We need to talk about our carbon problem

In the first episode of the new MaRS podcast, Solve for X, host Manjula Selvarajah explores how we can scrub carbon from the sky and transform it into everything from jet fuel to toothpaste.

We need to talk about our carbon problem

In the last 250 years, we’ve released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than in the previous 20,000 years. To make serious headway in meeting climate-change deadlines, experts are looking at technologies that go beyond simply curbing emissions to those that can also take carbon dioxide out of the air. In this premiere episode of Solve for X, tech journalist Manjula Selvarajah explores what we can do with all this carbon dioxide from burying it underground to turning it into vodka.

 

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Featured in this episode:

  • Roger Highfield, science director at the Science Museum in London, England, who talks about the importance of carbon capture and objects that can store carbon dioxide released by human activity — from toothpaste to yoga mats — as well as a noisy mechanical tree named Cranky that is 1,000 times faster at removing CO2 from the air than a natural tree.
  • Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian atmospheric scientist, professor of political science at Texas Tech University and the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a global conservation organization known as Nature United in Canada. She explains the potential benefits — and pitfalls — of trying to “fix” the planet.
  • Anna Stukas, vice president of business development at Carbon Engineering, talks about how the B.C. company can take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
  • Stacy Kauk, the head of sustainability at Shopify, talks about carbon pricing and what to know when evaluating carbon offsets.

Further Reading:

 

Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet here. And below find a transcript to the first episode “We need to talk about our carbon problem.”

Roger Highfield: Before us, we’ve got a case full of objects. You’ve got crayons, you’ve got plastic cutlery, you’ve got a pen.

Manjula Selvarajah: These are items on display at the Science Museum in London, England, a 165-year-old institution that describes itself as the home of human ingenuity.

Roger Highfield: We’re standing in the welcome wing of the Science Museum and this particular part of it is our “tomorrow’s world” gallery — and here we try and look at the issues today. So I’m Roger Highfield. I’m the science director of the Science Museum group.

Manjula Selvarajah: In this exhibition, the curators are exploring a radical idea: how we can remove carbon out of the atmosphere to help address climate change.

Roger Highfield: We’ve got Carbon Air toothpaste, we’ve got sunglasses. And then we’ve got what looks like a long sausage, but is in fact, I suspect one of the most expensive yoga mats ever made. I think it costs somewhere like $170.

Manjula Selvarajah: The crayons, the cutlery, the yoga mat, are finalists from the Carbon X prize, showing how carbon dioxide can be recycled into other products. You can think of it as a kind of inventory of things that could help us secure the future of the planet.

Roger Highfield: My favorite example, a carbon capture vodka. So you can toast the future of the planet basically. It’s now part of the collections and I’d be told off by the curators if I even touched it, let alone used it.

Manjula Selvarajah: This is Solve for X — Innovations to Save the Planet. A series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science that could help us tackle climate change. I’m Manjula Selvarajah. I’m a tech journalist and I’ve been covering science and technology for years now. For me, going through the research process, exploring the potential solutions, speaking to the experts — yes, it’s my job — but it also helps me deal with the existential threat that facing the climate crisis brings. So that’s what we’re going to do in this series. We’ll investigate the role technology can play in building a better climate and a better future. Today, we’re taking a long, hard look at our problem with CO2 specifically, we’ll be looking into how direct air capture or DAC might help us solve our carbon.

You don’t need me to explain the fact that CO2 has a negative impact on our climate, but what’s maybe less widely understood is the role carbon plays as a commodity and the value it has in various industrial processes. Here’s Roger Highfield of the Science Museum in London from their exhibition on climate solutions.

Roger Highfield: There’s a lot of people looking at the challenge of: what do we do with that carbon dioxide once we’ve got it out of the atmosphere and can we get low energy processes to take advantage of it? I mean, you could use it to put the fizz into a Cola drink, for example, and that’s been done as well, but of course, once you take the top off it or drink it, you know, it’s back in the atmosphere again. And so working out what to do with the carbon dioxide is the next big challenge.

Manjula Selvarajah: That challenge — the question of how we can store carbon permanently to prevent it from going back into the atmosphere — that’s what we’ll be looking at later in this episode. But first, let’s understand the scale of our carbon problem.

