It's a "good news/bad news" situation.
The good news: there's enough technology available now to solve the climate change problem. That's because solar and wind power are now highly competitive technologies. Add to that is the fact that the technology for all electric and hybrid vehicles is now sufficiently good that the world could move fairly quickly to a vehicle fleet composed largely of alternative power. Plus, technology keeps improving in a broad range of ways, so alternative energy solutions keep getting better.
And we don't have to eliminate all carbon emissions, just enough to restore the natural equilibrium that existed until just a few years ago.
Now the bad news: we're in a race against the clock to implement these technologies on a large enough scale to prevent TOO MUCH climate change. Some people think it's already too late, but I prefer to be optimistic.
So what might be done to speed up the transition and "beat the clock"?
Some people think that this is the perfect time for a good dictator: just implement changes by governmental fiat. Presto … boom … problem solved! China's approach comes to mind. The good news is that the Chinese government seems now to understand the risks to the planet, and large scale alternative energy investments are now underway.
But anyone who's ever lived under a dictator will quickly tell you it's no panacea … climate change or not. Besides, most of the world doesn't live that way … and the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan certainly don't.
So if you don't happen to live in the Peoples Republic of China, just how do you speed up the transition to a world of much lower carbon emissions? Here are five ways OTHER THAN WIND, SOLAR, AND ELECTRIC VEHICLES this could be done; and it could be done even if the Trump Administration maintains its negative attitude about climate change risks.
#1: Increase research in negative emissions technologies
It all starts with basic research and technology. After all, a key reason wind, solar, and electric vehicles are commercially viable today is because of R&D. A promising strategy is to encourage more research into "negative emissions technologies", of which there are four types:
- Bioenergy in combination with carbon capture and storage (BCCS)
- Enhanced weathering
- Direct capture of CO2.
Afforestation is the idea of planting lots more trees around the world to soak up all of the excess CO2. It's a great natural solution, with a big problem: it takes up huge amounts of land and is water intensive.
More likely, the other three strategies have the most potential. Let's look at some of the most promising research. Professor Daniel Nocera at Harvard University is developing what's called an artificial leaf. The idea is to mimic the natural process of chlorophyll in plants: combine water and CO2 in the air, along with sunlight, to produce glucose and oxygen. He and his team are trying to convert the sugar produced by this into a useful fuel source. The other approach they're taking is to add bacteria to the sugar byproduct to produce a nitrogen based fertilizer.
As reported by Forbes, "Nocera has an even bigger vision for the basic technology. Beyond producing hydrogen and carbon-rich fuels in a sustainable way, he has demonstrated that equipping the system with a different metabolically altered bacterium can produce nitrogen-based fertilizer right in the soil, an approach that would increase crops yields in areas where conventional fertilizers are not readily available. The bacterium uses the hydrogen and CO to form a biological plastic that serves as a fuel supply. Once the microbe contains enough plastic, it no longer needs sunshine, so it can be buried in the soil. After drawing nitrogen from the air, it exploits the energy and hydrogen in the plastic to make the fertilizer. Radishes grown in soil containing the microbes ended up weighing 150 percent more than control radishes. Nocera admits that he initially ran the fertilizer test just to see if the idea would work. He envisions a time, however, when bacteria will "breathe in hydrogen" produced by water splitting and ultimately use the hydrogen to produce desired products ranging from fuels to fertilizers, plastics and drugs, depending on the specific metabolic alterations designed for the bugs."
At the same time, Professor Jonas Peters at CalTech is conducting experiments to convert CO2 in the atmosphere into multiple carbon products. The preferred strategy is to create by-products with carbon/carbon bonds. The reason for this is that such products tend to be in liquid form. A liquid makes it easier to store energy.
#2: Encourage "impact investment" in carbon capture/negative emissions
What these scientists are doing is highly speculative basic research. Even if such research produces useful products, much of it probably won't be commercialized. That's a key reason why so much basic research is funded by the government. Unfortunately, in the current climate in the USA, it's hard to get lots of basic research funded, particularly by a Federal Government headed by climate change deniers.
But while the Federal government is a logical participant, there are other entities that might be just as suitable. State governments are a possibility, though their budgets are very constrained. Perhaps the best alternative source is "impact investors".
