Carbon Mining - A Better Way to Fix the Climate
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions, far from being the only solution to climate change, actually harms efforts to stabilise the global climate. That may seem an astounding and counter-intuitive assertion, but it is supported by evidence, suggesting a need for a radical rethink of the strategic framework around efforts to address climate change. Such a rethink will show that governments need to reassess its view that climate intervention cannot substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
If the world economy reduces its CO2 emissions, the result will be a slowing of the growth rate of atmospheric CO2. Reducing emissions does not reduce the total amount of CO2 in the air. This difference between growth rate and total amount is crucial to understanding response to climate change. Emission reduction by itself cannot reduce the amount of carbon in the air and sea, but is like turning a flowing tap in a plugged bath down to just a drip, to delay but not prevent overflow. Climate stability needs to reduce the amount of carbon in the air, which means we need methods that are like pulling the plug in a bath. We can pull the plug on global warming by mining carbon from the air and sea using algae, with potential to operate on a scale bigger than total world emissions. Just as Tesla’s alternating current enabled scaling up of electricity to power modern industry over a century ago, so too today we need innovative simple technology that can build on current methods to remove carbon at scale.
We should aim to reduce CO2 from the current level of over 400 parts per million towards the 280 ppm level of CO2 that supported the stable sea levels of the last ten thousand years of history. The unfortunate fact is that emission reduction does not help that goal. Consider Australia’s climate change commitments. Australia has pledged to reduce its national CO2 emissions by about 28% by 2030, avoiding the addition of about 45 megatons of carbon to the air. That target is only 0.2% of the carbon removal needed for world climate stability, and only one tenth of Australia’s ongoing contribution to the world CO2 problem. And even this ineffectual target looks politically and economically impossible with current methods. We need a new global paradigm, shifting carbon dioxide from its current status of useless and harmful waste to make it a major mining resource.
Reducing the speed at which we make things worse may seem constructive, but the problem is that a focus on emission reduction hinders the development of the technologies that are needed to reduce CO2 levels. Emission reduction diverts attention from development of profitable carbon mining methods, crowding out the investment in activities that are needed to prevent climate change. A shift to a new economic paradigm involving negative emission technology, or more simply, carbon mining, requires a concerted focus on large scale innovation and investment, involving cooperation between governments and the energy industry.
These realities of climate politics and economics are very different from the assumptions behind the Paris Climate Agreement. While the Paris Agreement has worthy goals, it has no method to achieve them. It is almost like Paris is lost in a masquerade. It will take a big disruption to cut through the dither that UN processes have created. My view is that the big surprise will be a positive central role for US President Donald Trump, who despite his apparent denial of climate change is well placed to shift climate discussion towards a real assessment of practical risks and opportunities, in cooperation with his incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The unfortunate political deadlock preventing climate action was well illustrated by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s description of climate lobbyists as socialists masquerading as environmentalists. This comment reflects the intense antipathy towards socialist politics on the part of conservatives, and the strong distrust of taxes on carbon, which are perceived on the political right as a form of socialism by stealth. Regardless of its merits, taxing carbon to reduce emissions is seen as inherently a big government socialist program that reduces economic growth. Doubts about whether emission reduction, carbon tax and renewable energy targets can fix the climate, together with the lack of broad political support in view of economic risks, illustrate that new innovative thinking is needed about how we can stabilise the climate.
Climate debate is split between advocates of emission reduction and the growing voices who do not trust the science of how emissions cause climate impact. Both sides tend to see the science through the prism of politics, with a toxic lack of trust. Conservative doubts about emission reduction are linked to the perceived failure of state-centric solutions associated with the UN, and illustrate that the prospect of success of UN-based approaches is reduced by political deadlock.
The challenge is to find a balance, to temper the conflict by recognising the good will and interests of all sides. If more trustworthy solutions were on offer, aligned to the capitalist incentives that conservatives support, President Trump could make a deal about carbon mining as a third way. A middle path could accept science while focusing on how business can profitably deliver the real main task required for climate stability, to reduce the amount of carbon already in the air. There is clear potential to remove more carbon than we add in order to step back from the high risks of global warming. Carbon mining can emerge as a new model that recognises we can only protect the climate if in doing so we also protect and expand the economy through investment in innovative commercial technology.
The science shows the risks of doing nothing are high. Whatever sceptics may think, carbon emissions from human activity are the cause of global warming, which is happening extremely fast on planetary time scale. If current trends are allowed to continue, climate change could cook the planet and cause the collapse of human civilisation. Such alarmist projections seem far-fetched, but the good news is they can easily be prevented if we use technology to solve the problems.
