Carbon, Climate Policy, and the New Alchemy

Urban Resilience Project
12 min readSep 10, 2019
Photo credit: Shutterstock

By Lee Epstein

The Problem, in a Nutshell

Unless you live under a rock, you know that most reputable geophysical scientists around the world, especially climatologists and those who study the near-Earth atmosphere, will tell you they are very worried about carbon.

The element, of course, is ubiquitous, and a basic building block of life on Earth. In certain forms, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon has a dual personality. CO2 is essential to plant photosynthesis — the process by which plants turn sunlight into chemical energy by synthesizing sugars from CO2 and water, releasing oxygen in the process. These sugars are stored in carbohydrate molecules, and then used to promote plant growth. Thus CO2, a critical component of photosynthesis, helps grow our food and forests and beneficially leads to the production of the oxygen we breathe.

But the dark side of CO2’s personality is as frightening as carbon is necessary to life. This is because when there is too much of this good thing, it builds up in the atmosphere, producing a “greenhouse effect.” Together with other greenhouse gases (GHGs) like methane and oxides of nitrogen that produce ozone, CO2 acts like a greenhouse’s glass roof, trapping the heat produced by sunlight cast on the earth.

According to the best peer-reviewed science from around the world, which uses direct observational evidence as well as empirically informed, complex computer models, we are now witness to a changing climate largely caused by human activity — and that change is accelerating at an ever-faster pace.

Impacts and Consequences

Indeed, the signs are everywhere, from a quickening of sea-ice melt in certain polar and arctic regions, to glacial retreat, and the speed of ambient air and water temperature changes over time (based on historical, geological, and ice-core records). There is some evidence that catastrophic weather-related events may be accelerating. Global average sea level rise since 1900 is about 7–8 inches, and oceans have become warmer and more acidic due to CO2 uptake. Geographic species shifts are now occurring, including (in the Atlantic) major fish stocks such as silver and red hake, alewife, Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, and lobster.

The consequences of all these pending changes are not fully known. Within 30 or 40 years, however, there will be a few “winners,” and many “losers.” An example of the former is that there may be longer growing seasons for some farmers farther north in the Northern Hemisphere and farther south in the Southern Hemisphere. Much more prevalent, however, are adverse conditions, which include heat, droughts, floods, and new animal and plant disease vectors that will affect U.S. farmers in our southern, western and mid-West climes.

Additionally, in cities along coasts and inland rivers, rising seas and more frequent and intense freshwater floods will inundate infrastructure, commercial-industrial enterprises, spectacular scenic areas, and homes. One recent study by the United States Geological Survey predicted that coastal inundation in California, where seas are expected to rise by 10 inches by 2050 in the “median” forecast, could produce tens of billions of dollars of adverse economic impact by that time. By 2100, 600,000 people and $150B in property in California are at risk from dynamic flooding.

Doubters or deniers like to say, “The climate is always changing” or, “More CO2 will be good for plants.” While of course these truisms are not inherently wrong, the speed and predicted magnitude of the current phenomenon are unmatched, at least for thousands of years. And now, most reputable scientists are certain we are its main change agents.

This picture is serious and sobering, but what to do?

Climate Policy

There is some action occurring on climate policy around the world. While there has been modest progress, the implementation of policies to reduce GHG pollution has been spotty and inconsistent in nation-states, and equally, by sub-national states, provinces, and cities. According to , as of 2017, “at least 29 countries source[d] more than 90 percent of their energy from fossil fuels,” including Israel, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands; China and Ireland sourced 88 and 86 percent, respectively. The U.S. National Academies of Science says that the U.S. proportion is at 81 percent.

Coal-fired power plant. Image by Steve Bussine, Pixabay

The Trump Administration is now unfortunately rushing to reverse previously enacted laws and regulations that would have substantially reduced GHG’s produced in the U.S. over the next decade or two — even as those very policies were only intended as a start. European countries that had previously declared full-throated commitment under the Paris Climate Accord, such as Germany and France, have slowed some public action, and the Western Balkans (for example) are now building a slew of new coal plants. China and India, while taking steps forward, have a very long way to go, and their massive use of fossil fuels has not slowed. Many less developed countries are even farther behind — and their most vulnerable cities are beginning to feel the effects.

Flooding in Thailand. Image by Arek Socha, Pixabay

Public policy attention to climate change solutions around the world is still crucial. Without such policies, the existential threat will not be overcome. But there is some good news. On the “better living through chemistry” front, there are technologies aborning that hold promise for reducing carbon-based pollution, by turning carbon waste products into things we can use. And the “New Alchemy” also encompasses ways to take advantage of the natural world’s ability to absorb carbon, a sort of “old alchemy.”

