We’re losing the climate battle. So we may need to harvest CO2 from the sky.


Carbon Engineering’s new plant in Squamish, BC

The Guardian this week published my latest story about direct air capture of CO2, a topic that has fascinated me since the late 2000s. My 2012 Amazon Kindle Single, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, chronicled the very beginnings of the air capture story;  since then, startups working on harvesting CO2 from the sky have made tangible progress, as this story indicates. Here’s how it begins:

In Squamish, British Columbia, a Canadian town halfway between Vancouver and Whistler where the ocean meets the mountains, a startup led by Harvard physicist David Keith – and funded in part by Bill Gates – is building an industrial plant to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

Carbon Engineering aims to eventually build enough plants to suck many millions of tons of CO2 out of the air to reduce climate change. Its technology could help capture dispersed emissions – that is, emissions from cars, trucks, ships, planes or farm equipment – or even to roll back atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

The Calgary-based company is one of a crop of startups placing bold bets on technology designed to directly capture CO2 from the air. Lately, at least three have shown signs of progress. New York City-based Global Thermostat, which is led by CEO Graciela Chichilnisky and Peter Eisenberger, a Columbia University professor and former researcher for Exxon and Bell Labs, tells me it has recently received an infusion of capital from an as-yet-unnamed US energy company. As part of a demonstration project financed by Audi, Swiss-based Climeworks in April captured CO2 from the air and supplied it to a German firm called Sunfire, which then recycled it into a zero-carbon diesel fuel.

These companies are a long, long way from success, it must be said. Deploying direct air capture at a scale sufficient to make a difference to the climate would be a vast and costly undertaking. But their work matters because of the increasing likelihood that we will need to deploy “negative emissions” technologies like direct-air capture to avoid pushing through the 2 degrees of global warming that governments have agreed is a safe upper limit. This isn’t as well understood as it should be, in my view.

Climate science is ridiculously complicated and, as a non-scientist, I’ve struggled to make sense of the conflicting claims about how dire our situation is likely to become. Some people tell me that environmentalists and climate scientists are alarmists, exaggerating the dangers we face and squelching dissent. Matt Ridley, a writer whose work I admire, makes that argument in this excellent, in-depth podcast. Others say just the opposite, that scientists and economists feel pressure to underplay the seriousness of the problem, for fear of leading people to despair and inaction. Oliver Geden, head of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, made this argument recently in the journal Nature, writing: “The climate policy mantra – that time is running out for 2C but we can still make it if we act now – is scientific nonsense.” Esquire magazine, of all places, published a long and powerful story last week under this headline:

When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job

Among many climate scientists, gloom has set in. Things are worse than we think, but they can’t really talk about it.

It’s an unsettling read.

Here, meantime, is how David Roberts put it in an excellent analysis at Vox:

The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit.

The fundamental problem is that the world’s biggest GHG emitters — China, the US,  Germany, the UK and India — are unlikely to stop burning fossil fuels anytime soon for a whole bunch of reasons, including, in the case of India, the fact that hundreds of millions of its poor people don’t have access to electricity. As Roberts puts it:

Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.

No matter what happens this winter in Paris.

Last year, in a report that deserved more attention than it got, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that avoiding the goal of 2 °C of global warming will likely require the global deployment of technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the air.(For more about the need for carbon removal, here’s a good story from Brad Plumer at Vox.) Such technologies don’t exist today, at meaningful scale.

This is why direct air capture matters.

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…]

Suck it up: an unorthodox climate solution

A machine to capture CO2 from the air

Nothing anyone is doing has accomplished anything meaningful to prevent climate change.

Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s true. Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, hitting record levels despite the CFL bulb, the Prius, EcoMagination, solar and wind power,  the EU’s carbon-trading scheme, etc.  Nice tries don’t matter to the atmosphere.

The only thing that’s curbed carbon dioxide pollution on a scale that’s meaningful is the global recession.

This is why—unless and until scientists discover a breakthrough in clean energy or political leaders impose a global fossil-fuel tax or carbon emissions cap—we need to thing seriously about geoengineering.

A good place to start is with a recent report from the GAO, Congress’s research arm, called Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directors and Potential Responses. It offers solid information and glimmers of optimism for those of us looking for a way out of the climate crisis. [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…]

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…]