The carbon negative economy

Robert C. Brown of Iowa State

“Let’s not simply reduce the CO2 emissions going up into the atmosphere. Let’s draw them down.”

So says Robert Brown, a professor of engineering at Iowa State University and a leader of the university’s Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy and its Bioeconomy Institute. Those are interdisciplinary campus efforts to develop ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing plants or algae, making them into fuels and burying their carbon residues in soil–and make money doing it.

The notion that we can generate wealth and remove CO2 from the air is obviously appealing. As atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rise and climate risks grow, so does the need for carbon-negative technologies that pull CO2 from the air, as plants do, and then store it  underground or deep in the ocean.

But is this practical, or a pipe dream? That’s what Brown and his colleagues at Iowa State and its Bioeconomy Institute want to find out, as they explained this week at a two-day workshop on  biochar  — that’s the term used for the charcoal created when biomass is decomposed at high heat, in a process called pyrolysis. The workshop was part of the Carbon War Room‘s Creating Climate Wealth Summit in Washington, D.C..

The Carbon War Room, as you may know, is a nonprofit created by Richard Branson of Virgin fame to unlock gigaton-scale, market-driven solutions to climate change. Its new president will be Jose Maria Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica. The group is also tackling projects around energy efficiency, renewable jet fuel, low-carbon ocean shipping and sustainable livestock.

Biochar has been around for a long time, but it’s getting new attention from government and business. The Iowa State researchers last fall were awarded a $25 million research grant  from USDA to see if they can find ways to use  marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses and turn them into biofuels and biochar. Local firms like ADM, the agribusiness giant, have expressed support. [click to continue…]

Suck It Up: My book about climate change, geoengineering and air capture of CO2

I’m pleased to let you know that my book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, is being published today as an Amazon Kindle Single. Please buy the ebook here for just $1.99.

The book reflects two years of reporting and my best thinking about three topics that matter: climate change, geoengineering and a technology called direct air capture of CO2. It explains why we’ve made so little progress (none, actually) in dealing with the climate threat, and how that might change. Part of the answer is to look for ways to recycle and reuse CO2.

I’m going to print the introduction to the book below, but first a word about the publishing process. As the newspapers, magazines and book publishers that traditionally support long-form journalism are struggling, exciting new outlets like blogs and ebooks are opening up. I’m the publisher as well as the author of Suck It Up, with a big assist from Amazon, which has selected the book as a Kindle Single.

The Kindle Single allows writers to tell stories that are longer than a magazine article and shorter than a book. Suck It Up is about 17,000 words long, the equivalent of 60 to 70 double spaced typewritten pages. It’s intended to be read in one or two sittings, and it’s priced so the ideas in it will spread. If you don’t own a Kindle, you can read the book on your smart phone, iPad or laptop. Just download the free Kindle software here.

I’d like to sell lots of copies of Suck It Up not just because I think it’s a good read about an important topic, but because I want to make the ebook business model work. It’s an exciting new platform for in-depth reporting.

So, please read the intro, check out the book and if you like it, help me spread the word through social media or the old-fashioned way–tell a friend about the book. [click to continue…]

Making sense out of Durban

So what the heck happened in Durban? Is the world closer to dealing with the problem of global warming? Or not?

If, like me, you aren’t a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn’t much help.

From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the WPost). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).

From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The Atlantic.com). The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa’s Cape Times).

COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.

David Victor

Durban didn’t change his mind.

“In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much,” David says. “They’ve agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future.” [click to continue…]

The business of cooling the planet

Global Thermostat's demonstration plant

The risk of disruptive climate change grows every day. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, said last year that we have three options: Mitigate, adapt, suffer. If we don’t mitigate (meaning reduce emissions), we’ll have to adapt (move to new places, develop new crops, build sea walls). If we do neither, we’ll suffer. But, as regular readers of this blog know, there’s a fourth option–geoengineering.

Geoengineering is term used to describe planetary-scale technologies that are designed to counteract the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. I’ve been fascinated with geoengineering for about two years, and this week FORTUNE will publish my story, The Business of Cooling the Planet, about three startup companies that want to save the planet by capturing carbon dioxide from the air.  This topic is so important that I’m planning to expand the story into a short e-book in the next couple of months.

