Carbon removal is how we make climate change fair

We put the carbon into this world, and by God we can take it out again

Climate change is not fair.

In fact, it is one of the most insanely unfair things that has ever happened. For many decades, industrialized nations — Europe, the U.S, Japan, and a few others — belched carbon dioxide willy-nilly into the atmosphere as they pursued their programs of economic development (and war).

Indeed, only recently did all of Asia — a region of 4.5 billion people — catching up to North America, a region with one-ninth its population, in terms of total cumulative CO2 emissions.

That wasn’t fair. But here’s where it gets grossly, ridiculously unjust. Developing countries now out-emit developed ones by a huge margin. Compare annual emissions for Asia, North America, and Europe:

China alone emits almost twice as much carbon as the United States (and no, it isn’t because the U.S. outsourced its emissions). Every year the disparity increases. India is catching up. Other developing countries are seeing rapid increases as well.

This means that the burden of reducing greenhouse emissions must, mathematically, fall mostly on developing countries like China, India, and the countries of Southeast Asia. This is not a moral judgement. It is not a political judgement. It is merely physics and arithmetic. The climate does not care about per capita emissions. And historical emissions are already over and done. Which means that if we want to stop pumping carbon into the air and destroying the planet, developing countries are going to have to make the biggest changes.

It’s a burden they don’t deserve. Conversations with people from China or India about the necessity of developing-country emissions reductions can get quite tortured. It’s a painful and shameful thing for a rich-country person such as myself to tell a person from a poor, rapidly industrializing country that they’re going to have to pay for my ancestors’ irresponsible lifestyles. It is a fact that understandably tends to make people from those countries angry and indignant. And yet it is a fact. There is simply no other way the planet will be saved.

Of course, there are things rich countries can do to ease that burden. One thing, which to our credit we have done, is to push down the price of green energy technologies — solar, wind, batteries, and so on — until developing countries can industrialize using these technologies instead of fossil fuels and save money in the process. These cost drops are why India is canceling coal plants at breakneck speed (though China, sadly, is still building more coal).

Still, not every piece of the transition to zero carbon will be costlessly solved by magical inventions. Steel, cement, and various other industrial processes will be costly to replace, as will current systems of agriculture. Developing countries will have to pay those costs, unless rich countries agree to heavily subsidize their transitions with cash payments (which seems politically difficult and complex). So while cheap green energy will ameliorate the unfairness of the climate fight, it will not eliminate it.

And this brings me to the topic of carbon removal.

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There is a technology for pulling carbon out of the air. It’s called “direct air capture”. Direct air capture of carbon is not that silly thing where coal plants pretend they’re going to capture the carbon they emit before it escapes into the atmosphere, and then never actually do it. That is something else entirely. Direct air capture is where you set up a bunch of fans, use them to pull in huge volumes of air, and then yank the carbon dioxide right out of it! Typically then you put the carbon into some solid form and bury it in the ground.

As things stand today, this is a very expensive thing to do. It costs between $250 and $600 to pull a single ton of CO2 out of the air — and even that is a lot cheaper than we thought it would be. At that price we’d be better off just planting a bunch more trees instead. Some people are optimistic that the price of removal could be brought down to $150-$200 or even lower in the next decade. That’s still very expensive.

But like with solar and batteries, there’s a good chance that if we keep doing lots of research and if we keep scaling up the technology, the cost will plunge. And people now realize that direct air capture is a promising field. Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, is offering $100 million to be divided between up to three inventors who can create the cheapest possible carbon removal technology, in addition to providing scholarships for students working on the problem. (Update: Now Svante Solutions has offered to match that $100 million!)

More prizes like that, along with rich-world government funding, will probably generate the necessary technological breakthroughs. After that, it’s just a matter of deploying the technology at larger and larger scales, so that we learn how to make it cheaper and more efficient.

Already, some good things are happening. Startups like Switzerland’s Climeworks AG, Canada’s Carbon Engineering, and the U.S.’ Global Thermostat are pioneering new methods of direct air capture.

And this is how we get to climate fairness. The countries that emitted lots of historical CO2 — the U.S., Europe, Japan, and now China — can pony up the cash to scale up direct air capture, while India and other latecomers to industrialization sit back and relax and build cheap solar plants to power their economic growth. By paying to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, we of the old-money countries can atone for the sins of our ancestors, saving the planet at our own expense.

It’s a perfect solution, except for one thing. It will require trust. The countries of the world must make a pact — if developing countries agree to decarbonize their economies alongside rich countries, today’s rich countries will agree to pull the excess carbon out of the atmosphere once direct air capture technology becomes cheap enough. But since the latter is decades away, the developing countries will have to trust us to go the extra mile when the time comes. China, which produces a huge and growing share of today’s emissions, may find it especially hard to put aside its nationalism trust countries it perceives as its rivals or enemies. And environmental activists in the rich world will need to put aside their suspicion of carbon removal technology and support this grand bargain.

But if a deal can be made, direct air capture offers a way out of the painful unfairness of climate change. It offers us a chance not just to stop doing harm to the Earth, but to undo much of the harm we’ve done.


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