Can We Fix The Air?

A slightly different version of this article I wrote first appeared in Nautilus on November 28, 2019.


Water rushes into Venice’s city council chamber just minutes after the local government rejects measures to combat climate change. Wildfires consume eastern Australia as fire danger soars past “severe” and “extreme” to “catastrophic” in parts of New South Wales. Ice levels in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska, hit record lows. England sees floods all across the country. And that’s just this week, as I write this.

Human-caused climate change, and the disasters it brings, are here. In fact, they’re just getting started. What will things be like in another decade, or century?

It depends on what we do. If our goal is to stop global warming, the best way is to cut carbon emissions now—to zero. The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Norway have passed laws requiring net zero emissions by 2050. Sweden is aiming at 2045. But the biggest emitters—China, the United States, and India—are dragging their heels. So to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll need negative carbon emissions:

That is, we’ll need to fix the air. We’ll need to suck more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than we put in.

This may seem like a laughably ambitious goal. Can we actually do it? Or is it just a fantasy? I want to give you a sense of what it would take. But first, here’s one reason this matters. Most people don’t realize that large negative carbon emissions are assumed in many of the more optimistic climate scenarios. Even some policymakers tasked with dealing with climate change don’t know this.

In 2016, climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters published a paper on this topic, called “The trouble with negative emissions.” The title is a bit misleading, since they are not against negative emissions. They are against lulling ourselves into complacency by making plans that rely on negative emissions—because we don’t really know how to achieve them at the necessary scale. We could be caught in a serious bind, with the poorest among us taking the biggest hit.

So, how much negative carbon emissions do we need to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and how people are hoping to achieve them? Let’s dive in!

In 2018, humans put about 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air. A “tonne” is a metric ton, a bit larger than a US ton. Since the oxygen is not the problem—carbon dioxide consisting of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen—it might make more sense to count tonnes of carbon. But it’s customary to keep track of carbon by its carbon dioxide equivalent, so I’ll do that here. The National Academy of Sciences says that to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the century’s end, we will probably need to be removing about 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year by 2050, and double that by 2100. How could we do this?

Whenever I talk about this, I get suggestions. Many ignore the sheer scale of the problem. For example, a company called Climeworks is building machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the air using a chemical process. They’re hoping to use these gadgets to make carbonated water for soft drinks—or create greenhouses that have lots of carbon dioxide in the air, for tastier vegetables. This sounds very exciting…until you learn that currently their method of getting carbon dioxide costs about $500 per ton. It’s much cheaper to make the stuff in other ways; beverage-grade carbon dioxide costs about a fifth as much. But even if they bring down the price and become competitive in their chosen markets, greenhouses and carbonation use only 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is puny compared to the amount we need to remove.

Thus, the right way to think of Climeworks is as a tentative first step toward a technology that might someday be useful for fighting global warming—but only if it can be dramatically scaled up and made much cheaper. The idea of finding commercial uses for carbon dioxide as a stepping-stone, a way to start developing technologies and bringing prices down, is attractive. But it’s different from finding commercial uses that could make a serious dent in our carbon emissions problem.

Here’s another example: using carbon dioxide from the air to make plastics. There’s a company called RenewCO2 that wants to do this. But even ignoring the cost, it’s clear that such a scheme could remove 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year only if we drastically ramped up our production of plastics. In 2018, we made about 360 million tonnes of plastic. So, we’d have to boost plastic production almost ten-fold. Furthermore, we’d have to make all this plastic without massively increasing our use of fossil fuels. And that’s a general issue with schemes to fix the air. If we could generate a huge abundance of power in a carbon-free way—say from nuclear, solar, or wind—we could use some of that power to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But for the short term, a better use of that power is to retire carbon-burning power plants. Thus, while we can dream about energy-intensive methods of fixing the air, they will only come into their own—if ever—later in the century.