The FORTUNE story begins by describing how Microsoft founder Bill Gates became an expert on climate and energy:

One of the cool things about being Bill gates is that if you are curious about something, you can find smart people who will teach you whatever it is that you want to know. About five years ago Gates decided that he wanted to learn about climate change, so he arranged for two of the world’s leading climate scientists, David Keith of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, to organize a series of seminars. Since then, Keith and Caldeira have recruited scientists, energy experts, economists, and policy wonks to deliver about a dozen detailed presentations to Gates. He prepares by doing hundreds of pages of reading, some quite technical; the ensuing discussions, which last three or four hours, can be intense. “Bill has the intellectual curiosity of a very bright graduate student,” Caldeira says, “but a graduate student whose time you are not supposed to waste.”

This is no academic exercise. Gates has been convinced that the risk of global warming is worse than most people think. He can see that the world’s governments have failed to curb the emissions caused by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. In June 2010 he put together a coalition of business leaders, including GE’s Jeff Immelt, to urge Congress to invest more in clean-energy research, but that’s not happening. So the Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist has stepped into the breach to become the world’s leading funder of research into geoengineering— deliberate, large-scale interventions in the earth’s climate system intended to prevent climate change and its repercussions.

Since 2007, Gates has given about $4.6 million of his money to Caldeira and Keith for geoengineering research. Intellectual Ventures, a private company funded in part by Gates, has explored such technologies as building an 18-mile-long hose, tethered by balloons, that would spray tiny particles into the stratosphere to block the sun’s rays. Gates has even attached his name to a patent application for ocean-churning technology designed to sap the strength of hurricanes, which appear to be getting fiercer because of global warming.

The story goes on focus on three startup companies that are working on

A straightforward, albeit audacious, way to cool an overheating planet: Build many thousands of big machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

The companies are Carbon Engineering (in which Gates is an investor), Global Thermostat and Kilimanjaro Energy. They are all a long way from making any money from carbon dioxide removal, and indeed there are many skeptics who say the costs of pulling CO2 from the air are so high that it will never make business sense. [click to continue…]

It’s time for the US to study geoengineering

Can we mimic volcanoes and cool the earth?

Geoengineering — deliberate, planetary-scale efforts to counter the impact of climate change — is so controversial that a high-powered 18-member Washington task force that spent almost two years studying the idea couldn’t decide what to call it.

Most want to rename it “climate remediation.” A few want to stick with geoengineering. But all agreed that, whatever you call it, the U.S. government should begin “a coordinated federal research program to explore the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies.”

In a 33-page report released today in Washington, the task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center emphasized that climate remediation is not a substitute for managing the risks of climate change through mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, most of them generated by burning fossil fuels). It also says that no geoengineering technology is ready for deployment.

But, the group said, it’s imperative that governments, scientists and engineers learn more about geoengineering because the risks of climate change are increasing.

Mitigation measures currently being considered, regardless of their pace of efficacy, will not be able to return atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels for centuries…

Although we do not know exactly how much the climate will change or how fast, globally disruptive or even catastrophic results are possible…Global climate change could unfold in ways that would be very difficult to manage

In plain language: what we’re doing (or not doing) now to deal with climate change isn’t working, and the consequences of those failures are likely to be disastrous.

“I’m not sure we would have had a consensus recommendation on research if mitigation efforts were going great guns,” said Stephen Rademaker, co-chair of the task force and a former assistant secretary of state during the Bush II administration. [click to continue…]

Kilimanjaro Energy: towering ambitions

Mount Kilimanjaro

Over the last decade, Nathaniel “Ned” David, a Harvard and Berkeley-trained PhD., has co-founded five technology companies that have collectively raised more than $700 million in financing. One, Syrrx, made a diabetes drug. A second, Achaogen, is developing a potent antibiotic. A third, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, a pioneer in the field of  “aesthetic medicine,” is working on an injectable drug that will reduce localized fat–no more double chins!–and it was his experience there that led Ned into the world of clean energy and climate change.

