Adapted from Reversing Climate Change By Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky and Peter Bal
Fossil fuels create a Gordian knot tying up three key global issues: energy security, economic development and climate change. The fossil fuel age faces a cruel choice: economic development and energy independence clash against a stable climate. Today, we cannot have them all. The attendant geo-political conflicts take several forms. Fossil fuels are the primary energy source in the world today. Because they are unevenly distributed on the earth’s crust they have led to wars and conflicts, prompting understandable calls for energy security and independence. At the same time eco- nomic development still depends crucially on the use of energy, and in today’s economy, this means fossil fuels.
In the longer term, the only way out is to disentangle the use of energy from carbon emissions, namely to make available clean and abundant renewable energy sources. But this is not feasible in the short term because of the sheer scale of the fossil fuel infrastructure: about $40 trillion today, and with current trends about $400 trillion by the end of the century.1 The short term and the long term present different problems, however, and therefore require different solutions.
Time is not on our side. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists posit that atmospheric carbon concentration stabilization is needed, and that it will require a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.2 Avoiding further carbon emissions in no way solves the short-term problem. Even if we stabilize at the current level of emissions, we still globally release carbon dioxide at a rate slightly above 32 billion metric tons per year and therefore will increase carbon concentration.3
The solution for much of this problem is negative carbon — a type of technology that is able to actually reduce carbon from the atmosphere in net terms. This is in contrast to technologies that simply reduce emissions, which at best leave the amount of carbon in the atmosphere unchanged. For instance, “clean coal,” which is achieving a great deal of attention in the U.S. Congress and Senate, means coal that produces fewer or no emissions. The process of extracting that coal, however, is anything but clean. Clean coal has at best a neutral “footprint” in terms of emissions that can leave atmospheric carbon unchanged.
This may help as a stop-gap measure, if one forgets the other forms of environmental destruction that coal mining leaves in its wake. But even assuming this problem away for the moment, clean coal alone is not sufficient. Even if it was possible, it would not suffice to arrest catastrophic climate change. New coal plants that clean the carbon they emit are a step forward but they create burdensome economic costs and, in any case, they merely stabilize the implacable growth of carbon concentration at current rates. More to the point, such coal plants defeat the long-term objective of making an orderly transition to non-fossil resources. It is critical that short-term goals be compatible with long-term objectives. We must avoid the trap of defeating long-term aims by focusing solely on short-term targets. Capturing carbon dioxide directly from fossil fuel power plants may delay the time of reckoning but it adversely impacts the long-term objective of replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources and carbon removal.
The long-term solution we seek is to disassociate energy use from fossil fuels. This cuts the Gordian knot referred to earlier, which ties energy use, economic development and climate change together. A long-term transition away from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy4 that are more broadly distributed can provide economic development and security without inducing global warming. A transition away from fossil fuel energy sources seems inevitable in the long term, because fossils are limited in supply. Alternative sources of energy are a necessary condition for sustainable development in the future and the rapidly growing world demand for energy will require a variety of alternative sources.5 Supplies are not the problem. Through solar alone, the United States has the potential to supply more than 100 times the electricity it uses annually. Moreover, solar is a more democratically distributed input than other natural resources such as oil and coal.6
However optimistic one may be for the long term, it is important to recognize that this long-term solution is not appropriate for the short term. A transition to alternative energy sources is expected to take a long time since most of the energy used in the planet today is obtained from fossil fuels such as oil and coal.7 As already pointed out, the change could take time and require a massive new infrastructure.8 Yet as long as we continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon we increase the concentration of greenhouse gases, and the risk of catastrophic climate change.9
We cannot eliminate fossil fuels from our economy overnight. A quick and drastic reduction in emissions is not feasible due to the sheer size of the fossil infrastructure that needs to be replaced.10 Indeed, rich and poor nations could be seriously affected by economic disruptions caused by a drastic decrease in the use of fossil fuels. Rapidly growing nations such as China and India are heavily dependent on coal; so are the U.S. and Russia. Hydroelectric power covers only 6% of world energy use, about the same as nuclear power, and renewable sources account for only 1% of the world’s energy production today. It does not seem realistic to drastically decrease the use of fossil fuels in the short term, which is why there is an increasing call to capture the carbon emitted by fossil fuel plants and store it safely in the form of commercial products that create profits and employment.