So just what is impact investing? It refers to investments "made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return." Instead of just giving money with no expectation of a return, the impact investor seeks a return of all funds invested, as well as some type of financial return on the investment. This is all in addition to doing good. With respect to the problem of greenhouse gases, it makes tremendous sense.
Impact investing funds could do the following for carbon capture and storage:
- Make direct investments in companies in the alternate energy space
- Make direct investments in carbon capture companies
- Make investments in organizations such as the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis.
How might an impact investor get a return from an investment in basic research? One way might be to get patent rights assigned to the impact investor for any intellectual property arising from the research. Such research requires patient capital. Impact investors typically aren't looking for quarterly returns. Impact investing capital can be patient, and it might be an important key in financing carbon capture R&D.
#3: Increase investments in carbon capture businesses
Part of the good news is that carbon capture has moved beyond the laboratory. Not a lot of people realize is that there are a number of commercial businesses already doing this. Here's a quick, partial list of new, smaller firms:
But carbon capture isn't the exclusive province of start up companies. Among big companies – including some "Big Bad Oil Companies" involved in this are:
Bottom line: more investment is needed in these companies. Impact investors could be a good source of capital.
#4: Create a bigger market for the products of carbon capture companies
The carbon capture companies listed above have technology that works, but always remember, you can have the greatest imaginable technology, but not enough customers and you're out of business. So for this to be a success, the market for carbon capture products needs to grow.
So another strategy is to find ways to increase business with those companies. For example, Climeworks, mentioned earlier, is a Zurich, Switzerland based company that builds modular plants that remove CO2 from the air and concentrates it. Being modular, the plants can be of widely different sizes and can be placed most anywhere. Their footprints are pretty small, too.
One way would be for state and local governments to require companies emitting greenhouse gases to install plants to capture some of the gases emitted. In the case of electric utilities, regulation is at the state level so it doesn't matter that the Trump Administration opposes this. A given state public utility commission could tell a utility, you can continue to operate your coal fired plant but you must make an investment in a Climeworks style plant to remove a part of the pollution you create.
That, however, is a regulatory solution. How do we get it so consumers and businesses WANT to invest in carbon capture products and technology?
The fifth strategy may well provide the answer.
#5: Adopt a carbon transfer payment in the USA
Implementing a carbon tax is an old idea that's been implemented in various countries around the world, but certainly hasn't been in the USA. It's an elegant solution to the problem … that's dead on arrival in the USA. The US Congress hasn't raised the gasoline tax in a generation, and that money goes to fund repair and construction, providing an obvious, tangible benefit. If that's the case, it's hard to believe it would implement a carbon tax.
But there actually might be a way to do this, and it comes from the most unexpected place – a conservative Republican named Ted Halstead. Halstead gave a very interesting TED Talk in 2017 on this subject.
Here's the funny thing about Halstead's idea – it isn't really a tax at all. It's a transfer payment that goes disproportionately to the less well off. What it does is place a "tax" on any product that emits carbon. That would include, for example, oil and gas, as well as coal. It would mean that prices of gasoline, electricity, and chemical products that are based upon petrochemicals would increase. The increases would, of course, be a function how much carbon they include. So in that sense, it would be a tax – a "no no" for Republicans.
But this is where it gets interesting. All of the money would be collected, then the money collected would be equally divided amongst all USA citizens and distributed. That's what's called a "transfer payment". Billionaires and paupers would each receive the exact same amount. The idea is that it would cover the cost of the higher prices associated with use of carbon products.
The funny thing about this is that Trumpian America should love this. This would provide regular payments to the down and out – and it would do it without increasing the deficit a penny. No additional bureaucracy, unless you somehow think the US Postal Service will have to hire more people to deliver all of the checks.
This would likely make carbon based products more expensive and would help spur a transition to alternative energy. As traditional carbon based products get more expensive, wind, solar, and carbon capture all become more attractive. In the meantime, the extra cost that US consumers would pay for products would be offset by the transfer payments.
Yes, definitely a good news/bad news scenario. Will we make the transition in time to prevent catastrophic climate change due to a global temperature increases? Only God knows the answer to that. In the meantime, we have ways to deal with it. The real question is, do we have the will to make it happen before the clock runs out?