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Engineering | Center for Negative Carbon Emissions (CNCE)

The world has dumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it is not enough anymore to stop dumping.  It has become necessary to clean up the mess and remove the excess carbon from the environment. This poses more than just technical problems of capture and storage.  It is easy to claim carbon removal. But how does a paying customer know that this value has actually been delivered?  Carbon dioxide is a waste management service, which needs an accounting and certification methodology that engenders trust that the carbon has indeed been removed and safely stored.

Large public efforts or efforts by large corporations like oil companies would likely be viewed as trustworthy.  Transparency in public institutions and reputational risk to large corporations would make it likely that their claims of carbon removal be accepted.  However, neither one of these approaches is likely to move forward in the short term, and there are likely many opportunities for smaller efforts to produce real carbon removal, but these require clear and transparent rules and affordable verification methods that enable third parties to oversee the disposal of carbon taken from the environment. The challenge here becomes to connect producers of carbon removal with individuals and corporations that are willing to buy carbon removal at an affordable transaction cost. I have been advising Nori,[i] a company that aims to create a blockchain-based accounting system for carbon removal with an initial focus on sequestration in agriculture and forestry.  As the company founders can tell you, I am not enamored with blockchains, nor do consider increasing soil carbon the best place to start, but I applaud them to get going and offer an opportunity for creating a market for carbon removal options.

For carbon waste management to become mandatory, it needs to be tested.  In order to be tested, volunteers need to try it out.   Here is where certifiers and market makers can make the difference.  Think of oil companies, logistic companies, airlines buy certificates of carbon removal to balance their emissions.  Think of individuals and organizations take back the carbon they emitted in the past.  These activities will not by themselves grow large enough to fix climate change, but they can change the debate, and just like for sewage, garbage they can provide a path toward institutionalizing a requirement that makes individuals and corporations responsible for their future emissions.

[i]   Christophe Jospe, one of the co-founders of Nori, and I co-authored a paper on carbon dioxide as a waste management issue before Nori was founded.  (Lackner, Klaus S., and Christophe Jospe. “Climate Change is a Waste Management Problem.” ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY 33, no. 3 (2017): 83-88.)  So far, my advising to Nori has been pro-bono.  The only benefits I received are travel expenses for attending a Nori organized conference in Seattle.