Our Plan B For the Planet

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Image result for beautiful blue planet images

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
–Gloria Steinem

Restoring a healthy planet requires planning–and we didn’t plan well over the last 50 years. That has led us to the start of run-away climate change. Climate change now requires serious planning.

Planning involves looking at what could go wrong, and preparing for that eventuality. This is often discomfiting, especially when it involves the survival of our planet as we have gotten to know and love it. In the end, I find, after doing the planning, there is often joy–having a plan in hand for that feared circumstance that had put a knot in my stomach. And then that knot in my stomach is gone.

Plan B is a conversation we humans naturally avoid. When we plan a vacation, a marriage or a project, we focus on what we want to happen, and how to make it happen. In most cases we assume that when things just don’t work out, some responsible party, perhaps mother nature, will present a plan B we can invoke, and send us back out onto our next adventure. That is what we have collectively done with the climate.

When it comes to saving our planet, what is our plan B?
Twenty years ago our climate plan A was rapid emissions reduction. And since then millions of committed people have devoted themselves to achieving that. We thought that if perchance we were too slow reducing emissions, technology and biology would come to our rescue and allow us to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) was the designated plan B.

At the 2015 Paris climate summit, carbon dioxide removal graduated to part of plan A, as the IPCC announced that there is no viable pathway to a future healthy climate without CDR. With CDR now a required part of plan A, what is our new plan B?

What will our children do if the climate continues getting worse, and getting worse faster than almost any scientist predicted twenty, ten, or even two years ago? We are already seeing the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and the polar ice cap is nearly gone now. The Gulf Stream is beginning its collapse, and permafrost melting is increasing exponentially as polar temperatures soar 20-30° F. above normal. What if this evidence that our beloved planet is crossing the climate tipping points is real, not just a bad dream?

We are committed to giving a healthy climate to our children and grandchildren. Will we keep that commitment, and make a plan to keep it, based on science, not just hope?

Who is designing our Plan B?
When I ask climate experts these questions, they give me pained looks and tell me that they’re working hard to reduce emissions and to sequester carbon. In other words, “I’m already doing all I can. Someone else must make plans for the unthinkable.” That is, almost no one is designing our Plan B so far. It’s time for us to support them in that serious process.

Adapting to a warmer, less hospitable planet is not our only option. Elon Musk is planning a space colony on Mars, and many rich families are buying land at higher elevations and higher latitudes.

What about the rest of us? There are serious alternatives: Reflecting more sunlight into space during the day, radiating more heat out into space at night, and using the cold, deep ocean as a temporary heat sink while we repair our atmosphere with CDR. Although there are many practical ways to implement these methods, the idea of purposefully cooling the planet is new and profoundly uncomfortable. Scientists and investors tend to be conservative and particularly sensitive to public discomfort, and that means that Plan B, cooling the planet on purpose, gets practically zero funding, and practically zero planning so far.

Cynics label purposefully cooling the earth “geoengineering”, which has alarmist connotations. It’s revealing that they don’t also use the term for warming the earth–as we are currently doing.

Importantly, many of these cooling methods appear to be inexpensive to implement, roughly the cost of one or two large power plants to cool the whole planet. This means that the reason we’re not preparing Plan B is not lack of money–it’s lack of courage and boldness. We can fix that–we can summon up courage and boldness. And we should call the process “cooling”; the opposite of warming, rather than the frightening ‘g’ word.

Now is the time to expand our courageous leadership. We could continue hoping that our beautiful planet and civilization does not require a Plan B, but meanwhile some of us would be wise, and appreciated by our children, if we designed a suitable Plan B-and a Plan C, just in case.

Restoring the climate is an engineering project

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It’s too expensive. That is the response when I ask scientists, “Should we restore a healthy climate for our children?”

If you’re not a scientist, that answer sounds cruel, implying that there is something more important than investing in saving the planet for our children and grandchildren. In fact, we can restore the climate for our children, probably by the year 2050, for less than we now spend globally on the military.

Getting to “Let’s restore the climate” from “It’s too expensive to restore the climate” requires distinguishing the paradigms in which successful scientists work from engineering project management. With that we can shift the frame for climate work from science to engineering.

