Klaus Lackner: Hello every­body. Thanks so much for hav­ing me here. I’m delight­ed to talk with you about a top­ic I have been work­ing on for the last twen­ty years, actu­al­ly more than twen­ty years, and this is about how to man­age car­bon. And real­ly this is about cli­mate change and hav­ing ener­gy at the same time. We need to fig­ure out how to bal­ance our car­bon books.

So for this the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist here it seemed actu­al­ly very sim­ple. It’s a con­ser­va­tion law. If you take car­bon out of the ground and you put it into the sys­tem it will stay there unless you take it back out. From a soci­etal per­spec­tive, this is much much more com­pli­cat­ed because as we fix it there will be win­ners and losers. On the oth­er hand, we also need to have an engi­neer­ing response to it we don’t have yet ful­ly devel­oped.

So our ques­tion then is how to do that, and I start­ed on the engi­neer­ing side. So I start­ed to work on the idea, how can we pull the CO2 back out of the atmos­phere? Over those two decades, we all talked a lot about cli­mate change and how seri­ous an issue it is. But we end­ed up talk­ing. There was very very lit­tle action. And I think in part that is because we thought of the prob­lem as we have to reduce ener­gy con­sump­tion, we have to stop doing what we are doing. And we should real­ly think about it as a waste man­age­ment par­a­digm, which actu­al­ly I think will help us to make it an eas­i­er prob­lem.

Think what my neigh­bors would say to me if I sim­ply got out and dumped my garbage in the street and left it there. They would prob­a­bly call the cops on me. And they would­n’t take it for an answer if I came back to them and say, See I real­ly thought about this prob­lem. I worked very hard on it. And over the last two years I man­aged to reduce my emis­sions, my garbage, by 20%. Aren’t you proud of me?”

But if you think about it for a moment this is exact­ly how we think about the prob­lem in the terms of cli­mate change. We pat our­selves on the back by hav­ing a 10% reduc­tion. Which by the way we nev­er had. So, we have to clean up after our­selves, right? And we have to fig­ure out how to do this.

The oth­er neat thing about hav­ing a waste man­age­ment par­a­digm is that you actu­al­ly don’t have to think of it as some­thing you can’t have. Sewage is unavoid­able. We know that and there­fore we deal with it rather than say­ing we can’t have any, right. And so we are work­ing on this on water. We all under­stand we need water. We all need food. And we want a clean envi­ron­ment, too. For ener­gy, we actu­al­ly have to also come to the point to admit that we need it. It gives us clean water. It gives us food. It gives us raw mate­ri­als. And by the way if we want to clean up after our­selves, we also need ener­gy.

So, maybe we can solve the prob­lem by sim­ply avoid­ing fos­sil fuels com­plete­ly. Well, per­haps. Perhaps over time. But not in the time we have. So we are not run­ning out of fos­sil car­bon. And cli­mate change is not self-limiting. And there always will be an excuse. So we have to fig­ure out how to do this dif­fer­ent­ly. And I think the answer is we have to demand that we can­not wait. We have to demand cleanup. And then the neat thing of hav­ing many dif­fer­ent options is the mar­kets can fig­ure out which of these options are the most cost-effective and which ones we fol­low.

So, how much time do we have left? Is it a few years? Are we already too late? I think the best anal­o­gy to have there is to think about it like a car­bon cred­it card the world is charg­ing to. And the prob­lem is like the old American Express, we don’t real­ly know what the over­draft lim­it is. We don’t quite know where we are, but we do know the account bal­ance. Because when we start­ed, in the pre-industrial times the CO2 in the atmos­phere was sta­ble at 280 parts per mil­lion. And we start­ed to get wor­ried about it in Rio in 1992. We were at 356 parts per mil­lion in the atmos­phere, and by the way we had a spend­ing habit of 1.3 parts per mil­lion per year. Right now we’re at 404 parts per mil­lion, and our spend­ing habit has gone up to 2.5 parts per mil­lion a year. So we are high­er than we ever were, and we are rac­ing up in the amount of over­draft faster than we ever had.

