University of Michigan Sets Ambitious Goal to Pull Carbon From Air

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By Bobby Magill

Imagine a company selling flexible concrete made from carbon dioxide sucked directly from the air that could help highways withstand earthquakes and help solve climate change.

That is one of the goals of a University of Michigan project taking a market-based approach to climate change. It is setting out to invent and market products such as concrete and fabrics that are stuffed full of human carbon dioxide emissions accumulating in the atmosphere.

The university announced Aug. 8 that its Global CO2 Initiative’s lofty goal is to remove 10 percent of annual carbon emissions by 2030 to help prevent climate change from spiraling out of control.

Climate scientists say it is an ambitious plan, but its feasibility is uncertain. The technology that might accomplish carbon dioxide removal on a scale that will slow global warming remains unproven and untested.

The Global CO2 Initiative is spending $4.5 million to support the invention of products that will be made of carbon captured directly from the air and help launch companies that will market those products, such as flexible concrete that could help buildings more effectively withstand earthquakes, Volker Sick, a University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor and project lead scientist, told Bloomberg Environment.

Carbon dioxide can be captured by using industrial processes to suck it directly from the ambient air or by other methods, including ways to mineralize and solidify it.

Ambitious Goal

The program’s 2030 goal is ambitious, Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at Stanford University who is unaffiliated with the project, told Bloomberg Environment. Mach is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report that became the scientific foundation for the Paris climate agreement.

“It’s the exact kind of ambition we need on the climate issue, across the full portfolio of solutions,” Mach said.

The university’s target is comparable to an estimate for energy sector emissions cuts that countries pledged to make as part of the Paris climate agreement, Jessica Jewell, a contributing author of the IPCC report and research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Norway, told Bloomberg Environment.

But the university goal “is to stimulate research and development so it’s difficult to evaluate how realistic it is,” Jewell said.

Investment will determine how realistic it is, Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg Environment.

“We’ve waited for so long, we’re now in a place where we need to be looking aggressively, assertively to all manner of approaches to reduce emissions and scale up,” he said.

The goal of the project is to “be the catalyst” for a global carbon removal effort, Sick said.

“We also are realistic enough and honest that this is not something we can do individually,” he said.

Negative Math

Directly removing the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere from human fossil-fuel use may be an important part of keeping global warming in check. Without carbon dioxide removal, or “negative emissions,” the math that underlies the Paris climate agreement doesn’t add up.

That is because scientists say cutting fossil fuel use and climate pollution to zero won’t likely be enough to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the primary purpose of the Paris pact. Humanity may have to invent a way to to clean the atmosphere of some of the carbon pollution put there since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

“Given the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere today, it is difficult to avoid 2 degrees without health-damaging pollution aerosols or ‘negative emissions,’” Inez Fung, a climate scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, who is unaffiliated with the Global CO2 Initiative, told Bloomberg Environment. Aerosols are particles suspended in the air that can cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight back to space.

But technology is not yet mature enough to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at large enough scale to lessen the threat of climate change, Fung said.

Creating a Market

The Global CO2 Initiative is setting out to advance that technology by inventing carbon-based products that could be used to launch new companies and create a market for captured carbon, Sick said.

Three companies unaffiliated with the Global CO2 Initiative are already working on commercializing direct-air-capture technology at scale: Climeworks AG, Global Thermostat LLC, and Carbon Engineering Ltd.

“That’s important in the near term to get us to a point where we can do large-scale pure carbon removal,” Matt Lucas, associate director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Carbon Removal, which is unaffiliated with the project, told Bloomberg Environment.

Creating a market for carbon-based products now allows the industry to build “more carbon-capture projects that will reduce the cost of that technology so that so that when I do gigaton-scale carbon removal, it’ll be cheaper and more politically palatable,” he said.

The project will release a free “toolkit” that will establish a common way for companies and researchers to evaluate the climate impacts of the products they produce using carbon dioxide captured directly from the air.

A Divisive Issue

Carbon dioxide removal as a solution to climate change is a divisive issue among climate scientists.

For example, the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded in February that the Paris pact’s reliance on “hypothetical” technologies makes its negative emissions scenarios “overly optimistic.” Relying on carbon removal technology is a moral hazard because it suggests that cutting carbon emissions is less urgent than it really is, the council said.

But carbon removal plays a critical role in solving climate change, Mach said.

“It can involve everything from increasing carbon stored on the landscape, through to engineered approaches that capture CO2 from the atmosphere and store it underground in geologic formations,” Mach said. “Carbon removal is one way to grapple with hard to decarbonize energy services, such as air travel or long-distance shipping.”

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