Over the past few weeks, I have written two articles (The Future is Now, License to Print Money) highlighting the new industry of Carbon Sequestration-as-a-Service. CSaaS is helping forward-leaning firms like Shopify achieve carbon neutrality and is made possible by the intellectual property “software” of Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture (DAC) technology and the project development “hardware” of companies like 1PointFive, Pale Blue Dot, and Occidental PetroleumOXY.
Since publishing these articles, I’ve gotten a flood of emails from readers on both sides of the political spectrum.
To the Greenies, I’m a shill for Big Oil who is rewarding carbon miners for their historical destruction of our biome with unwarranted good press. To the Head-in-the-Sand Crowd, I’m banging on about something that “may never happen” (despite the fact that it is happening right in front of our eyes) and is “technologically unproven” (despite the fact that DAC is already a commercial reality).
Amusing to me is that both the unwashed Greenies and the manicured Head-in-the-Sand Crowd have the same solution to reduce concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide: Tree planting.
“All we need to do is plant some trees…”
“…and Mother Earth will heal herself,” say the Greenies.
“…It’s a low-cost solution and doesn’t require heavy-handed government involvement,” say the Head-in-the-Sand Crowd.
Trees are wonderful, natural carbon sequestering devices about which I have written extensively (The Premier Technology for Sequestering Carbon, Applying AI to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change), but as researchers at Stanford and elsewhere have found, One Trillion Trees is Not Enough to stop climate change.
One obvious shortcoming of trees as a large-scale carbon sequestration mechanism has been very evident to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia residents over the past few fire seasons: forests combust.
According to Emily McGlynn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Davis, more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were released from the 4 million acres burned during this year’s California fire season alone.
Clearly, it’s dangerous to make humanity’s survival contingent on the outcome of gender reveal parties.
I asked Dr. Rajat Panwar of Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, about his take on “Nature-Based Solutions” (i.e., tree-planting). Panwar holds not one but two doctoral degrees, one in Forestry from Oregon State University and the other in Business Sustainability from Grenoble École de Management, France.
With his background in forestry and sustainability, Panwar has the knowledge and perspective to assess NBS as a solution to climate change. Like me, Panwar is suspicious of overly-simplistic “just plant a tree” arguments and thinks that, despite some of its drawbacks, DAC is really our best option to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations on timescales that will make a difference to civilization.
From Panwar’s perspective, simple-minded NBS programs are riddled with structural limitations:
- A lack of available arable land suitable for afforestation projects, given the competing claims on land use with a world population of over 7 billion souls. It’s worth pointing out that a single Carbon Engineering DAC plant sequesters about 100 times more atmospheric carbon dioxide than a forest occupying the same land area, and that the land under a DAC plant does not need to be arable. In other words, 100 acres of a DAC facility in a barren corner of Death Valley sequesters 100 times the atmospheric CO2 as 100 acres of old-growth sequoia or Amazonian rainforest.
- Woodland degradation due to wildfires, infestations, and the like. Again, look to wildfires on the West Coast or in the Amazon basin, where wetlands and forests alike have been set ablaze and fires are more severe due to climate change effects. Tree planting programs tend to create unnatural monoculture forests that Panwar says are much less resistant to infestation and disease than natural, old growth forests. Unhealthy forests burn very well, especially when soil moisture is low and ambient temperature high.
- Timing issues – a forest planted today will not hit its carbon sequestration potential for another 15 years. This timing difference is a dirty little open secret about European governments’ CO2 reduction pledges as part of the Paris Agreement. A government that has otherwise done very little to reduce CO2 emissions, can rush through a tree planting project at the last minute and count the future emission reductions toward meeting their present-day commitments. See the Economist’s excellent 10-minute YouTube documentary on the topic:
- Accountability and oversight issues – these were mentioned in my One Trillion Trees are Not Enough article. Researchers at Stanford found that evidence from a large-scale afforestation project in Chile led to reduced carbon sequestration capacity due to lax oversight, poor policy structuring, plantation-style monoculture planting, and lack of sufficient funding over different political administrations.
While suspicious of the feasibility of NBS to effect change to atmospheric CO2 levels in a time frame that any of us should care about, Panwar is also circumspect about some aspects of DAC.
“DAC is not a panacea. We cannot simply assume that DAC will solve all our environmental problems without having to make changes to the way we produce, consume, travel, and live.”
I agree with Panwar’s take. DAC is, as I have written before, the bucket we can use to bail some of the water out of our leaky dinghy, but until we can structurally fix the hole in our boat, we are in danger of sinking into the abyss.
One notable shortcoming with DAC is that the process Carbon Engineering uses to chemically isolate CO2 is phenomenally energy intensive, requiring industrial heating capacity that is today supplied by burning natural gas. In order to scale CSaaS the way we need it to scale, we will have to build out enormous capacity increases in green energy generation or we will have to shift our paradigm for producing industrial heat, a-la what Bill Gross is attempting to do at Heliogen.
Climate change is a tremendously complex threat to our civilization’s ability to thrive and survive into the next century. Beware of politicians touting simple solutions. Intelligent investors take note.