Teenagers on Summer Break Earning Money Saving the Planet
The best carbon dioxide removal technology may be one you least expect.
This past week I passed over the swollen rivers and through the damaged landscape of Kentucky to reach the USBI Biochar and Bioenergy 2022 Conference in Morgantown, West Virginia. If you are new to biochar, or perhaps learned about it a decade ago, there is fresh science awaiting you. Besides being an exquisite elemental, carbon will soon be an extremely disruptive new industry and will transform the human relationship with its home planet in the coming years. Tens of thousands of peer-review journal articles, in scores of languages, are now published every year. The quick takeaway: if this discovery can scale quickly enough, ancient indigenous technology might just save us from near-term human extinction.
Beginning around 2006, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of thousands of the world’s top climate scientists, were alarmingly clear: we must get as good at taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as we’ve been at putting it in. Even as solar panels and wind turbines sprout like mushrooms, reaching “net-zero” is no longer enough. We’ve waited too long. We now have to go beyond zero and capture large amounts of legacy emissions that otherwise will linger in the atmosphere and ocean for centuries, wreaking havoc on weather, sea level rise, and food production.
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We’ll have to attack human activities that are hard to decarbonize, like flying across the ocean, taking a taxi, or making cement. Holding temperatures down will require vacuuming huge amounts of carbon out of the air using both real and mechanical trees. The good news is that we have the means. The replacements cost less and provide greater benefits than how we perform these activities now. It is not technology or economics that holds us back.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), about 7.6 billion metric tons (or gigatons) need to be eliminated from present emissions each year—about a fifth of current fossil pollution—to get us to net zero by 2050. That is the glide path we need to get on. We can do that by switching to renewables, right?
No. And it's likely the IEA is wrong in its numbers.
Given the speed of climate change, climate scientists say, 7.6 GtCO2e/y would be too little, too late. They say that depending on how fast we accelerate to net-zero, we still need to draw down between 100 billion tons of CO2 by 2050 and 1 trillion tons by 2100. That last figure would mean sucking up all the carbon that has been emitted this century, and then some, but because the ocean has been banking carbon for 200 years and will give it back with only a small interest deduction as we make withdrawals, we actually need to remove 2 or more times one trillion tons to recover the comfortable Holocene that humans evolved in.
Going Beyond Zero
Listening to science, the EU in November set a goal of removing 5 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually by 2030. Their target is net-zero emissions plus 5MtCO2/y drawdown in just a little over 7 years. The EU Commission was an early backer of Swiss startup Climeworks AG, which, for about $15 million, built an Iceland prototype plant now withdrawing 4000 tons per year and pumping it into a basalt repository. It would need 10 million of those plants just to hit net zero.
The U.K. government is spending 100 million pounds ($135 million) to support early-stage direct air capture (DAC) that it hopes will help hit the country’s target of net zero by 2050. Elon Musk and his foundation have put up $100 million for an XPrize carbon capture award and Bill Gates and his foundation have put in hundreds of millions to support carbon capture startups.
In its first year, the Biden administration announced a “moonshot” program to speed innovation in DAC with a goal of getting costs below $100 a ton, but the defeat of Build Back Better by the Republican-Senate-plus-Joe-Manchin last summer put Democrats’ climate ambitions on hold. Then this past Tuesday, in quite dramatic fashion, the largest federal investment in combating climate change was passed and signed by the President.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will reduce the US’s CO2 emissions by 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, almost meeting its commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement. This equates to 0.8-1 GtC of additional carbon emission reduction in 2030 relative to the current policy baseline. An article in Lexology published this week sets out a detailed breakdown of all the climate and energy beneficiaries. While the IRA largely ignored biochar, that will be funded separately in the forthcoming Farm Bill that also provides hefty biochar subsidies through the US Forest Service.
The drawdown darling of the IPCC reports is not DAC but Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). BECCS, however, is a technology besieged by goblins, trolls, and highwaymen. In the BECCS scheme, plantations of row mono-crops, which can be trees as well as GMO seed grains and grasses, are machine harvested and fed into steam plants to make electricity, reducing the biomass to ash and capturing smokestack emissions in much the same way DAC works. Liquid CO2 is then pumped down an old oil well or mine in the forlorn hope that it will never escape. Studies have shown that putting CCS on smokestacks raises the cost of electricity by over 40% and diminishes output by 28-31%, hazarding the UK and Europe’s already fragile winter energy supply. The world’s largest BECCS operator, Drax, has been booted from an investment index of clean energy companies as doubts within the financial sector mount over the sustainability of its wood-burning power plants. Nonetheless, the UK government is paying Drax over £1bn every year to burn the world’s forests and replace them with mono-crop plantations, with IPCC approval.