The scientific paradigm for discovery is incremental. It sounds like this: “Let’s demonstrate milestone A, and then design the experiment for milestone B. Then demonstrate B followed by the design for milestone C, etc.” There arguably is no other pathway to discover quarks or breakthrough batteries.  Scientific discovery is generally resource limited but time unlimited–discovery takes time.

Project management operates backwards: Define the intended final result carefully, and then work backwards from the end result to the present time to set start times and budgets for the required sub-projects. Essentially that means we define success for milestone C, then design C’s development process. Then define success for milestone  B, and then design B’s process, and so on, backwards to the present.  After the milestones are defined, we estimate the budget. Important engineering projects are time limited, with relatively unlimited resources, the opposite of scientific research.

Consider an oil refinery. It costs whatever it costs, and while the teams work to reduce costs, seldom is a refinery cancelled due to costs—it is so vital to the corporation’s success that the money will be found. However it might be cancelled if it’s too late—because alternatives are likely to show up making it unprofitable.

This distinction of paradigms became clear to me recently when a former Secretary of Energy said that he wasn’t considering restoring the climate because it’s too expensive. From a scientist’s view that makes perfect sense–restoring the climate is far more expensive than any previous scientific endeavor, therefore we should work on the projects we have resources for now. Nevertheless, as a parent I was aghast at that statement: How could he say that it’s not worth 1-10% of GDP to save the planet for our kids? That’s a fraction of what we spent to win WWII.  Is he crazy? No, he’s not crazy, he’s a scientist, and one of the best.

Operating inside the science paradigm, he decided sensibly to work next to improve electric vehicle batteries, since that would incrementally move us in the right direction towards reducing emissions. It won’t save the climate–only massive carbon dioxide removal can do that, but it’s important progress.

In the science paradigm we handle milestone A and then plan to handle milestone B–unless the project is cancelled first. With the collapsing of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the stalling of the Gulf Stream, and expectation of 7-30 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century, the project (saving civilization) may indeed get cancelled if we don’t treat restoring the climate as an urgent engineering project.

Note that WWII was largely an engineering project where the generals had good estimates for the resources needed to win, and got those resources. Similarly, we now have initial estimates for what it will take to restore the climate for our children, and we will raise those funds if we discuss the climate as an engineering project and start now.

We can restore the climate. Now is the time to shift climate work from the incremental scientific research project that climate deniers have insisted on since 1980, to the engineering project that we owe to our children. We will find the funds, just as we found funds to win WWII.

 

Where do we put a trillion tons of CO2?

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Earlier I posted briefly about seven techniques that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, each of which could scale to 50 GT / year, and cost less per year than the US military budget. That rate is high enough to allow us to restore old CO2 levels within 50 years, even if the energy transition gets stalled.

Where do we put that CO2? Can it be sold?

Putting away that carbon is the field of carbon sequestration, which should be a long article, but the useful answers are brief.

The simplest sequestration method, and one with rapidly growing support, is to pump the CO2 down into basalt rock formations where the CO2 gets securely converted to carbonates, essentially limestone, within two months to two years. The key results on this were published last summer. I had conversations with the authors in November where they confirmed that it should be fairly easy to scale to 50 GT / year. More details on this later on.

The ocean is the context for the next set of sequestration methods that can be scaled to 50 GT / year. To put this in context, remember that the formation of oil deposits millions of years ago occurred by sequestering vegetation (including plankton) underwater where it anaerobically decomposed into oil and coal—so this is quite natural. In several methods, plankton and seaweed are grown, and the detritus sinks into the deep ocean where it stays, for hundreds of years up to millions of years. In another method, alkaline rocks are added to the ocean, where they combine with carbonic acid, and then fall out of solution. The carbonic acid is what CO2 turns into when it dissolves in water, so this becomes a CO2 pump from the atmosphere into the ocean, and down to the ocean floor. Greg Rau, on this list, is probably the world’s top expert on that, and can provide corrections and references.