However, the science about the cause of warming is not matched by any clarity on how to manage carbon waste. How to remove the excess carbon from the global atmosphere is an unsettled question involving technology, politics and economics as well as science. We should see climate technology today as akin to the situation at the dawn of aviation at Kitty Hawk with the Wright Bros. We should expect that over this century we will rapidly move to build a leading world industry in carbon mining with the same prominence as aviation today.
Real practical solutions are only possible if we confront how the settled science of climate change has been misused politically through the false claim that emission reduction is the only solution. Climate science and what to do about global warming are separate topics. We should accept climate science while rejecting the assumption that reducing emissions is the only way to fix the problems of global warming. Emission reduction, although superficially plausible, is actually a very bad idea, as it worsens conflict and poverty, polarises politics, crowds out useful activity and has no prospect of achieving anything positive for the climate.
Carbon mining is a more effective path to climate stability than emission reduction because carbon mining can remove the carbon from the air faster than we add it, providing a rapid path to prevent sea level rise, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity. Importantly, carbon mining at large scale can also remove the political division caused by demands to shift away from fossil fuels, by enabling fossil fuel energy production to remain compatible with climate stability.
If we mine twice as much carbon from the air as we add, we can keep burning coal and oil and gas. Shifting all that carbon from out of the crust for practical use as energy does not have to cause global warming. A new carbon economy can become the key to achieving enduring global abundance. Viewing climate stability as a global carbon mining project collaborates with the capitalist system instead of opposing it. Carbon mining presents unrivalled potential for rapid scaling up of new innovative industries by treating carbon as a profitable resource that can enhance shareholder value for current and new multinational corporations.
Emission reduction aims to shift energy use from coal to solar and wind. Unfortunately, the arguments for solar and wind as related to climate change have serious flaws, which are not much discussed, except by controversial writers such as Björn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist who has provided sound explanation of the failings of emission reduction and renewable energy targets as an economic priority. Lomborg observes that solar and wind power provide no climate benefit other than trivial delay of projected warming, but these ineffectual technologies have massive costs. UN data shows that a world investment in solar and wind this century of a trillion dollars would only slow world temperature increase by 0.1°C. If Lomborg’s figures are correct they should cause a shift of investment priorities. The funds now planned for renewable energy should instead be invested in profitable carbon mining methods that will reverse temperature rise and protect the environment.
Reducing emissions causes significant economic harm by making energy more expensive. To argue that we have to slow economic growth to save the planet, whether by taxing carbon or setting renewable targets, is a policy that will not achieve popular democratic support. Taxing carbon is like putting sand in the gears of the world economy. It provides no matching climate benefit other than a vague promise of incentives for research, about as useful as pushing on a string.
Carbon mining, by contrast, treats CO2 as a valuable resource, a low-grade ore body. Such an ore body, assuming carbon market price equal to coal at five cents per kilogram, requires extremely efficient and large scale methods to mine it profitably. The only way that is possible is by using large unused areas of the world where carbon farms could be deployed at low cost and high benefit. The only way to do that is to use the ocean, which covers 71% of the planet surface, more than double the size of all the continents combined. The world ocean has abundant untapped energy from tide, wave, current, wind, thermal and sun. Algae farms can use this energy to optimise productivity, minimise cost for production and transport, and deliver environmental benefits. The energy industry should research and develop technologies that mine carbon using large scale ocean based algae farming. This will pay for itself by turning CO2 from a harmful waste into a valuable resource. The efficiencies from use of renewable ocean energy to grow algae mean we should see the world ocean as the pioneer frontier which humanity now has to cross. Profitable carbon mining methods hold the prospect of a rapid solution to global warming, while also strengthening existing economic systems.
The carbon locked up in CO2 is causing harmful climate change. Industrial algae farms can convert CO2 into useful carbon-based products, such as fuel, food, feed, fertilizer and fabric, providing the infrastructure for a new high carbon economy. A new carbon economy can be built at the scale and speed needed to prevent climate change by relying on the profit motive. Commercial methods to use the carbon in CO2 will make the climate logic of so-called “decarbonisation” and a “carbon budget” obsolete. Where the Manhattan Project successfully split the atom to end World War Two, the need now is to split the CO2 molecule at scale to remove the risk of dangerous climate change.
CO2 is 27% carbon and 73% oxygen. The world economy adds about ten gigatons of carbon to the air every year, in the form of forty gigatons of CO2 and other gasses such as methane (CH4). Carbon mining should aim to safely extract twenty gigatons of carbon from CO2 each year for use in commercial commodities. That target amount is double the ten gigatons of carbon in annual emissions. Achieving this goal would mean the continued annual emission of ten gigatons of carbon from fossil fuels would be no problem. The equation would be a net reduction of the carbon load by ten gigatons each year. In that scenario, it would be sensible and sustainable to keep mining fossil fuels, retaining our valuable existing infrastructure and technology for power and transport, providing incentive and security for energy investment, and using carbon for a range of valuable new products.