I spoke to Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she’s the co-director of the Climate Center. Hi, Katharine. I’m so delighted to have you with us.

Katharine Hayhoe: Great to be here with you.

Manjula Selvarajah: Paint a picture for me. Where are you right now?

Katharine Hayhoe: I am in Lubbock, Texas, or as my Canadian family often says, “Lou-bauch.” I’m here because the university is here — Texas Tech University — so I’m living in a state that’s the top oil and gas producer in the United States, and I’m surrounded by many people who don’t think this is real for political reasons.

Manjula Selvarajah: Katharine is more than just an expert on the climate. She’s also an expert on how to talk about climate change and how we can fix it.

Katharine Hayhoe: If you’re really trying to struggle to understand the impacts and the solutions of climate change, how to get those climate solutions implemented more quickly to really tackle the problem at scale, then living in Texas is actually the perfect place to be.

Manjula Selvarajah: Great, because that is actually the perfect segue into getting you to talk about the carbon problem. How much carbon do we need to be taking out of the sky if we want to restore the climate?

Katharine Hayhoe: If we want to stabilize the climate, we need to be taking out as much as we put in. If we want to return our climate conditions to what it was in earlier decades, we need to remove more than we put in every year.

Manjula Selvarajah: Measurements from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography showed that atmospheric CO2 levels in April were more than 421 parts per million. So in about 250 years, we’ve released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we did in the what, 20,000 years before? And it turns out we’ve known about the consequences of doing this for a very long time.

Katharine Hayhoe: When we first started doing this back in the industrial, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, we didn’t know what we were doing at that time, but by the 1850s — and no, that is not a mistake — the 1850s we did know. And then here we are today with carbon emissions higher than ever.

Manjula Selvarajah: Well, let’s imagine for a second that, that we could stop emitting today, right. That we could put things in place to make that happen, the right policies, the right technologies, whatever it takes, how long would it take for the climate to return to normal?

Katharine Hayhoe: I would love it if we could, first of all. That sounds like a climate scientist’s magic wand wish right there. If we wanted to return, to even 1950 conditions, that’s going to take awhile. So we have already been interfering with our planet’s climate in a massive way. And, the idea of deliberately doing so for good — rather than for harm — is the one that people are talking about today.

Manjula Selvarajah: When it comes to how we can manage or remove existing carbon emissions, there are nature-based solutions like using cover crops, restoring coastal areas or planting trees.

And there are also tech-based solutions, like the potential for direct air capture to scrub CO2 out of the sky. It turns out we’ve been scrubbing CO2 from the air for a while now, like inside the space station or in submarines to help astronauts and sailors breathe. But that’s on a small scale in a closed environment. When the idea of using carbon capture to engineer the climate first appeared, it was met with skepticism. Back to Roger Highfield at the Science Museum.

Roger Highfield: Carbon capture was at a really interesting point because it had gone from being seen as something that was a bit wacky, and then something that was actually a bit — that caused a lot of suspicion, to something that was really an important component of dealing with climate change.

Manjula Selvarajah: Before joining the museum, Roger was a science reporter at the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph for more than two decades. During that time, he saw how the public perception of carbon removal began to change.

Roger Highfield: So it was seen as a bit of a bonkers idea in the ’80s but kind of intriguing. In the ’90s, as environmental groups (quite rightly) got frustrated with the lack of progress — they saw carbon capture as a kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card — used by energy companies as an excuse not to cut carbon emissions and used by governments as an excuse not to be more vigorous about curbing carbon emissions.

If you wind forward to today, what’s striking is that the consensus scientific view is that we need carbon capture technologies if we’re going to have a chance of achieving the Paris one-and-a half-degree target. But of course, those are pragmatic scientists. There are still fundamentalist scientists who say, ‘look, this is just a distraction from cutting carbon’; I’ve got a lot of sympathy with them because of the incredible inertia over the years, but there’s no doubt — it’s not going to be a magic bullet — but it could play a role in helping us to achieve our climate targets.

