The New Carbon Economy: Doing Well by Doing Good
My second favorite thing to do is drink coffee.
Dedicated aficionados are familiar with a curious fact of coffee roasting: the beans off-gas twice their volume in CO2. This process takes a few days, depending on origin and degree of roasting. That’s why one doesn’t grind and drink beans immediately after roasting – to let CO2 exit the bean and improve the flavor.
Very few aficionados know this next fact: today we can capture the off-gassed CO2, convert it into plastic, and print a bespoke plastic mug to drink that coffee brewed.
This fact is only recently true. Today, we can turn our most prolific and problematic waste, CO2, into something valuable. Call this the New Carbon Economy: harvesting CO2 for fun and profit.
Almost every solid substance in our world that is not metal or rock – cement, plastic, and carbon fiber – is made of carbon. Even some rocks (limestone and marble) are made of carbon. Transportation fuels (like gasoline and diesel) are made of carbon, and many commodity chemicals are built from the stuff.
As such, large markets exist for products made from carbon. The world makes about 57 billion tons of carbon-based products that aren’t food every year. Today, much of that carbon could be replaced by CO2 captured from point sources. In the near future, that could be replaced by CO2 capture from the air.
What’s news is that we’re not that far away. Many companies are already converting CO2 into products. Solidia (and others) turn CO2 into concrete. Novomer (and others) turn CO2 into plastic. Some companies (like Ion Engineering or Inventys) capture CO2 from power and industrial sources. Others (like Climeworks, Carbon Engineering, and Global Thermostat) capture CO2 from the air.
If you assemble these facts, it’s possible to imagine a very different manufacturing future, where one could buy zero-C fuels at the petrol station, made from CO2 captured from the air. Alternatively, you could capture CO2 at your home and use distributed clean energy to convert it into fuel for your tractor (or plastic for your clothes and dishes, made at home with a 3D printer). A cradle-to-cradle, circular economy using green energy and carbon from the air.
Reality check: we’re still pretty far from this vision today, and getting there ain’t easy.
Burning carbon-based fuels like diesel or natural gas releases a lot of energy. That’s why they’re good fuels! Turning them back into fuels takes more energy than you got in the first place (the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a harsh mistress and cannot be cheated). Also, ALL the energy inputs must be near-zero carbon heat and power, or else more CO2 is released that captured or recycled, and the climate benefits are voided.
To make it real, we need three things: green power, green heat, and money. As the New Carbon Economy launches, it will become the world’s largest market for all three.
Thankfully, we now know that there are many sources of both green heat and power, and they continue to get cheaper and better. In fact, abundant cheap, clean energy is driving the radical transformation we see in many parts of our energy system. Every year around the world, you can buy more clean energy for $1.
As solar and wind costs drop, you can buy more of power for the same money. This strong, linear growth means we have more energy to do more things.
For complicated reasons, we also over-generate green power. In 2016, California alone curtailed 308 GigaWatt-hours of electricity. We could put that energy to work manufacturing super-low carbon goods, for sale domestically and abroad.
Despite that, materials made from clean energy and CO2 today cost more than conventional materials made from hydrocarbons. To reach the promised land, we need to stimulate these industries and efforts to lower costs and improve the products.
Thankfully, companies and governments have tried and true methods to do just that – lower costs and monetize value. Here’s a few:
- Procurement: Many advanced technologies (like supercomputers and flat-screen TV’s) worked their way down the cost curve through government procurement. This was true for many energy technologies, including advanced batteries, fuel cells, and solar panels. A new law in California, the Buy Clean CA Act, provides that exact authority – it allows the state to purchase some materials at a higher price if it has a low carbon footprint. The idea behind the law is to stimulate manufacturing of low-carbon goods, greater industries and jobs, and have a competitive export economy for the global market.
- Labeling: Customers often will pay more for a product if they believe it embraces their values or improves the world. Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch is one example. Fair Trade Coffee is another. If conventional products (like plastic bottles or computer cases) were made from cradle2cradle, circular economy renewable carbon feedstocks, some consumers might willingly pay more. The higher cost of the material would be covered by the higher value of the product, which would fetch a higher price.
- Codes and standards: Building codes, infrastructure codes, and other statutes require certain materials be used in construction, and that those materials meet certain standards. These codes and standards direct the way that companies and governments buy and use materials in their work. These codes can be updated to require use of certain kind of materials, and the standards can be updated to accept the new materials (and guarantee that they perform as needed).
In my first blog, I laid out the daunting nature of climate math. Some days, that math makes me pessimistic. What keeps me optimistic is that the New Carbon Economy is part of the path out of the woods. I see it as only part of the solution set, but that part creates wealth and jobs, creates a better built environment, and creates investment opportunities for those who seek them – making better materials to make a better world.
Already, a group of universities, National Labs, NGOs, and companies have formed a New Carbon Economy Consortium. You can find their initial report and manifesto here. We’re working as a group together to create early roadmaps for the research, development, investment, and human capital needed to create this enormous new economic enterprise.
More groups are joining, and more enthusiasm is building. That enthusiasm is reflected in new organization like Global CO2 Initiative and 300×2050.com, as well as buy institutional investors and energy companies. They are all motivated by the same sensibility: doing well by doing good.
That’s as fine a reason to wake and work as any I know. Now that we’re woke – let’s work.