If plastics aren’t big enough to eat up 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, what comes closer? Agriculture. I’m having trouble finding the latest data, but in 2004 the world created roughly 5 billion tonnes of “crop residue”: stems, leaves, and such left over from growing food. If we could dispose of most of this residue in a way that would sequester the carbon, that would count as serious progress. Indeed, environmental engineer Stuart Strand and physicist Gregory Benford—also a noted science fiction writer—have teamed up to study what would happen if we dumped bales of crop residue on the ocean floor. Even though this stuff would rot, it seems that the gases produced will take hundreds of years to resurface. And there’s plenty of room on the ocean floor.

Short of a massive operation to sink crop residues to the bottom of the sea, there are still many other ways to improve agriculture so that the soil accumulates more carbon. For example, tilling the land less reduces the rate at which organic matter decays and carbon goes back into the air. You can actually fertilize the land with half-burnt plant material full of carbon, called “biochar.” Planting crops with bigger roots, or switching from annual crops to perennials, also helps. These are just a few of the good ideas people have had. While agriculture and soil science are complex, and you probably don’t want to get into the weeds on this, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that we could draw down 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from improved agriculture. That’s huge.

Having mentioned agriculture, it’s time to talk about forests. Everyone loves trees. However, it’s worth noting that a mature forest doesn’t keep on pulling down carbon at a substantial rate forever. Yes, carbon from the air goes to form wood and organic material in the soil. But decaying wood and organic material releases carbon back into the air. A climax forest is close to a steady state: the rate at which it removes carbon from the air is roughly equal to the rate at which it releases this carbon. So, the time when a forest pulls down the most carbon is when it’s first growing.

In July 2019, a paper in Science argued that the Earth has room for almost 4 million square miles of new forests. The authors claimed that as these new trees grow, they could pull down about 730 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

At first this sounds great. But remember, we are putting out 37 billion tonnes a year. So, the claim is that if we plant new forests over an area somewhat larger than the US, they will absorb the equivalent of roughly 20 years of carbon emissions. In short, this heroic endeavor would buy us time, but it wouldn’t be a permanent solution. Worse, many other authors have argued that the Science paper was overly optimistic. One rebuttal points out that it mistakenly assumed treeless areas have no organic carbon in the soil already. It also counted on a large increase of forests in regions that are now grassland or savanna. With such corrections made, it’s possible that new forests could only pull down at most 150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

That’s still a lot. But getting people to plant vast new forests will be hard. Working with more realistic assumptions, the National Academy of Sciences says that in the short term we could draw down 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by planting new forests and better managing existing ones. In short: If we push really hard, better agriculture and forestry could pull 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air each year. One great advantage of both these methods is that they harness the marvelous ability of plants to turn carbon dioxide into complex organic compounds in a solar-powered way—much better than any technology humans have devised so far. If we ever invent new technologies that do better, it’ll probably be because we’ve learned some tricks from our green friends.

And here’s another way plants can help: biofuels. If we burn fuels that come from plants, we’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it right back in: net zero carbon emissions, roughly speaking. That’s better than fossil fuels, where we dig carbon up from the ground and burn it. But it would be even better if we could burn plants as fuels but then capture the carbon dioxide, compress it, and pump it underground into depleted oil and gas fields, unmineable coal seams, and the like.

To do this, we probably shouldn’t cut down forests to clear space for crops that we burn. Turning corn into ethanol is also rather inefficient, though the corn lobby in the U.S. has persuaded the government to spend lots of money on this, and about 40 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. now gets used this way. Suppose we just took all available agricultural, forestry, and municipal waste, like lawn trimmings, food waste, and such, to facilities able to burn it and pump the carbon dioxide underground. All this stuff ultimately comes from plants sucking carbon from the air. So, how much carbon dioxide could we pull out of the atmosphere this way? The National Academy of Sciences says up to 5.2 billion tonnes per year.

Of course, we can’t do this and also sink all agricultural waste into the ocean—that’s just another way of dealing with the same stuff. Furthermore, this high-end figure would require immensely better organization than we’ve been able to achieve so far. And there are risks involved in pumping lots of carbon dioxide underground.