There are other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies such as:
Enhanced Weathering—silicate minerals, such as basalt, absorb carbon and could be ground to powder and spread over large areas. Increased crop yields would be one benefit but mining and transportation might negate any climate mitigation impact.
Ocean fertilization—adding iron to ocean waters could promote the growth of plants that can absorb carbon and store it on the seabed. In practice, there have been worries about side effects and whether it would even work. The notion that marine plants would simply sink to the bottom of the sea and be interred in sediment has been debunked by ocean biologists.
The 100 Methods outlined by Paul Hawken in his bestsellers, Drawdown and Regeneration. Some of these show promise, but others are flights of fancy.
This YouTube video, produced by Biomass to Biochar Ireland, gives a one-minute primer on what biochar is.
At the recent USBI conference, I caught a glimpse of what the potential CDR scale can be. At a workshop convened by Advanced Carbon Technologies, speakers from Australia and South Africa zoomed in to describe twenty years of work replacing asphalt highways.
Asphalt is a hot mix of tarry oil and gravel that gets poured on road surfaces all over the world and allowed to harden. It has a limited range of temperature tolerance so it develops cracks and potholes with wear and needs to be resurfaced at regular intervals. This adds to its fossil energy impacts.
In South Africa road building engineers started exploring shale and coal mining residues as an alternative in 2000. They also began using biochar as a soil stabilizer. Then they made the leap to adding biochar to the asphalt mix. Eventually, they discovered they could eliminate asphalt, Portland cement and solvents altogether. They moved biochar up from the base to the wearing course. After cold pressing biochar directly into quarry gravel and adding a 1% emulsion to seal the surface, they watched in amazement as the road hardened in under an hour, allowing traffic to resume, and lasted without maintenance for more than a decade. The temperature tolerance of biochar surfacing was from -30C to +80C. When cracks developed, they were self-sealed by the “eggs” of emulsion trapped in the pores of biochar.
Moreover, the engineers learned that they did not need—or want—“food grade” biochar suitable for agriculture. They could make biochar from sewage sludge, salty seaweed, or municipal wastes that contained mixed media of plastic, foils, heavy metals and other contaminants. Pyrolysis at 500C or above destroyed the pathogens in hospital wastes and antibiotic-laden feedlot manures. If the plastic or foil content was too high for “Class One” biochar, it could be blended with coconut coir or other woody wastes to get the carbon content up to 60%. Once poured into a roadbed, the plastics and other wastes would remain there essentially forever. The surface was inert, weather-resistant, and durable. It was a cold mix that could be made at a village scale and in fact, the South African rural development agencies began distributing small emulsion-making mills so that villages could do just that.
Let’s do some arithmetic
While I was listening to these speakers, I was stealthily looking up some numbers on Wikipedia. A mile of highway requires 30,000 tons of aggregate quarry stone. Add to that 3,000 tons of biochar and 1-percent emulsion. Convert to kilometers and you get 1863.35 tons of biochar per kilometer. China alone pours 9,650 km of road every year. It would require 18 million tons of biochar to replace asphalt completely in China. Translated to greenhouse gases more generally, Chinese roadbuilding could remove 66 MtCO2e—66 million tons of CO2 equivalents—annually. Prior to the pandemic, China released 12 billion tons of CO2 per year, so it would still have a long way to go to net neutrality.
6 million kilometers x 1863.35 tons of biochar = 11,180,000,000 tons of biochar
11,180,000,000 tons @ 80% carbon x 3.667 for carbon dioxide conversion = 32,800,000,000 tons CO2 removed
The world as a whole adds some 40 gigatons of CO2 from human activities every year. The world will add 3.0 - 4.7 million km of additional road by 2050, much of that going into roadless wilderness areas such as the Amazon, the Congo basin, and New Guinea. With normal repair resurfacing, we cover the planet with 6 million kilometers of new pavement every year. Following the same formula as above, that translates to 32 GtCO2e/y—80 percent of all anthropogenic emissions combined. If we could pour that much new plastic/biochar highway for the rest of this century, along with all the other measures we will be taking to reduce our carbon footprint, we could theoretically return the atmosphere to the pre-industrial greenhouse gas composition it had in 1750. Of course, we can’t ramp up a new industry that quickly, nor is it likely biochar would take over 100% of road building despite being less expensive and a superior product in every way. There are many unknowns about arresting climate change at this late stage. Still, it is probably the best news to come out of the carbon dioxide removal sector in a long time.
When I was a teenager, a “good” summer job was in highway construction. Most of this work was seasonal—the heat of summer months—and labor requirements in North America peaked from May to August, which lined up neatly with schools’ summer break. The pay was good, the work unskilled, and you got to be outdoors. Imagine now. Teens could still be making money building roads but they would not be inhaling smelly asphalt fumes all day. Instead, they could be saving the planet, day in, day out. They would have become Emergency Planetary Technicians.
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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