Manjula Selvarajah: What Roger’s talking about is how the International Panel on Climate Change (or the IPCC) is already factoring in carbon removal technologies and its projections. In the future, DAC could play an important, but complimentary role in addressing our carbon problem. We asked Roger to show us an example of direct air capture up close.

Roger Highfield: So now we’re walking out of the section of the exhibition on the nature-based solutions and we get the star object in front of us: The Lackner tree. It’s supposed to be a thousand times more efficient than a natural tree in capturing carbon.

Manjula Selvarajah: The Lackner tree or mechanical tree — don’t let the name fool you — the prototype looks nothing like a tree. Let’s just say my mental picture was way off when I Googled it. It has a large metal box at its base, and then what looks like three mattresses stacked vertically.

Roger Highfield: Now I’ve got to say, I don’t want to put natural trees down because the Lackner tree is only got one purpose, which is to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and actually it’s got quite simple chemistry behind it. You can see here, there are a series of, sort of leaves.

Manjula Selvarajah: In comparison to other direct air capture technology, the mechanical tree is passive, meaning it doesn’t suck air in. Instead, CO2 passes over the leaves where it forms a bicarbonate material. Once the machine is full, which takes about 30 to 60 minutes, it then cranks down like an accordion to store CO2 in the base.

Roger Highfield: Of course, the big question is even though it’s a thousand times more efficient than a tree, you would still need tens — if not hundreds of millions — of Lackner trees to fix the planetary problems. None of these are magic bullets, but if one or two of these technologies takes off in a limited way, it could help us, get us over the target of the Paris Climate Agreement of one-and-a half-degrees warming.

Manjula Selvarajah: To get enough carbon out of the atmosphere to maintain a stable climate, the International Energy Agency estimates that we’ll need, not just a few mechanical trees, but many massive direct air capture facilities.

Roger Highfield: And then I mentioned Carbfix in Iceland has taken the carbon dioxide, pumped it into basalt — which is chemically more active than regular sedimentary rocks — and you can see these, little sort of peppering of white, and streaks of white, which is the captured carbon.

Manjula Selvarajah: And even though science demonstrates that this idea is possible — when it comes to what’s actually being captured and stored right now, it’s not much. For this to have an impact on our climate system, we would need to massively scale up this technology, and that’s not so straightforward.

Anna Stukas: If we’re going to be able to successfully tackle the biggest challenges of climate change, that demands continuous innovation and continuous improvement.

Manjula Selvarajah: That’s Anna Stukas. Anna is the vice president of business development at Carbon Engineering, a Canadian direct air capture company. We reached Anna at her office in Vancouver, British Columbia to learn more.

Anna Stukas: When we think about carbon removal, it becomes even more important that we’re thinking about permanent carbon removal. We’re thinking about ways of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — that it’s not going to end up back in the atmosphere in 10 or a hundred years — that we’re taking it out on a geologic time scale.

Manjula Selvarajah: Anna first trained as a mechanical engineer. She actually comes from a family of engineers.

Anna Stukas: So I was also that strange kid in high school who assumed that everyone had debates at the dinner table about the periodic table of elements or, I thought that everyone’s mother knew how to fix their toaster and rewire their house. It was a little bit of a wake-up call for me to realize that not everyone had that same upbringing.

Manjula Selvarajah: That engineering background, the idea of looking to solve hard problems — that’s something that’s really important to Anna in all her roles.

Anna Stukas: I’ve often said that the best way to motivate me is to tell me that a problem is too hard to solve.

Manjula Selvarajah: At Carbon Engineering, she’s working on how to commercialize direct air capture and expand carbon removal on a global scale.

Anna Stukas: So, our core expertise is the ability to capture the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We then work with partners to take that carbon dioxide and, in the case of carbon removal, put that carbon dioxide back underground where it came from.

Manjula Selvarajah: The idea here is that organizations will be able to purchase permanent carbon removal from DAC companies like Carbon Engineering in Canada and Climeworks in Switzerland.

Anna Stukas: One of the other things that we can do when we take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is, we can combine it with clean hydrogen and run it through a fuel synthesis process to make transportation fuels — things like sustainable aviation fuel and diesel.