There’s nothing wrong with helping people to look better, he told me when we met recently, but it wasn’t enough: “I was feeling a little ennui around what I was doing.” His son, Magellan, had just been born. “I suddenly had this desire to work on something of great moral urgency,” he said.

Ned David

That’s no longer an issue. Ned, who is a boyish 43, helped start Sapphire Energy, an algae company, on whose board he still sits, and last fall he became the president of an audacious San Francisco-based startup called Kilimanjaro Energy. It goal? To harvest CO2 from the atmosphere and use it to make transportation fuels with a much lower carbon footprint than gasoline or diesel.

The name of the company says it all:  “We’re going to try to make fuels, while simultaneously saving the snows of Kilimanjaro,” Ned says. [click to continue…]

Dumping iron: probably not a cool idea

Did you notice that President Obama didn’t say the words “climate change” or global warming” in his 7,000-word State of the Union speech? He described government support for clean energy as

an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people

Partly this is repackaging, and not in a good way.  Partly it’s a recognition that we’re utterly failing, here in the U.S. and globally, to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. (See the chart at the end of this blogpost.) That’s not something the president wants people to think about. It’s actually not something that anyone wants to think about–not environmentalists, because it leads to a sense of hopelessness, not free-market ideologues, because it’s a glaring example of market failure, not the press because, well, climate change has become an old and depressing story,.

But ignoring the threat of climate catastrophe won’t make it disappear.

So, sooner or later, as people come to see the threat, scientific and political attention will turn to geoengineering—deliberate intervention in the climate system to moderate global warming. By coincidence, on the day after the president spoke, scientists at UNESCO published a guide to one of the early approaches to geoengineering, a technique known as ocean fertilization or iron fertilization. The idea here is that  sprinkling iron dust atop the oceans will stimulate plant growth and suck large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air.

Ocean fertilization has been bruited about for decades. “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age,” a scientist named John Martin said back in the 1980s. The technique attracted some notoriety more recently when a couple of U.S-based startup companies, Climos and Planktos, were created to explore the idea. (I wrote about Climos for Fortune.com in 2008.)

Unfortunately for advocates of ocean fertilization, UNESCO’s 20-page report delivers mostly discouraging news. [click to continue…]

A global thermostat?

Global Thermostat sounds too good to be true: It’s a startup company that aims to address the threat of climate change by capturing carbon dioxide from the air, and then making productive use of it.

The CO2 could be used to help plants grow faster in greenhouses, as a feedstock for algae, for enhanced oil production, as an ingredient in bottling plants, as a natural refrigerant, or as a circulating fluid in a geothermal energy installation.

Prof. Graciela Chichilnisky

While Global Thermostat calls itself “a carbon negative solution,” its technology is in practice a form of geoengineering. It would appear, however, to be less risky than better-known geoengineering techniques such as  solar radiation management or marine cloud whitening.

“We’ve faced skepticism about the solution because it’s so radical,” says Graciela Chichilnisky, a co-founder and managing director of Global Thermostat. But, she says, a carbon negative solution to the climate crisis will be needed “to contain rising levels of atmospheric carbon because we procrastinated too long and carbon emissions reductions do not suffice.”

There are several reasons to take Global Thermostat seriously. First, it’s more than an idea–to test the idea, the company opened a pilot plant in October at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. SRI is a big research institute, which works for governments, FORTUNE 500 companies and startups.

Second, its founders–Chichilnisky and Peter Eisenberger–have impressive pedigrees. A Columbia University professor, Chichilnisky founded a pair of successful tech companies, helped design the carbon market under the Kyoto Protocol and has advanced degrees including a PhD. in math from MIT and a PhD. in economics from Berkeley. (She’s also been involved in a series of lawsuits against Columbia alleging gender bias, but that’s another story.) Eisenberger, who  founded  the Columbia Earth Institute (before Jeffrey Sachs),  has been an executive at Bell Laboratories and Exxon, a physics professor at Princeton and vice-provost at Columbia. He has a PhD. in physics from Harvard. [click to continue…]

Geoengineering: A congressman’s thumbs up

Before we get to today’s topic–engineering the climate– let me call your attention to a couple of news items that got my attention last week.