Now, it’s not clear where exact­ly the lim­it is. If you talk to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they feel it’s around 2 degrees warm­ing, which is equiv­a­lent to 450 PPM or so. We are about six­teen years away from that. So we are near­ly there, and some peo­ple like peo­ple who sub­scribe to 350​.org think we’re already in over­draft and we just haven’t quite fig­ured out how much this will hurt because it takes anoth­er hun­dred years to real­ly hurt.

So here, we need to do some­thing. Here at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, which I start­ed a cou­ple years ago when I came here, we are tak­ing this seri­ous­ly. And we are work­ing on tech­nolo­gies to pull car­bon diox­ide back from the atmos­phere. Technically that’s not all that dif­fi­cult. If you think about it every tree can do it, and by the way there are machines in every sub­ma­rine and every space craft to do the same thing.

So we know how to do it. The trick is to make it afford­able. So we designed arti­fi­cial trees which lit­er­al­ly stand in the wind. They have leaves which are made out of a plas­tic, sort of have the breeze blow over them, and they bind the CO2. And they do this about a thou­sand times faster than a nat­ur­al tree could do. This plas­tic binds CO2 when it’s dry. So out in the wind it picks up CO2 after it dries. And then it releas­es it when it’s wet. So the process is actu­al­ly very sim­ple. Think of this like leaves or a fil­ter, where the air blows through for about forty-five min­utes to an hour. Then it’s loaded up and you pack those fil­ters in a box, make it wet inside the box, har­vest the CO2 which comes off. Process it fur­ther on. And once the wet leaves are fin­ished and have giv­en up their CO2 you sim­ply put them back out­side. And in the when they dry again and the cycle repeats itself over and over.

So what do we do with the CO2 once we have it? Well, first of all we can store it, right. And we are work­ing on min­er­al seques­tra­tion and we’re now using min­er­al you find here in Arizona to bind up that CO2. We can also make that CO2 back in to fuel. We are again work­ing on a project where we are tak­ing the CO2, feed­ing it to algae, which make bio­fu­els out of it. We could also chem­i­cal­ly take water and CO2, rip the oxy­gen out with elec­trol­y­sis or some oth­er process, and then bind it with process­es which have been around for a hun­dred years back into a fuel, or alter­na­tive­ly into plas­tics which you could store. So if you look at the infra­struc­ture we have, it could hide a lot of car­bon.

So in a way, our air cap­ture becomes on the one side the street sweep­er which cleans up the CO2 lit­tler. And on the oth­er side, it becomes the car­bon min­er which pulls resources back out of the atmos­phere for new mate­ri­als. And of course mak­ing prod­ucts is much more sat­is­fy­ing than just dump­ing it into a dis­pos­al site. But on the oth­er hand we are all respon­si­ble for between fif­teen and twen­ty tons of CO2 a year. We don’t con­sume that much. So we will have to be hon­est about it, in the end in order to bal­ance the bud­get we will have to put some of the CO2 away in dis­pos­al.

So car­bon tak­en from the ground must be put back. Some peo­ple are doubt­ful that this can be done. They are skep­tics and they say you can nev­er get low enough in costs and you can nev­er reach the scale you need to get to. So let’s ask the ques­tion, how big would we have to be? If you want a ton a day of car­bon diox­ide back, you will have to build a device which is rough­ly as big as a trail­er truck or a standard-size ship­ping con­tain­er you can see in a har­bor. If you want­ed to get all the CO2 back we pro­duce right now by this means, you would need 100 mil­lion of them. That sounds like a hor­ri­bly large num­ber but on the oth­er hand there are a bil­lion auto­mo­biles on the plan­et and we build about 80 mil­lion of them a year. So we have the indus­tri­al capac­i­ty to get there if we choose to do that. So, indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion can make that hap­pen.