The third set of sequestration methods is for commercial use in infrastructure. Remarkably, markets for carbon could make an impact on the 50 GT / year target. Blue Planet has successfully commercialized techniques for converting CO2 into limestone for use as the aggregate used in paving roads and in concrete for large buildings. I learned about this just two weeks ago. The global market for aggregate is the equivalent of 20 GT CO2 per year, at prices from $5-$50 / ton CO2 equivalent. There are other commercial uses for CO2 and carbon, but currently they are relatively small. The commercial advantage of using atmospheric CO2 is transportation. Carbon is cheap, but shipping heavy aggregate is expensive, so when clean aggregate is needed, creating it out of thin air is sometimes advantageous.

The purpose of all this is not to recommend one method over another, although probably every person reading this has a strong preference for one or another. The purpose is to show that there are a good number of reasonable methods to sequester the trillion tons of CO2 that we’ll remove from the atmosphere in the next several decades. I do suggest that readers expect that several, if not all of the methods will be implemented, so that you don’t get too worried before the science and engineering is done.

There are many other methods of sequestering CO2, many of which are being done already, including biochar, expanding forests, agricultural practices which increase carbon in soils, and pumping CO2 underground into sealed reservoirs in which it may or may not be converted permanently into carbonates. These methods do not appear to be scalable to 50 GT / year, so although they’re valuable, they’re unlikely to be among the critical methods.

At this stage of the Healthy Climate Project, where the world’s climate leaders are becoming fluent in the vision and narrative of restoring a healthy climate for our children, sequestering CO2 in basalt fields has been the most effective story because it is easy to visualize at scale, has been done successfully (recently and for billions of years), and it is quite inexpensive. The other methods will surely take much of the market, but each one has hurdles to cross.

Healthy Climate News- Seven technologies that could scale

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Last month I spent a delightful day at the Carbon Dioxide Removal / Negative Emissions Technology  workshop at Berkeley, put on by Wil Burns, one of our original members. He had a crowd of 130 people there from all over the country, with presentations on various technologies for carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

The key take-aways were that we have lots of options now for CDR that can scale up to 50 GT / year, at a cost of less than 1% of global GDP.

Can your technology scale up to remove 50 GT CO2 / year?

  1. DAC- Global Thermostat, Inc. (Menlo Park): Yes
  2. DAC-Carbon Engineering, Inc. (Vancouver): Yes
  3. DAC-CDR trees (Ariz. State Univ): Yes
  4. Marine Permaculture Arrays (Brian von Herzen): Yes
  5. Ocean Alkalinization (Santa Cruz): Yes
  6. Ocean Iron Fertilization: Yes
  7. OTEC (Alan Miller): Yes

We spent the morning of the conference looking into BECCS (Bio-Energy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration). This is an area of CDR which is receiving a lot of attention in the last few years. Getting energy from biological sources, such a corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, and even trees has obvious appeal. In fact almost half of the US corn crop is now used for this purpose, growing corn for ethanol used to replace some usage of gasoline.

With all that positive attention, the downside of BECCS is that it cannot scale beyond about 2 GT CO2 / year—just 5% of what we need. In addition, achieving even that CDR potential requires giving up large areas of agricultural area to energy production—potentially at the cost of growing food for the world’s expanding population. The fundamental reason for the limitation is that plants are at best 1/100 as efficient, per acre, at producing energy as are solar panels. And solar panels don’t require water, fertilizer, planting, and harvesting.

Another popular technology, biochar got an excellent mention from Brian von Herzen (one of the Healthy Climate founders). Biochar, like BECCS has great potential in certain situations, especially for reducing pollution by shifting the burning of rice chaff from in the fields, to biochar ovens which are clean, produce energy, and then provide biochar (sort of like charcoal) which is used as a very effective soil enhancer.  Biochar doesn’t make it on the list above because its global potential is about 1 GT / year of CO2.

In summary, we have seven excellent candidates for doing CDR at scale. Yet the two CDR technologies now getting the most public attention, BECCS and Biochar, are valuable and attractive, but simply don’t scale, mainly because they are limited to the amount of the earth’s surface area that we’d be willing and capable of committing to that purpose.

We are making great progress—just in the last month!