What other activities could draw down lots of carbon? It pays to look at the biggest human industries: biggest, that is, in terms of sheer mass being processed. For example, we make lots of cement. Global cement production in 2017 was about 4.5 billion tons, with China making more than the rest of the world combined, and a large uncertainty in how much they made. As far as I know, only digging up and burning carbon is bigger: for example, 7.7 billion tons of coal is being mined per year.

Right now cement is part of the problem: To make the most commonly used kind we heat limestone until it releases carbon dioxide and becomes “quicklime.” Only about 7 percent of the total carbon we emit worldwide comes from this process—but that still counts for more than the entire aviation industry. Some scientists have invented cement that absorbs carbon dioxide as it dries. It has not yet caught on commercially, but the pressure on the industry is increasing. If we could somehow replace cement with a substance made mostly of carbon pulled from the atmosphere, and do it in an economically viable way, that would be huge. But this takes us into the realm of technologies that haven’t been invented yet.

New technologies may in fact hold the key to the problem. In the second half of the century we should be doing things that we can’t even dream of yet. In the next century, even more so. But it takes time to perfect and scale up new technologies. So it makes sense to barrel ahead with what we can do now, then shift gears as other methods become practical. Merely waiting and hoping is not wise.

Totaling up some of the options I’ve listed, we could draw down 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by planting trees, 1.5 billion by better forest management, 3 billion by better agricultural practices, and up to 5.2 billion by biofuels with carbon capture. This adds up to over 10 billion tonnes per year. It’s not nearly enough to cancel the 37 billion tonnes we’re dumping into the air each year now. But combined with strenuous efforts to cut emissions, we might squeak by, and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Even if we try, we are far from guaranteed to succeed—Anderson and Peters are right to warn about this. But will we even try? This is more a matter of politics and economics than of science and technology. The engineer Saul Griffith said that dealing with global warming is not like the Manhattan Project—it’s like the whole of World War II but with everyone on the same side. He was half right: We are not all on the same side. Not yet, anyway. Getting leaders who are inspired by these huge challenges, rather than burying their heads in the sand, would be a big step in the right direction.

19 Responses to Can We Fix The Air?

  1. Nick Stokes says:

    John,
    There is an underlying chemistry issue – acid/base. It determines natural CO2 equilibrium. Lava emits CO2, leaving behind basic rocks. In due course, they come to the surface, weather, and absorb the CO2 again. Arrhenius set this out in his 1908 book Worlds in the making.

    With cement, we do the same. The CO2 emitted leaves a base behind (CaO), which eventually resorbs much of the CO2. But we try to interpose the acid silica instead, with some success.

    If we had an umlimited supply of NaOH, problem solved. But we don’t, and can’t usefully manufacture a huge quantity of base. There is conservation involved, making base emits acid as by-product.

    IMO, the most promising scheme is to accelerate the lava reabsorption. This mostly involves taking a common mineral like olivine, crushing it, and exposing it to air. A big enterprise, but doesn’t actually require energy to drive (only to dig and crush).

  2. Ishi Crew says:

    I am sort of biased partly because half of my family were farmers in N Dakota and Minnesota —most grew wheat primarily, but they also grew corn. (It depends on the area—-corn really only grows commercialy in the Red River valley and eastward into Minnesota ).

    So some of them supported biofuels—corn ethanol.

    Since i’m also primarily a vegan or vegetarian (sometimes its difficult being a total vegan) i supported using the corn to make biofuel rather than use it to raise cattle on feedlots in Kansas. (i know someone from Kansas who is also a vegetarian and she said those industrial factory farm feedlots were a nitemare–1000s of penned up cattle.).

    So if people are still going to drive cars, then dont eat meat, and use the corn for fuel. (In my area alot of people still drive 1 person to a car. The buses i take are often standing room only).