First, a Chinese company called the Shanghai Electric Group signed a $10-billion deal to sell 42 coal-fired thermal-generation units to an Indian conglomerate called the Reliance ADA Group, the Wall Street Journal reported. Forty-two! I hate to say it, but all the efforts by enviromentalists to stop new coal plants in the U.S. won’t do much to curb global warming if India and China expand their coal-powered generation.

Second, The Nature Conservancy released a video and poster about the upcoming UN climate negotiations in Cancun saying “This is not a vacation!” and inviting people to submit videos calling for action on climate. Yes, it has come to this: So futile are the UN’s efforts to bring about a global climate treaty that environmentalists have to reassure people that there’s more to COP16  than sand and surf.

No wonder a thoughtful Tennessee congressman named Bart Gordon said this in a report published last week:

It is the opinion of the Chair that broad consideration of comprehensive and multi-disciplinary climate engineering research at the federal level begin as soon as possible in order to ensure scientific preparedness for future climate events.

Gordon, a Democrat, and his staff on the House Committee on Science and Technology, have been studying geoengineering. They held three public hearings, pored over research and worked with legislators in the UK to better understand climate engineering—which they define as

the deliberate large-scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purpose of counteracting and mitigating anthropogenic climate change.

Gordon’s 56-page report about climate engineering comes in the wake of a similar study from the General Accounting Office. Both favor a coordinated government research program, albeit with plenty of cautions.

In his report, Gordon notes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions must remain the top priority of dealing with global warming. This is smart because climate engineering won’t resolve the global warming threat; it will only buy more time to deal with it. Gordon goes on to say:

However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.

Translation: Environmentalists and forward-thinking politicians have been trying for years to come up with a way to curb GHG emissions. They have little to show for it. So it’s time to consider alternatives.

I’ve written about climate engineering more than most environment reporters  — see this, this and this – not only because it fascinates me, but also because I’m convinced we need to learn more about it. Plus, the debate is heating up. Last week, as the GAO and Congressman Gordon spoke out, ministers at a UN meeting on biological diversity in Japan called for a moratorium on geoengineering. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering ready for prime time?

2010 has been a bad year for climate, and an even worse year for climate policy. But for that very reason, it’s been a good year for geoengineering—the notion that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate and cool the earth.

Official Washington is starting to take geoengineering seriously: The Government Accountability Office and a bipartisan task force of experts convened by the New America Foundation will soon report on geoengineering. Bill Gates has invested in geoengineering research. Environmental groups–notably Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund–have engaged in the conversation. On a parochial note, at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference last spring, Stewart Brand talked about why geoengineering is important, to a rapt audience that included Bill Ford and Lee Scott.

David Keith

David Keith, a leading scholar of geoengineering who administers Gates’ $4.6 million grant with  with Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, also spoke at Brainstorm Green. So I was pleased to have a chance to reconnect with him at the excellent annual conference run by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the University of Montana in Missoula.  I expected him to be pleased by the momentum gathering behind  geoengineering lately, but I was wrong.

“I think things are moving too fast,” David told me. “Research programs can be killed by spending too much money too fast.” Besides, he said, people need time to wrap their head around geoenginnering. (Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post recently described it as playing God with the weather. ) “This is a topic—the first time people hear about it, they have wild ideas,” he said.

As I’ve written before – see this, this and this – geoengineering raises a host of thorny ethical, political and governance issues. Who gets to control the earth’s thermostat? Who decides if and when to deploy geoengineering techniques? Which should be used?

At SEJ, David was on a panel with Dane Scott, director of the center for ethics at the University of Montana, and journalist Eli Kintisch, author of a recent book about geoengineering called Hack the Planet. They all seemed to agree that the technology to cool the earth now exists—either by reflecting sunlight back into the sky, an approach known as solar radiation management, or by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. (Keith has a for-profit startup called Carbon Engineering designed to do just that.) They also agreed that the moral ethical issues surrounding geoengineering are daunting. [click to continue…]