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal is to leave the coal in the ground. The U.S. Energy Information Administration released data this year that revealed that in 2012 the US coal exports hit a record high of 126 million short tons. Subsequently, coal production in the United States has kept itself at record highs as well. The only effect of decreased coal consumption in the US is increased consumption abroad in Europe and Asia. Such revelations should not be shocking or surprising since economics is the major drive of everything that we do as a society. Therefore teaching humanity how to take care of its environment is akin to a mother trying to potty-train her child.


The problem is that American capitalism works on incentives. What has been lacking in the push for climate change is an incentive that is based on economics, not future doomsday predictions of sunken coastal cities and depressing images of drowning polar bears. For instance, we have no incentive to cease producing and exporting coal, since economically American companies can make a high return on coal being sold to Europe and Asia. An economic incentive is needed for real lasting climate solutions. Fortunately, in the last few years, a conceptual technology to pull excess carbon dioxide right out of the atmosphere has made big strides toward functionality. Yet most importantly, it is possibly finding actual economic incentives to be taken seriously and utilized.     


In the early to mid-2000’s this conceptual idea of pulling carbon dioxide straight out of the air was born, notably by Peter Eisenberger, a distinguished professor at Columbia University and founder of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Earth’s natural process of removing CO2 out of the atmosphere is a cyclical progression, where in the end the carbon dioxide is pulled by a water source into the ground.


NPR recently explained Eisenberg’s initial actions and thought process this past June, “‘If you looked at knowledge as a commodity, we had generated this enormous amount of knowledge and we hadn't even begun to think of the many ways we could apply it,’ Eisenberger says. He decided he'd settle on a problem he wanted to solve and then dive into the pool of knowledge for existing technologies that could help him.”


Eisenberger settled on an idea to pull carbon dioxide right out of the air, and went ahead with modifying an existing technology that is similar to the catalytic converter in a car. Since a catalytic converter can clean up the exhaust coming out of a car, why not use it to grab carbon dioxide from the air? Eisenberger teamed up with a fellow scientist from Columbia and created the company Global Thermostat, with seed money from Edgar Bronfman, Jr. the CEO of Warner Music Group. As NPR explained though, “The Company has built two pilot plants at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. But of course there are big issues to solve: What do you do with the carbon dioxide once you've captured it, and how do you make money?”


There is no money to be made in mimicking the natural process of our planet by removing the CO2 out of the air and then burying it in the ground. Without revenue and a market for this technology, as revolutionary and climate saving as it could be, it will simply go nowhere based on simple economic principles. Capitalism has clearly defined the idea that regardless of how great a product is, if you cannot make money off of it, then it will fail very quickly.


Any private investor or government institution will have a hard time justifying investing in the research and development of a technology that has no promise of revenue, or of actually working (look at Solyndra as a prime example). There are also other hurdles to overcome when it comes to this technology. Foremost is the high cost of building a large-scale infrastructure to capture enough carbon to make the technology worth pursuing.  Another hurdle is where to find the energy to power the large infrastructure, and will enough carbon be captured to offset the carbon created by the energy source, since most energy comes from fossil fuel burning plants.


After years of research and development by Global Thermostat, and a handful of similar startups all with an identical goal, we might just be on the brink of success. The New York Times reported on this technology in January saying, “The technology has moved from a position where people talked about the potential and possibilities to a point where people […] are testing prototype components and producing quite detailed designs and engineering plans.” The Times in the article focused on another company called Carbon Engineering, formed in 2009 with $3.5 million from Bill Gates, which is being characterized as the lead contender to become the first company to build an industrial scale machine for this technology. They are currently working on building a complete pilot plant in Calgary, Alberta for capturing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.


The most important aspect is that, as the Times noted, “It is even possible that the gas could then be sold for industrial use.” There we have our incentive, finally the promise of an economic breakthrough that could be the driving force behind pushing this new technology into full-scale production and a realistic method of fixing our climate.


Peter Eisenberger, whose company is just as interested in the economic possibilities of the technology, went on to illuminate to NPR that, “Growers pipe carbon dioxide into greenhouses. Oil companies pump it underground to help them squeeze out more oil. Soda companies use it to put bubbles in their drinks.” In fact, Eisenberg’s first project involves the creation of biofuel through using CO2 to feed algae. His company is currently working on building its first demonstration plant in Alabama alongside an algae biofuel company. He explains, “‘They'll be floating their algae in plastic bags on the top of the water. We'll be piping in CO2 that we pull out of the air, and the sun will do the rest.’” The technology has a lot of promise, and it is exciting to think that we are on the course to the breakthrough technology that could possibly fix our climate issues.


 Yet as important as it is to look toward the future, we also need to remain realistic and not get ahead of ourselves. The actual cost of capturing carbon dioxide has yet to even be demonstrated. From what has been reported, we are at best another five to 10 years away from truly understanding if this technology can work both economically and environmentally, let alone actually utilizing it. It does seem however that we are on the right track to figuring it out, or as NPR reported on Peter Eisenberg, “If he can open the door to capturing carbon dioxide from the air — and make the process cheap enough — someday we could actually slow down, or possibly even reverse, the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”


For the first time there is a realistic, technology-based and economically incentivized method to curb greenhouse emissions and fix our deteriorating environment. President Obama in a major climate speech back in June said, “We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society.” The President’s words were an obvious dig at the congressional Republicans fighting tooth and nail to deny any connection between human activity and climate change. However maybe it is time to embrace a new line of dialogue and change the theme from climate to business because sometimes when money is involved, grand things can be achieved, and sometimes those grand things can have a long-lasting positive effect on our world.


Author Bio:

Alexander Ostrovsky is a contributing writer at Higbrow Magazine.


Photos: Keltose (Flickr); Zanthia (Flickr); Hannes Grobe (Wikipedia Commons).

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Keltose (Flickr)
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