In the long term, we must take into consideration that an alternative source should be able to provide five to 10 times the energy used in the world today. This is a standard projection of energy demand by the end of this century.11 None of the five main types of renewable energy — hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind and biomass resources — nor nuclear energy can offer this possibility, either because they lack the capacity or because to do so would create additional problems. For example, biomass for energy competes with food production and is much less efficient per square meter than solar (about 3% of the energy potential provided by solar for the same surface area), and hydroelectric lacks the capacity and has environmental consequences. But solar energy — in particular Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) — could easily meet the demand with limited environmental impact. A combination of all of these energy sources that includes solar could therefore offer a reasonable long-term solution.
In the short run, according to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report of 2014 and the 2015 Paris Agreement, we need negative carbon. This implies a way of reducing the atmospheric concentration of carbon altogether.
The technology strategy we need should accommodate both the short- and long-term goals, and the transition from the short into the long term. This is a tall order because such a technology must simultaneously facilitate the transition to alternative sources, providing for massive increases in supplies for the long term, while in the short term allowing the continued use of fossil fuels and simultaneously decreasing the carbon content in the planet’s atmosphere.
Among several available technologies, one called the Global Thermostat — created by myself (Chichilnisky) and Peter Eisenberger — has the capability to produce electricity while simultaneously decreasing carbon in the atmosphere by low cost air-extraction and storage (cogeneration of electricity and carbon capture).12 In this process, the carbon concentration in the atmosphere decreases while producing electrical power. This patented (32 patents) process uses the residual process heat that remains after the production of electricity to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Electricity is produced usually by turbines driven with high heat (about 300°C (570°F)) and after the high heat is used, the residual low temperature (80°C) heat can be used to capture carbon from air. This process uses any source of process heat to cogenerate electricity and carbon capture (fossil fuels, nuclear or concentrated solar power plants, aluminum smelters, refineries, and others) and can make a fossil fuel power plant a “net carbon sink,” namely a site that actually reduces atmospheric carbon.13 Such a combination is unusual and contrasts with the physical realities of the fossil fuel economy today, where the more energy that is produced the more carbon dioxide is emitted. In contrast, the proposed technology reduces more carbon from the atmosphere the more electricity power it produces. This provides real protection against human-induced climate change since it allows us to become carbon neutral in the short term and enables an orderly transition from the short term to a renewable energy future, enhancing energy security and economic development.
The Kyoto Protocol created in 1997 ensures that developing countries are compensated for emissions reductions that take place within their borders. Rich countries can purchase certified carbon off-takes from developing countries through Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and apply them towards their own emission targets. Negative carbon technologies could provide more financial compensation for developing nations through the CDM than simply stabilizing emissions. Global Thermostat plants would get credit both for the avoided carbon, from using a carbon neutral source of energy to produce electricity, and for the reduction in carbon dioxide that they provide through air capture and storage. Thus, the CDM can be a powerful tool in the financing of Global Thermostat Plants for developing nations. This in turn can provide developing nations in the long term with clean energy infrastructure, and in the short term it can provide a transfer of technology and a source of clean and abundant energy to grow their economies.14
Equally important, however, is that this type of technology can help level the playing field between poor and rich nations, while reducing the risks to all countries from climate change. The recent investment boom in poor countries resulting from the Kyoto Protocol’s CDM has benefited some poor countries much more than others. Investments are now flowing into China to build hydroelectric, wind and, most recently, natural gas-fired power plants. Why China? Simple. This is where most of the developing world’s emissions come from. Indeed, over 18% of world emissions come from China, while only 3% come from the entire African continent. This is natural in a nation that by itself represents 20% of the world population. But the CDM program was designed to fund changes to reduce emissions, and so 60% of all CDMs went to fund changes in China’s energy structure, which produces large emissions, while leaving out the poorest nations in the world because they happen to emit so little. A similar situation emerged in India. This problem can and should be corrected by the use of carbon negative technologies, because even though a poor nation emits very little, with carbon negative technologies it can reduce CO2 in the atmosphere more than what it emits, indeed much more than what it emits.15
Africa plays a lesser role in Kyoto’s current CDM. It receives little today in the way of technology and wealth transfers under Kyoto because it consumes so little energy and generates too few emissions. Today, the Kyoto Protocol and the CDM are just about reducing emissions. And since so little reduction can be achieved in Latin America or in Africa there is little role for them to play.
