Carbon Wranglers – Market Disrupters

The Environmental Forum of Marin hosted a sold-out event on March 27th on the Climate Imperative to Reduce, Reuse and Sequester Greenhouse Gases. Noah Deich, from Carbon 180, reviewed many of the market opportunities and costs associated with scaled carbon sequestration. Roger Aines, Ph.D. Chief Scientist, of the Energy Program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that after we electrify everything with inexpensive clean electricity, we will provide people with jobs doing new things with affordable abundant clean energy that could never be done before. A kilowatt hour will cost as little as two cents in the future and provide 90% more energy. Aines also estimates that 115,000 jobs in the central valley, that were once oil related, will now shift to carbon sequestration. Claire Jahns, Senior Advisor to the US Climate Alliance and working on their California Natural and Working Lands Initiative was a luminary of in depth of knowledge on natural sequestration strategies. “California’s natural and working lands, and the multitude of benefits they provide, are changing and, in many areas, deteriorating or disappearing. These lands cover more than 90 percent of California and include rangeland, forests, woodlands, wetlands and coastal areas, grasslands, shrub land, farmland, riparian areas, and urban green space. They provide life sustaining resources including clean air and water, food, and fiber. With their potential to sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and increase the capacity for California to withstand inevitable climate impacts, these lands are also a critical component of California’s integrated climate change strategy.” (CALAND) Jahns reviewed these land inventories as well as their myriad of values, like recreation and biodiversity while expressing some of the challenges and realities of managing these lands that can sequester significant amounts of CO2. She highlighted the importance of conservation, restoration and improved land management strategies. According to Jahns, natural lands have the potential to reduce our annual carbon inventories by 21% if managed carefully.   

Every year we emit 40 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, if you’re like me that is a very hard number to wrap your head around. All cars have a combined greenhouse gas (GHG) equivalent to only 1 billion tons per year and account for about 28% of consumer emissions. What do these numbers mean to us and the atmosphere? 

There were plenty of big numbers to wrap our head around but more importantly there were plenty of very interesting ways to sequester and store greenhouse gases in the natural landscape. Forestry, agriculture and technological innovations all have the capacity to store CO2 at scale. The cost on average is about $100 a ton so it is still more cost effective to avoid emissions in the first place.  

It is estimated that we will need all forms of available carbon capture now and in the future. Cost and technical difficulty are not the only deciding factors in the way sequestration strategies are being approached. According to the National Academie’s 2018 report natural solutions can scale to sequester one billion tons of CO2 annually at $0 to $100 a ton but are not sufficient and advanced technology with costs over $100 ton are and will continue to be necessary. 

Forest, Agriculture, Coastal blue carbon projects like mangrove restoration and coastal wetlands cost between $0 and $20 a ton and are available today at scale. They also provide the added benefits of increased biodiversity, clean air and long-term low-cost CO2 storage. In agriculture each increased percent of CO2 storage in the soil increase the soils capacity to hold water by 10 % providing a myriad of added benefits to biodiversity and land use scenarios. Thinned forests in the long term can sequester more CO2 and reduce fire danger risk, but many of these management strategies and equations are hard to wrangle in the public forum. Direct air capture and storage by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere mechanically and storing under the ground in sand stone substrates, or disused oil wells is currently fairly cost prohibitive but is projected to cost between $100 and $300 a ton in the future. Other exciting frontiers in carbon capture include mineralization, aquaculture and industrial material utilization of carbon capture into cement or other industrial materials. Many of these innovations are being held back by lack of funding but times are changing fast. 

Jerry Brown left an executive order on the books requiring the state of California be carbon neutral by 2045 and many advocates are hoping to turn this into law. The California Strategic Growth Council committed 17 million dollars for R & D into carbon removal which would in part support this goal. The US DOE has committed $69 million into R& D. Although these funds still fall short of what is said to be needed to bring several of these technologies to scale rapidly, investors are beginning to fill in the gaps. There are other state and government funds available but more importantly we are seeing significant private and corporate investment support.  

Today’s global market for commodity CO2 is equal to just over 100 million tons with a market value of over 5 billion dollars. CO2 was the largest growing commodity in 2018 so we may begin to see a real increase in investment strategies to include carbon sequestration in their portfolios. Looking forward with trillions of dollars of carbon needing to be drawn out of the atmosphere carbon tech entrepreneurs may be holding the keys to a market disruption larger than the era.

Article by Daisy Carlson Photo by Freddie Marriage – Unsplash