So, we know we can reach the scale. The sec­ond ques­tion is can we get to an afford­able cost? And the first ques­tion there is what is actu­al­ly afford­able? There are a few start­up com­pa­nies who want to sell you CO2 they cap­tured from the air. And we all think we are around $100 a ton of CO2. Some actu­al­ly think they could get a lit­tle low­er with the tech­nol­o­gy they already have. I feel we can get a lot low­er if we actu­al­ly advance the tech­nol­o­gy we have.

If you look at how much raw mate­ri­als we need in the box itself, in the ener­gy we con­sume, in the water, it’s less than $15 per ton. Now is that a big num­ber or not? If you think about $100 a ton, that’s $0.85 extra on a gal­lon of gaso­line. If we can get it down to $30 a ton, you would have to pay one quar­ter per gal­lon more at the pump in order to be carbon-neutral. So think about that.

So the ques­tion then is can vol­un­teers lead the way to make it hap­pen, because we seem to have failed by reg­u­la­to­ry ways of doing it. Imagine you could push a but­ton at the pump where you say I want my car­bon back,” and you pay an extra $0.30 or maybe $0.50 extra and that car­bon will be tak­en back on your behalf. If vol­un­teers start­ed to do that, you first of all start hav­ing a mar­ket. Once you have a mar­ket, it will get cheap­er. And so you can then make it hap­pen.

So the ques­tion then becomes how do we con­vince peo­ple that this actu­al­ly needs to be done? And that’s dif­fi­cult and will take time. But on the oth­er hand it exact­ly mir­rors the dis­cus­sion we had all in the 19th cen­tu­ry about sewage. And even­tu­al­ly peo­ple got con­vinced that sewage is dan­ger­ous. It caus­es a prob­lem: cholera and typhoid. And once peo­ple under­stood that, they were will­ing to pay the mon­ey. Unfortunately CO2 does­n’t smell so it’s hard­er to deal with. On the oth­er hand every gal­lon of gaso­line you put out puts twen­ty pounds of CO2 into the atmos­phere. Think about this next time you dri­ve a car. And it will be there for thou­sands of years.

So how do we get there if we start small? We have to build that first one-ton-a-today unit, maybe a few of them. That’s a $20 mil­lion project and you will have them. Then, you can start mass pro­duc­ing them. I would argue we scale up just like the car engines, in num­bers not in sheer size of indi­vid­ual units. Then that could actu­al­ly go quite fast. If you look at a pic­ture from New York in 1900, you are hard-pressed to find a car. If you look in 1925 they’re every­where. Jet planes, in between 1951 when the first one start­ed to fly, and by 1965 the world’s fleets were jet planes. So it takes a decade or two for a new tech­nol­o­gy to real­ly get in. Think of the cell phone. You see the same kind of thing.

So what we real­ly need is that you and I and every­body else have to demand a closed car­bon cycle. Which is a lit­tle bit like the recy­cling projects of the 1970s and 80s. You can con­vince peo­ple ulti­mate­ly to do that. And if we do that, the poli­cies will fol­low the vol­un­teers. In the begin­ning, recy­cling was entire­ly vol­un­tary. Today I don’t have all that much of a choice any­more because peo­ple accept­ed it, and it is a good thing, right. So vol­un­teers will nev­er change the car­bon bal­ance sub­stan­tive­ly because they will nev­er be enough. But they will give the politi­cians ulti­mate­ly the cov­er to make it hap­pen. So what we need is a well-designed buy back the car­bon” cam­paign which sort of mir­rors the old recy­cling cam­paigns and in a way that gives the politi­cians the cov­er they will need.

The last twenty-five years in my view have shown that wait­ing for oth­ers to first make this hap­pen will nev­er work. Top-down approach­es seem to fail mis­er­ably. So let’s begin at home. Ask for ways to buy the car­bon back. Demand that but­ton on the pump. And then, over time, things will come into bal­ance. And I think that’s what we will need. Thanks so much for your time.

Further Reference

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