Climate Technologies: The New Alchemy (I)

Some might find hope in the fact that there are now dozens of research institutions and many more private actors (sometimes known as “carbon-tech” or just “carbon recycling” companies) thinking about how to turn CO2 pollution and waste into “gold:” new fuels, useful chemicals, hybrid materials like concrete or fibers, and other products.

For example, Opus 12, an innovative company headquartered in California, is reengineering waste CO2 into a feedstock, by attaching CO2 capture mechanisms onto waste stacks and (using low-carbon electricity) electrochemically reducing the gas into fuels, chemicals, and other commodities similar to those created through more carbon- and fossil fuel-intensive means. So, instead of making ethylene, a crucial feedstock for making plastics, from natural gas or naptha (oil), and releasing two tons of CO2 per ton of ethylene produced, Opus 12 claims that their process consumes three tons of CO2 per ton of ethylene produced. They’re also involved in creating syngas from CO2, again using renewable sources of electricity to power the electrochemical process.

Another growing California company, Newlight, is making a new polymer, “AirCarbon,” by taking methane and CO2 out of power plant, farm, or landfill exhaust streams, and using microorganisms to pull the carbon out of these gases. Once combined with hydrogen and oxygen, the resulting new bioplastic material is pelletized for use in all kinds of consumer products.

Building materials? They’re in the mix for using up CO2 or methane as well. The British company, Carbon Capture Machine or CCM, is using saline brine and alkalized water, combined with CO2 from flue gases, to make new carbonate materials that can be employed to manufacture top-quality building products like a plasterboard that is light, strong, and inflammable. Their mineralization process produces precipitated calcium carbonate and related feedstocks that can be used in a wide variety of other applications, from pharmaceuticals to paper coatings.

Then there’s C4X, a Chinese company that makes waste CO2 into bioplastics and polymers using surplus energy from either coal-fired or renewable power production. It uses the CO2 it captures from processes that would otherwise discharge it into the atmosphere, and produces ethylene carbonate, a compound which is used in now-ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries, and ethylene glycol, which can be used to make microscopic foamed plastics for various uses such as automotive interiors and packaging materials. Their products can also be used for the efficient manufacture of stable wood-plastic composites for use in furniture and related applications.

At the same time, C2CNT, out of Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., also isolates CO2 from flue gas exhausts, producing extremely strong carbon nanotubes that have innumerable applications. These can replace the use of heavier, energy-intensive materials like aluminum or steel, where these materials have been used in aerospace and motor vehicle production, as well as in building materials.

Carbon nanontube. Image by Dean Simone, Pixabay

Austin-based Skyonic’s “Capital Sky Mine” (Skyonic is part of Toyo-Thai-USA Corporation), is an “older” company in this new universe, having been birthed at the beginning of the current decade. The idea is to “mine” or capture some 15 percent of the significant carbon emissions produced by cement plants, and if the application works there, transfer the technology to other industrial sectors. Skyonic uses its salt-water-electric mineralization conversion process to create sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), bleach, and hydrochloric acid for use in industrial processes.

One somewhat controversial application would be to use the system for carbon capture at coal-fueled power plants. This is controversial because many believe this would simply extend the lives of the plants, and that they should simply shut down entirely — arguing that the entire supply and production chain for coal is so inherently polluting and carbon-intensive as to belie any justification for that industry’s continued existence.

But even if that application is foresworn, there may be others available. Indeed, the major limiting factor for Skyonic appears to be the market for the resulting product mix, although sodium bicarbonate has an extensive list of product uses, including in pyrotechnics, fire extinguishers, pest control, cleaning products, and its use for controlling PH (i.e. to increase alkalinity) in various processes and applications.

Enhancing Natural Processes: The New Alchemy (II)

Some, though maybe not all, of the technological solutions above definitely have their place; there is a need right now to begin reducing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, and some of the processes described above can do that while creating products of significant utility (e.g. new building products). At the same time, some of the products so fashioned may not be desirable for the reasons noted.

The second form of alchemy relies on the “magic” of carbon processing in natural sinks and life-cycles. Two natural systems are especially notable for their ability to absorb and use carbon from the atmosphere: trees and coastal wetlands.

Trees absorb huge amounts of carbon (various species and ages absorb more or less than others), but can trees really “solve” our CO2 problems? One recent study says yes. Though it will take a lot of them (1.2 trillion!), there is apparently plenty of room for that many more around the globe.