    I am in contact with a few people in Malawi and Burundi in Africa (and one in Haiti) and they plant trees. Its alot of work but they do it. (It also deals with flood control). And they operate at a fairly low cost–like 5$/day.

    I view people driving cars — 1 person/car —as possibly the biggest issue. Its a habit. I even know eco-conscious people who work at scientific and educational insitutions who have the option to take a bus which is provided by their institution—but they prefer to take ther own car.

  3. Wolfgang says:

    I like the idea of generating plastic from CO2. If that only would be possible on scale. The key is to couple negative emissions with some anyhow growing tendency, best with some decadent behavior, done by the masses, thereby creating a virtue out of a vice. Anyhow we need long term alternatives to create plastic in an oil free world.

    Otherwise I would still think genetically modified algae might do the job. If one could make them use the CO2 more for their advantage, they could bind it in a similar ways as fossil plants did it millions of years ago. Since 75% of earth is oceans, this could happen at a global scale and without our control, apart from starting it. And fish etc. might thrive, too.

  4. John

    I’m at Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia and over the last month I have not been able to see the horizon on some days due to smoke haze from bushfires. The smoke is a daily problem and it probably will go on for another couple of months.

    The scale of the global political will and focus to address this is on a gargantuan scale and given that most politicians are
    pygmies……

    Peter

  5. Ralph Burger says:

    It’s also illustrative if you count the “excess” CO2 that originates from fossil fuel burning in terms of volume limestone. I have estimated it would make about 8 times Mount Everest’s mass. That’s the scale we need to think about.

    • Ralph Burger says:

      As all kind of technical CO2 fixation will a) be hampered by the sheer size of the problem b) amounts of non-fossile-fuel energy of the same scale c) require storage of C in that scale the most realistic solutions we have in my humble opinion is stop burning fossile fuel (also limestone) and convert as much area as possible into woodlands and forest that is in ecologic equilibrium (the later point is very important as well, mono cultures would be very bad as well for many reasons).

  6. Bob says:

    Sandia Lab’s Sunshine to Petrol (pdf) project says their low-cost catalyst can convert water+CO2 to CO+H which could then be recycled into fuel. Unfortunately, they say it will be 15-20 years before it will be a marketable product.

    A politician might ask, How many Three Gorges Dams would it take to solve this problem? It’s probably better to price things out in terms they can understand, like previous projects. Terms like “tons of carbon” probably turns them into a deer stuck in headlights.

    Carp are poised to invade the U.S. Great Lakes. Americans think of it as a problem, the Chinese would probably think of it as an opportunity.

    What can we make out of carbon dioxide?
    Carbon nano-threads?

  7. nad says:

    By the way, is there anywhere a thorough data ressource for the percentages of all constituents of air over time? I haven’t yet found any and this comment may indicate that such a ressource may not be easy to find.

    In that context it would be interesting to hear whether there are changes in amounts of nitrogen in air, like eventually due to fertilizer production or other lnitrogen fixation processes or due to changing denitrification processes.

  8. “Since the oxygen is not the problem—carbon dioxide consisting of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen—it might make more sense to count tonnes of carbon. But it’s customary to keep track of carbon by its carbon dioxide equivalent, so I’ll do that here.”

    It makes sense; carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas is the problem, not carbon per se. Pencils, diamonds, buckyballs, coal (unless it is burned) are all not a problem. Carbon isn’t the problem, carbon dioxide is.

    • Wolfgang says:

      I would not blame carbon dioxide. Yes, it is a greenhouse gas. But blaming it on carbon dioxide alone is in my opinion a viewpoint far too narrow. The real problem is overpopulation and an economic system based on eternal growth. Mankind will face more challenges, and more difficult ones, other than climate change, because our consumption of resources will hit a wall in many ways. It is not only oil. It is about a lot of basic metals (and despite the fact that they are usually well recyclable), it is about helium (just imagine no MRI machine is working anymore), even sand usable for concrete is a limited resource! We cannot face climate change, if we do not face these problems, too, and maybe first, because it will depend on our abilities for technological improvement, how good or bad the outcome will be.

