The Moral Imperative to go Carbon ZERO

The Moral Imperative to go Carbon ZERO

Professor Klaus Lackner, Director of the Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions, Arizona State University

Professor Klaus Lackner, Director of the Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions, Arizona State University

Company leaders striving to achieve new levels of “sustainability” could set themselves apart by going beyond carbon neutral. Technology is moving fast and the dream of being carbon neutral will soon be supplanted before it even gets off the ground. Serious companies can now do more. How does Carbon ZERO sound?

Reducing carbon emissions is a fine thing to do in the fight against climate change but it’s nowhere near enough. All the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) developed by climate scientists tell us that if we’re going to avoid a good cooking, we’re going to need to go way beyond just reducing our emissions. We’re going to have to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it away somewhere, just like natural processes did over millions of years to store carbon underground as coal, oil and gas.

Professor Klaus Lackner, Director of the Centre for Negative Carbon Emissions at the Arizona State University (ASU) puts it in perspective.

I view it a little bit as a waste management problem. We think of it as a pollution problem because that’s how we have approached it from the beginning and we are very proud of ourselves if we can reduce emissions.

But just take an analogy. If I took my garbage and dumped it in the street in front of my house, my neighbours would be very unhappy, right, and they wouldn’t take it as a good answer if I said “but I worked hard on it. I really reduced my garbage by 20% last year”.”

I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Lackner last week. You can listen to our conversation through the Cooee! Podcast link above or at the end of the text below (Note: After you hit "play" it can take 20-30 seconds to load). He is a physicist and an engineer and has been pondering and working on this issue for many years. He knows all the numbers around carbon budgets and climate change but also presents his ideas and the imperative to act in simple terms.

In the last two years since I came to Arizona, I also realised that we’ve been talking about this problem since the 1980s, early 90s, with the Rio agreement. We decided that we needed to do something and we kept talking and for all practical purposes, we’ve done nothing yet. And now the problem got a lot harder and I don’t think we can stop in time for 450ppm anymore which is the 2 degree warming line and as a consequence, we have to be prepared to pull CO2 back out.

He is investigating mechanical ways to remove carbon from the air.

Now, trees will do that, agriculture can help do that, but if you ask how big you have to get to actually solve the problem, it sounds like you need mechanical help. I always have the analogy that you can plough a field with a horse drawn plough, it works just fine, but that tractor is a lot faster. I am looking to design the equivalent to the tractor for pulling CO2 out of the air.

Professor Lackner and his team are working on this and they have prototype systems up and running in Arizona. They have a clear vision for how they can take the technology to scale. The challenge they face, as with all new technologies, is to secure the investment needed to further refine and develop the technology. Professor Lackner is a pioneer and bemoans the fact that there aren’t many people working on negative carbon technology. It seems madness to me too. We have no end of chatter and grand meetings about reducing emissions, all while scientists yell at us to get carbon out of the atmosphere asap. Like all technologies, prototypes are expensive and only after many years of R&D do we see prices come down and efficiencies reach levels where mass rollout is possible. Professor Lackner agrees that we should have been looking at this question for at least 20 years. I scratch my head and wonder why we haven’t. It’s only in the last five or so years that photovoltaic cells have reached a point where mass rollout is possible and scientists, companies and engineers have been working on that for a very long time indeed.

Bill Brandt joined our conversation. Bill is the Director for Strategic Integration at ASU and puts it thus,

What we’re trying to do is to get people to think that it’s more than just a renewable energy question. It’s all about the energy system as a whole and as Klaus pointed out, we’re going to have to get to the point where we realise that what goes up, does not come down unless we do something about it.

So this is a business perspective as well because what we have to do now is begin to get the policymakers and companies to begin thinking about it. So what is the business of generating energy, how do we use it and how do we do it responsibly

This all sounds urgent to me but there is a counter argument, recently enunciated in “The trouble with negative emissions” published in the journal Science, that suggests we shouldn’t be investing in negative emissions technologies because doing so will make us lazy, that negative emissions technologies are “an unjust and high stakes gamble”. The argument suggests that being able to take carbon out the atmosphere will remove any incentive to reduce our emissions and change the way we generate energy. The authors go further, arguing that the distribution of the risk of relying on negative emissions technologies is highly inequitable.

If negative emission technologies fail to deliver at the scale enshrined in many IAMs, their failure will be felt most by low-emitting communities that are geographically and financially vulnerable to a rapidly changing climate.

This sounds counter-intuitive to me. Surely, if we fail to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, it will be the low-emitting communities that are geographically and financially vulnerable that will suffer the most. They’re already suffering today as a visit to low lying Pacific islands can testify.

Professor Lackner agrees and notes that we’ve done precious little in the past 20 or 30 years to reduce emissions without negative carbon emission technologies being around to make us lazy. In terms of a high stakes gamble, we’ve been rolling the dice and losing since the call for action at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Why would we take a potential and clearly much needed solution off the table? There is huge risk if we do nothing and there is huge risk if all we do is battle away to reduce emissions. On the contrary, investigating negative emissions technologies gets the focus on carbon and helps open a broader discussion around what’s needed. Professor Lackner puts it this way:

I would argue there’s actually no proof of that [that negative emissions technologies make us complacent] and actually quite the contrary. I can make the case that having these technologies will accelerate things because they force your hand. They force you to think about the issues and they make it possible to solve the problem without the cooperation of the polluter.

If you think about it, right now, most approaches require that. The power plant operator will tell you it’s very expensive, they don’t really want to do it. And I would argue that they can probably do it more cheaply than pulling the CO2 back out of the air. But if they don’t cooperate, that’s what you will have to do therefore you’d be surprised at how fast they figure out how to be cheaper than us.

Forever the master of the simple analogy, Professor Lackner describes the risk of failure and complacency question in simple terms.

If you fall in the water, I’m going to throw a life preserver to try to pull you back out. There’s no guarantee that I will succeed with doing this but to tell you I’m not going to throw that life preserver because with that I take people’s motivation away from learning how to swim is not a good line of argument.

The question that emerges in my mind from my discussion with Professor Lackner is what are companies doing in this space? Scientists keep telling us we must take carbon out of the atmosphere but companies seem engaged in a much less ambitious race, to see who can reduce their emissions the most and even then, targets just don’t seem ambitious enough. Even if companies get to carbon neutral tomorrow, it’s not enough.

A real challenge for any company wishing to be in business in 100 years would be to work out, back of the envelope, how much carbon they’ve emitted over the entire life of their business - be it over the past year, 10 years, 100 years or more, however long they’ve been operating – and then invest in developing the negative carbon technologies that would allow them to take all THAT carbon out of the air. Why couldn’t companies aim to be carbon ZERO and not just carbon neutral? If we understand that carbon neutral isn’t going to stop runaway climate change, that proudly being so is Pyrrhic nonsense, that it will not secure anyone’s long-term future, aren’t business leaders obliged, to their future shareholders, to do whatever they can to get to carbon ZERO? Quickly?

There is no shortage of business leaders seeking to paint themselves and their companies as sustainability champions or folk willing to shower them with awards and glories for their insufficient efforts. “I tried!” said the man to his neighbours aghast at the rubbish in the road.

Truly responsible business leaders should go beyond the rhetoric of carbon emission reduction targets. They need to surge beyond ideas of carbon neutrality. True champions have a new goal. It’s achievable with investment, with serious intent. It’s Carbon ZERO.

Listen here for the full interview with Professor Klaus Lackner and Bill Brandt. Note: After you hit "play" it can take 20-30 seconds to load. 

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