Manjula Selvarajah: I wanted to get a climate scientist’s take on the idea of recycling carbon into fuel. I asked Katharine Hayhoe how this might fit into a future climate plan. What do you make of this technology?

Katharine Hayhoe: It’s the idea that through filtering air, we can pull out only the carbon that’s in the air, and sometimes they can turn it into, you know, baking soda or rocks or sometimes — and this is really exciting — they can turn it back into liquid fuels. We already know how to get low, or zero carbon electricity — but if we could get liquid fuels to address the long-haul airplane flights, or the industrial processes that require liquid fuels, or applications where you have to carry your energy with you and batteries are too heavy to do that, that’s really exciting.

But we have to recognize that there are significant logistical barriers, there are significant cost barriers, it’s way more expensive to generate fuel that way than to just get it from oil and gas. And so that’s why policy mechanisms like we have in Canada, like carbon pricing, are so important because they help to level the playing field that is currently massively skewed in the direction of continuing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Manjula Selvarajah: But not every scientist is as optimistic about the idea of direct air capture. Earlier this year, 300 scientists signed an open letter raising concerns about public subsidies for this technology. I asked Katharine, why this idea of carbon removal and storage, is so contentious for some scientists.

Katharine Hayhoe: The problem is, is that all too often, these offsets — whether direct air capture or nature based solutions — are being used by corporations who have no intention of actually reducing their own emissions. And so that’s what many are reacting against, is the fact that these, these technologies and these opportunities and these very valid solutions have been misused.

Manjula Selvarajah: What’s interesting that you’ve just, you know, this comes to mind — you’ve talked about this idea of signalling, signalling greenness. Do you have any advice for identifying greenwashing?

Katharine Hayhoe: Well, there was a peer-reviewed journal article that came out just a couple of weeks ago that looked at some of the big oil and gas companies and compared what they are actually doing to help transition to a clean-energy economy, to what their advertising was claiming they were doing. And so those academics actually developed a standard for greenwashing, you know, “are you doing as much as you say you’re doing” and the answer unfortunately, each case was no, they were not.

Manjula Selvarajah: In that article, the researchers point out how in our era of alternate facts and misinformation, there’s a quote “pressing need for regulation.” It makes sense. I mean, without a standard for assessing greenwashing, how can we have an open conversation about climate solutions of human ingenuity?

Katharine Hayhoe: But on the other hand, it is really important to talk about what we’re doing, what we’re actually doing, what we’re truly doing. The reality is carbon carries a tremendous cost, and that should be reflected in the products that people sell.

Manjula Selvarajah: So what is the cost of carbon? There are a lot of different prices floating around. There’s the environmental cost of polluting. There’s the price, the government in Canada and other jurisdictions have set. And now there’s the cost of DAC and purchasing permanent CO2 removal. I wanted to understand how this all adds up.

Stacy Kauk: When you look at the view of the atmosphere of climate, we put out 10 times — we should be paying to have that scrubbed out of the sky.

Manjula Selvarajah: We reached out to Stacy Kauk at Shopify. Back in 2019, Shopify was one of the first organizations to talk publicly about the need for direct air capture and sequestration.

Stacy Kauk: What really needs to happen, in order to catapult direct air capture to this point, is the de-carbonization of our electricity grid. Because you need a lot of power to run a DAC plant, as well as a trusted storage solution. If we’re able to do that, I truly think that DAC will be part of the suite of solutions that’s needed to reverse climate change in the long-term.

Manjula Selvarajah: Stacy’s responsible for leading the company’s carbon accounting and emissions reduction strategy. In a way you could think of her as an expert on making decisions about what to do with all the CO2.

Stacy Kauk: There’s a big discrepancy in the market in terms of what you can buy. You can go pay $3 for an avoided emissions offset — you know, there’s still that net emission in the atmosphere — or you can pay $700 for a carbon removal credit from a direct air capture facility. And they both have equal weight against the corporate climate commitment in the voluntary space. So it’s really difficult to discern who’s acting in which way, and how different companies are making their corporate climate commitments come true.

Manjula Selvarajah: So when it comes to evaluating a quality carbon credit, or what makes a good carbon decision, Stacy has some advice.