Carbon mining on a twenty gigaton annual scale could potentially be delivered by industrial algae farms on just one percent of the world ocean. Each square metre of algae in tropical seas can potentially mine twenty grams of carbon per day using intensive agronomy methods, using algae that contains 80% carbon dry mass. That unit yield is a theoretical potential, not a proven field result, but it is a reasonable goal to aim for, expecting exponential increased efficiency as operations scale up. An optimised one square metre algae photobioreactor can already mine 20 grams of carbon per day, in the form of 25 grams dry mass of algae, given the rapid doubling of algae biomass under ideal growing conditions. We should consider the bench top results as the “Kitty Hawk” proof of concept which can be scaled up to oceanic implementation. Agronomy can develop strains of algae that can prosper in a high CO2 environment at sea, for example in fabric bags, leaving aside any possible genetic engineering. The benchtop results can be replicated at scale by pumping nutrients up from the deep ocean as fertilizer, and using free renewable ocean energy in floating algae photobioreactor fabric ponds.
At 20 grams per square meter, each hectare of algae factory will mine 200 kilograms of carbon per day, over 70 tonnes per year, a yield already envisaged by photobioreactor manufacturers. Operating at this intensity on 1% of the world ocean, three hundred million hectares, would mine over 20 billion tonnes of carbon per year, double total world carbon emissions. It is even possible that CO2 from polluted cities could be profitably exported to vast carbon farms at sea, cleaning urban air and linking to high efficiency low emission coal fired power stations. Algae farms can be positioned to protect the biodiversity of fragile environments such as coral reefs by cooling the water and reducing the acidity and nutrient load, targeting locations of highest climate risk such as the Great Barrier Reef.
Carbon is a waste management problem. We do not promote sanitation by reducing defecation, and we do not prevent cholera by enforcing constipation. But reducing CO2 emissions to stop global warming can be compared to those absurdities.
Closing the carbon loop by treating carbon as a mining commodity would use the sun to transform CO2 into hydrocarbons through large scale photosynthesis of algae, opening the path for large scale plastic infrastructure construction as a primary sequestration method. Storing carbon from algae in useful products is like wood stored in furniture and houses. Carbon storage could expand in products such as bitumen for roads and a range of building materials at a scale and speed that would mean fossil energy use could also expand in ways that are ecologically sustainable. Adding algae based carbon to roads at a rate of ten tonnes per linear metre would store ten gigatons of carbon in every million kilometres of road, covering about 3% of the world road network each year, improving infrastructure connectivity. Storing carbon equal in volume to two years of emissions each year in a range of uses will reverse the warming trajectory.
Climate alarmists have calculated that mining all the world’s coal reserves would boil the sea due to the greenhouse effect. That analysis ignores the potential to remove that carbon from the air after it is emitted. Technological ingenuity can convert the burnt hydrocarbon back into useful products. Climate alarm can be answered by working out how to close the carbon loop, transforming the excess carbon that industrial civilisation has added to the environment into profitable commodities. We can create a new expanded carbon based economy, fuelling ongoing growth and prosperity in a high energy world.
The truly alarming problem is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has no strategy to achieve its goals. Carbon mining could achieve the Paris goal of holding temperature rise to 1.5°. This transformative result can only be delivered by working in cooperation with the traditional energy industry, who have the expertise, the business need, the connections and the funds to make it happen.
The main problem standing in the way of such investment is the false theory that reducing carbon emissions is the only way to stop climate change. Reducing emissions is a distraction for efforts to stabilise the global climate. And yet that false argument is the entire basis of the UN climate agreements.
US President Donald Trump is entirely correct to oppose the Paris Climate Agreement with its harmful emission reduction agenda. His incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the ideal person to broker practical carbon mining action plans. The climate lobby has many hidden political agendas. In this masquerade, to understand the reasons they carry on this way, it appears some climate lobbyists see humanity as a plague upon our planet and would almost rather see the climate wrecked than cooperate with multinational capitalist enterprises to open the new era of large scale sustained universal abundance that carbon mining could create.
A public private partnership between leading firms such as ExxonMobil and the United States Government on large scale ocean based algae production would save the business model for the fossil fuel industry. Carbon mining would deliver enduring value for shareholders, and would safeguard public goods such as biodiversity and climate stability, achieving the main climate objectives of scientists, governments and communities.
Robert Tulip worked for the Australian government from 1987 to 2017. He is now an independent researcher.