Trees. Image by Siggy Norwak, Pixabay

Thomas Crowther and associates at a Swiss university, ETH Zurich, recently undertook an intensive study of the world’s trees — and of environmental conditions (soils, climates, and existing stocks and worldwide land uses) where they can best thrive. His conclusion, summarized in a recent article in YaleEnvironment360: Planting 1.2 trillion trees could cancel out a decade of CO2 emissions. And he said there’s definitely room for that many trees: in deforested areas that could be reforested; scattered among the world’s urban areas; and even within agricultural landscapes. Indeed, the United Nations already has a “Trillion Tree Campaign” underway, having planted nearly 15 billion to date. According to the E360 article, Australia plans to plant a billion on its own, in part to meet its Paris Agreement targets. And Ethiopia recently reportedly planted more than 200 million trees, in one day, toward its goal of planting four billion trees in 2019.

Meanwhile, the world first needs to reverse massive forest losses still occurring, for example, to develop Indonesian and other Southeast Asian palm oil plantations, and in Brazilian rainforests — the latter of which, in July, 2019 alone lost 870 square miles to deforestation for other uses.

Coastal wetlands are the other super-efficient natural system for absorbing and utilizing CO2. According to research gathered for Restore America’s Estuaries (“RAE”), a public interest group, healthy coastal wetlands build up soil, take up carbon from GHGs, and store it in coastal aquatic vegetation and in the ground (they call it the “blue carbon” effect). In fact, RAE’s research shows that these wetlands capture carbon at rates between two and four times greater than forests, on a per-acre basis, and bury carbon in the estuarine wet soils at rates ten times greater than forests. Globally, it is estimated that coastal wetlands store between 84 and 233 million tons of carbon each year. Some, such as mangrove wetland systems, are especially efficient at carbon capture and storage.

Salt marsh. Image by skeeze, Pixabay

The problem right now, however, similar to the problem with forests, is that the U.S. is actually losing tens of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands each year, which releases carbon back into the atmosphere. Indeed, if the U.S. is today still losing or seriously degrading 80,000 acres/year (the amount last reported between 2004–2009) we’re releasing the carbon equivalent, at a minimum, of a loss of 800,000 acres of native forest. Worldwide, “each year, an average of nearly a half billion tons of CO2 (equal to the 2008 emissions of Japan) are released through wetland degradation…”

So, to realize the benefit of blue carbon, the loss of these vital natural habitats and “carbon sponges” must be halted, and indeed, reversed. Doing so will not only provide the “new alchemy” (or perhaps the “very old alchemy”) of yielding massive CO2 capture benefits, but also provide all the other benefits of these crucial natural habitats.

In the End…

Of course, the ultimate efficiency and effectiveness of both these high tech and natural carbon-usage processes depends upon several factors.

On the tech side, the stability of the carbon captured by the end products; the energy balance (the amount of energy necessary to produce them); and whether or not the processes or the products themselves pose significant environmental hazards in their production, end usage, or as waste, are all critical questions. For example, plastics produced this way are just…plastics, and if a truly closed loop recycling system is not engineered in, the result is merely another way to produce something which adds to our landfill mountains and the oceans full of waste that we already cannot manage.

For the “natural alchemy” ideas, the main questions revolve not around whether the systems can be effective, but whether we can first staunch their losses, then efficiently get them back “in the ground” in time, and finally, do so in a way that avoids displacing other important economic uses (including agriculture), or substantial populations.

It is, of course, far better not to produce the waste CO2 in the first place, but we are at least a few decades away from the massive industrial revolution that can achieve that end, so some of the new technologies may be good interim mechanisms. At the least, for the next 20–30 years, both carbon-tech and natural carbon-using systems can complement what must be a much more aggressive set of public policy solutions to drastically — and quickly — reduce, then eliminate the production of CO2 and other GHGs into the atmosphere.

At the least, we ought to be making “stuff” out of CO2 that we really need and that doesn’t add to other sustainability problems. On the natural side of the equation, we know that those systems can enhance our lives in numerous ways.

We need to do all these things right now: begin embracing expansive new public policies, effective tech solutions, and enhancements of the natural world, to reduce CO2 atmospheric inputs and slow our warming world. It’s not a moment too soon.

Lee Epstein is an urban planner and environmental lawyer who has published widely in both professional journals and the popular press. He has a keen interest in climate change challenges and solutions.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published August 27, 2019 in Resilience.

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