A recent discussion of climate change in Scientific American began with this dramatic question "Is it worse to be swallowed by the sea or racked by famine?"
Why this stark and seemingly unrelated choice?
The answer lies in the intimate relationship between energy consumption by humans and their personal well being. More technically in economic terms, GDP growth in nations since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, now nearly two centuries ago, and energy use are closely correlated, and many theorists argue persuasively that the relationship is a causal one: The more energy available to you , the more well off you are likely to be.
The reverse of this is also true – that a significant reduction in energy use, particularly in developing nations, is likely to condemn the citizens of those nations to continued poverty, or, at a minimum, a much, much slower path to prosperity.
And yet if the threats posed by climate change are real: the destruction of the polar ice caps, the flooding of vast coastal urban environments because oceans rise by scores of feet as water is added from melting polar ice, and a host of other catastrophic sequalae to significantly increases in average global temperature, then we may face a stark choice between promoting cheap energy (derived from fossil fuels, which contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere), or move toward a global reduction of emissions, perhaps as much as 85% by mid-century, with a concomitant deep reduction of world GDP.
The core problem of the dilemma thus posed arises because of the enormous gap between wealth in Europe and America versus the poverty experienced by citizens in most of Africa and Latin America. If the world opts for emissions reduction and global GDP reduction, the developed nations will suffer disproportionately. Under some scenarios, attempting such a solution to the climate crisis may result not just in a global recession, but in total global economic collapse.
Unless, of course, we could find a way to have our cake and eat it too?
Could we find ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere economically, thus permitting us to continue to burn fossil fuels without further polluting the atmosphere with higher levels of greenhouse gases?
This is precisely the narrow question explored in a new Kindle Single from Amazon, Marc Gunther's Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis. In this ebook, Gunther starts out by briefly recapping the history of our still evolving understanding of the global climate crisis (a "crisis" that is by no means unanimously accepted by all scientists) and several promising new methodologies, some backed by wealthy patrons like Bill Gates, for "direct carbon recapture" from the atmosphere.
What is "direct carbon recapture"? The simplest example of this is one that occurs naturally in plants. Green plants "inhale" carbon dioxide as a basic food source, transforms the gaseous carbon within chlorophyllic cells, and produce food products in which the carbon is bonded in large molecules to form solids, in plant sugars and starches, for example. Plant activity, in fact, is the most significant existing operating mechanism for carbon dioxide gas removal from our atmosphere, and it has been so for millions of years. And yet our burning of fossil fuels has been adding carbdon dioxide to our air faster than rain forests can remove it.
The technologies now being examined by Bill Gates, Edgar Bronfman, Goldman Sachs, Boeing, and many others, have evolved in the last dozen years or so, since 1999 in fact when a Columbia University physicist named Klaus Lackner wrote the first paper about extracting carbon dioxide from air using simple and cheap chemical processes. Lackner later created his own startup company, Kilimanjaro Energy, to pursue his ideas in the marketplace.
Most of the new cutting-edge startups are working on proprietary methodologies that share a common goal: to suck up gaseous carbon from the air and combine it with hydrogen to create carbon solids, and to power this process without adding more carbon to the atmosphere by relying on solar, wind, or nuclear-sourced energy for their operating factories.
In a recent interview, Kilimanjaro's Ned David outlined a method of capturing carbon dioxide using algae, single-celled plants with a voracious appetite for carbon, which they soak up directly from water. Algae produce, among other things, oils than can be converted into diesel-like compounds for fuel. Companies like Boeing are watching Kilimanjaro Energy carefully, along with the Pentagon, both organizations with a keen interest in developing new fuels for commercial and military aircraft, especially if they can be produced domestically, eliminating the geopolitical supply risk associated with many sources of crude.
Even optimists expect a long, hard path ahead. On the shorter term, gaseous carbon dioxide already has an existing market, a valuable commodity in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects where it is injected underground to push oil molecules out of tight geologic formations and up to the surface, where the collected crude can be shipped to refineries. Prices reaching $ 100 / ton for CO2 for this purpose are not unknown. And once underground, the carbon dioxide tends to stay there, safely out of the atmosphere for thousands of years.
It goes without saying that many in the environmental movement view all this with a great deal of skepticism. A member of the National Resources Defense Council recently voiced concerned that venture capitalists and other backers may be more concerned with finding markets for CO2 than with removing it from our air, with too much emphasis on charting a path to make these new technologies marketable. The fear is that these efforts will lose their carbon reduction focus and drift from their environmental mission to purely commercial goals.
Marc Gunther has written a readable eBook that is about the length of a very long Atlantic Monthly article of a generation or two ago. It is a short, but valuable, introduction to a complex subject. Gunther is a contributing editor of FORTUNE magazine and a senior writer at GreenBiz. He writes frequently about business and sustainability.