But all this changes with negative carbon technologies. These could be located in Africa or in Latin America and could allow those regions to play a significant role in global climate change prevention efforts. With negative carbon, Africa could significantly reduce carbon in the atmosphere, becoming an excellent candidate for CDM projects (perhaps even better than China). Will this happen? Will Africa be able to capture 30% of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide even though it emits only 3%? Can Africa save the world? To answer this, we must first explore the Kyoto Protocol, its carbon market and its CDM. If developing nations are offered funding from the CDM to clean the atmosphere — to remove more carbon than they emit — they are likely to promise to limit their emissions to what they can achieve with the funding and the technology available to them. A willingness by developing nations to agree to this new form of mandatory emissions limits would in turn help overcome the main hurdle created by the U.S. Congress in the unanimously passed Byrd–Hagel Resolution. The U.S. could now accept mandatory emissions limits in a way that is consistent with the limitations established by the Byrd–Hagel Resolution, which requires that the U.S. accept no mandatory limits unless the developing nations do. The new carbon negative technology can overcome this obstacle.
About the Authors
Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky is a Professor of Economics and Mathematical Statistics at Columbia University, and Director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management. She is also co-founder and CEO of Global Thermostat, and co-creator of a carbon removal technology that the National Academy of Sciences has said is the only one that can reverse climate change. The technology was chosen by MIT Technology Review as one of the Ten Breakthrough Technologies of 2019, curated by Bill Gates. In addition, Global Thermostat was named one of the top ten most innovative companies in energy by Fast Company and Dr. Chichilnisky was selected by International Alternative Investment Review as the 2015 CEO of the Year in Sustainability. In 2019, Global Thermostat and ExxonMobil signed a joint development agreement to advance breakthrough technology to scale up to the removal of 1 gigaton of CO2.
Peter Bal is a businessman and ecological restoration practitioner. He sees carbon dioxide as an asset to be mined, focusing on natural plant absorption as well as industrial solutions to retrieve carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He is currently working on a containerized carbon dioxide absorbing unit with Global Thermostat and involved in setting up ecological research and training centers.
- Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, 2009; Eisenberger and Chichilnisky, 2007.
- Hassol, 2011.
- EIA, 2014.
- Wind, biomass, hydroelectric, solar, geothermal, nuclear, and possibly fusion.
- By the end of this century, it is expected to be 5 to 10 times today’s energy use. US DOE.
- Environment America Research and Policy Center, 2014.
- 89% of the energy used today comes from fossil fuels; less than 1% from renewable sources; 0.01% is solar energy.
- Cohen et al., 2009 and Eisenberger and Chichilnisky, 2007; Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, 2009.
- Scientists consider the possibility of a “tipping point,” a level of heating that triggers catastrophic climate change, which is typical of physical systems with complex feedback effects. The earth’s climate is generally believed to be one of them. In general, one views the risks as having “heavy tails” so rare events turn out to be more frequent than usually expected.
- Transitioning away from fossil fuels in a short period of time could lead to social disruption, since most human life is dependent on energy.
- Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, 2007 and 2009, US DOE.
- Jones, 2008, 2009; Eisenberger and Chichilnisky, 2007; Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, 2009. Simultaneous production of electricity and air capture is called “cogeneration.”
- Cohen et al., 2009; Chichilnisky, 2008(a).
- Eisenberger and Chichilnisky, 2007; Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, 2009.
- Jiang, 2013.