Stacy Kauk: If you start digging into the “how” and what’s enabling a technology or a solution, that’s when you can uncover things that will allow you to understand whether or not it’s actually going to provide a climate benefit. So like DAC is a great example — it takes a lot of electricity. Okay — what kind of electricity? And if it’s coal-fired power plants, powering your DAC, it’s not going to net out in a positive way for the atmosphere. So I think curiosity and wanting to understand, is critical to finding the solutions — the most impactful solutions — to support.

Manjula Selvarajah: Decision-makers like Stacy and others are talking about the importance of quality when it comes to offsets. Like Stacy said, we need innovation to make sure DAC or direct air capture delivers on the promise of permanent carbon removal, but there’s also a need to create mechanisms to clean up the carbon market. In 2019, investigative journalists at ProPublica uncovered several problems with tropical forest preservation and carbon credits. Looking at 10 years of data, they found that these offset companies have a poor record in delivering on their promises. It’s worth stepping back and addressing: what is the carbon market?

Stacy Kauk: It is a very complicated question at the moment. So first, it’s to divide it into two pieces. You have a regulated carbon market where you have a group of emitters in a certain industry sector who have been given a cap for what they’re allowed to emit to produce their goods or whatever their manufacturing, and that’s at a government-regulated price and it’s all defined as to what kind of carbon credit you can buy and they’re vetted and approved and it’s very buttoned up. Whereas if we get out of that regulated space — so we get into the voluntary market, which is where Shopify participates, it’s a mess to be very honest about it.

It’s very undefined. You know, there is a lot of work happening in that space by the science-based targets initiative, the Mark Carney–led task force on scaling the voluntary market. Those two initiatives, if done well, should tighten up what it means to have a corporate climate commitment and what kind of carbon credit actually meets that quality bar, and how much should we be paying. Those things will start to become clear as we get more guidance finalized in this space.

Manjula Selvarajah: But let’s say I wanted to offset the carbon footprint of this podcast or my own carbon emissions. Where would we need to start?

Stacy Kauk: It’d be super fun to dig into. I’m like, oh, you need to think about this and that —  I mean, it’s going to be your energy usage, right, for powering your home office and your recording. And you could get into the electricity that’s required to run the servers that are operating your software and then go out and buy some carbon removal. That’d be my recommendation.

Manjula Selvarajah: Reflecting on what I’ve learned so far and going back to what Katharine Hayhoe said in the beginning of the episode, we need to think carefully about how we even talk about our carbon problem.

Katharine Hayhoe: We do not have enough nature-based solutions. We do not have enough direct air capture potential to offset all of our emissions. We just don’t, and that’s a fact. We have to cut our emissions as much as possible first. The potential for direct air capture is just one tiny piece of the pie. We need every single other piece in that pie as well to help fix climate change. And there’s some very old-fashioned pieces of that pie to like good old-fashioned efficiency.

We need policy solutions that actually implement and encourage and incentivize these solutions. We need solutions at every single level, because again, what is at stake, is quite literally us. Us humans, and many of the other living things that share this home with us. That’s what’s at risk.

Manjula Selvarajah: There are so many complex layers to the carbon problem that we have to face before we can even start to solve it. Like the fact that we have to reduce emissions first and foremost. Scientists have proven the technology for direct air capture. We see how an early investment can de-risk it and encourage others to follow suit. DAC also needs a clean source of energy and trusted geological storage for it to have a real climate benefit. And the process of buying carbon credits has to become more transparent, because at this stage of the climate crisis we can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes that were made with easy offsets.

Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer, Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. Mack Swain composed our theme song and all the music in this episode. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer. Special thanks to audio producer, Brenna Daldorph in London.

I’m your host Manjula Selvarajah. Watch your feed for new episodes coming soon.

The Mission from MaRS initiative was created to help scale carbon reducing innovations by working to remove the barriers to adopting new technology. Mission from MaRS thanks its founding partners, HSBC, Trottier Family Foundation, RBC Tech for Nature and Thistledown Foundation. It has also received generous support from Peter Gilligan Foundation, BDC, EDC and Mitsubishi Corporation Americas.

Learn more about the program at missionfrommars.ca.