  9. “Here’s another example: using carbon dioxide from the air to make plastics.”

    Considering that plastics are an absolutely huge environmental problem, this is probably the worst idea—whether or not it would work—to get rid of carbon dioxide in the air.

    • Bob says:

      Through the hydrogenation of linear carbon dioxides it is apparently possble to synthesize hydrocarbons instead of the more complex plastics. Plants make ethlene (a plant hormone) instead of polyethylene plastic. But isn’t it the rotational symmetry of the carbon dioxide molecule that makes it such an excellent absorber of infrared, and thus a greenhouse gas?

    • Wolfgang says:

      I think it is a good idea. Plastic is like rocks. An almost eternal sink of any molecule put into it. The reason that millions of people have not learned to throw it away properly is a bad argument for not using it. Just stop throwing it into nature, rivers, the sea. Everyone can do this little him/herself. If not, then don’t even think about other changes of daily behavior needed to find solutions.

  10. Bradley Robinson says:

    All of the drawdown scenarios described here are well within the ability of our built environments to sequester CO2 at scale.
    A massive operation to sink crop residues to the bottom of the sea could just as well be insulating fibres sequestered as building products, as demand for renewables and low e building accelerates. Urban Mining existing materials, (industrial agricultural commercial), the necessary renewal of cities suggests a logical pathway to resource streams currently considered waste.
    Erza Kline interviews Saul Griffith about sequestered materials and energy in the built environment. https://www.saulgriffith.com/talks

  11. C Smith says:

    how much of this assessment regarding charcoal production is accurate?
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/mar/24/biochar-earth-c02

  12. Benjamin Antieau says:

    Hi John,

    I wonder if you have a recent reference in mind for the idea that mature forests approach steady states in terms of carbon sequestration.

    Wohlleben’s Chapter 16 of The Hidden Life of Trees argues that this is not true drawing on the 2009 report CarboEurope-IP: An Assessment of the European Terrestrial Carbon balance (available here: ftp://ftp.bgc-jena.mpg.de/pub/outgoing/athuille/CE_booklet_final_packed/CE_booklet_Stand_02-03-09_screen.pdf).

    From page 21 of the report.

    It is generally thought that with ageing, old-growth forests as shown in Fig. 17 cease to accumulate carbon and are therefore carbon-neutral. For that reason they are not yet included in international treaties. But evidence examined by CarboEurope-IP suggests that these forests continue to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at rates that vary with climate and nitrogen deposition (see Page 30). The sequestered carbon dioxide is stored in live woody tissues and slowly decomposing organic matter in litter and soil. Old-growth forests therefore serve as a global carbon dioxide sink. Searching the literature and data- bases for forest carbon-flux estimates, revealed that in forests between 15 and 800 years of age, biomass continues to increase with age and the ratio of respiration over growth does not approach an equilibrium with age. Luyssaert et al. (2008) demonstrate that “the long standing view of forest growth seems to be deficient and even old growth forest continue to take up carbon. This means that for the next decades they will be sinks”. The ratio of respiration and growth remains below 1 up to very old stand ages.

    A look at the graphs suggests that the rate of carbon sequestration per hectare of forest increases with age. The rate is perhaps quadratic in age? Take a look at Figure 18.

    The guess from the report is that unmanaged primary forest accounts for 1.3 ± 0.5 sequestering gigatonnes of carbon per year, so this doesn’t really make a difference in terms of your main argument. However, it does argue for preservation of existing forests as one expects their carbon sequestering abilities to improve with time.

    Yours,
    Ben Antieau

  13. iconjack says:

    In 1966, Venice had flooding nearly twice as high as the recent flood. Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQQwfiACtzo.

    • I’m currently reading a book by Mermin where he discusses that phrase (coined by him, often attributed to Richard Feynman, or Mark Twain, or Oscar Wilde). Suffice it to say that you are seriously misrepresenting him and many other things in your comment.

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