Addition by Subtraction

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Richard Maltzman
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Ten Years After

You think it’s important to reduce carbon emissions?  Think again.  Sure, it is important, and whatever you believe about climate change and its causes, you hopefully agree that IF the global temperatures are rising, we want to understand it.   So, here’s a little-known fact.  The pledge at the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, is going to require not only emission reduction, it’s going to require removing carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, 87% of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change models make assumptions that include ‘negative emissions’.  Wise project managers know that assumptions are the ‘seeds’ of threats and opportunities.  And that project management truth holds true here as well.

That’s right: the agreements reached in Paris, and somewhat reaffirmed in Bonn last week include assumptions.  They assume that the portfolio of programs and projects to bring down the rising global temperature includes not only initiatives which aim at emitting fewer tons of greenhouse gasses, but importantly, also projects to significantly remove vast amounts of greenhouse gasses already present.  Otherwise stated, it means we need to undo what’s been done.  And that means we’ll need to create carbon sinks.

That’s where science – and project management – will need to come to the rescue.

Take Sweden for example.  In a recent article (“Sucking up carbon”) from The Economist, Sweden’s lawmakers have passed legislation which requires no net emissions of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by 2045.  Even if everyone in Sweden went to fully-renewable sources of power and drove electric vehicles, they would still be emitting (adding) greenhouse gasses by virtue of (for example) use of fertilizer and from use of airplanes.  This ‘net zero’ will therefore call for the removal (subtracting) of greenhouse gasses with emergent and not-yet-invented technology.

What really makes a difference with respect to climate change is the total amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  If we need to keep the temperature stable it means staying inside a certain budget of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  If we go over our budget, even with strict “spending controls”, we will need to balance that budget via extraction.  So let’s talk extraction for a moment.

As any good project manager should, let’s begin with the end in mind and understand our project objective.  In the long term, this is a gigantic impending aspiration.  The numbers are actually mind-boggling.  To take into account the aforementioned assumptions – the median IPCC model – assumes the extraction of 810 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2100.  Stated in different terms this means “undoing” 20 years of our global emissions (taken at the current rate) by that year.

The Economist article discusses NETS (negative-emissions technologies), the generic term for techniques which serve as carbon sinks. One family of NETS is BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which involves power stations fueled by crops that can be burned generate energy while injecting the carbon into the ground rather than into the air.  The problem with this technology is that it is at least twice as expensive as standard power generation and it cannot produce the size of sink necessary for the large numbers in the objective.

Another technique is afforestation – the regrowth of deforested logging areas – very large areas.  It has been estimated that the area of afforestation would have to be somewhere in the range of sizes between India and Canada – up to 68% of the world’s arable land.  Clearly, this technique alone will not suffice.

The other technologies don’t yet exist, meaning the projects are in the research and development stage.  Machines designed to capture carbon dioxide from the air are problematic.  If you try to extract CO2 from a smokestack of a power plant – no problem; the concentration, there is 10%.  Try the same in the atmosphere, and although levels are indeed historically high, the concentration is only 0.04%.  Still, companies like Global Thermostat in the US, Carbon Engineering in Canada, and Climeworks of Switzerland are working on such contraptions.  Here is a video explaining what Global Thermostat is up to:

And here is one from Climeworks:

Other thinking in this area includes techniques to accelerate how the soil and natural weathering processes remove CO2 from the air.

But here’s the thing: mechanical techniques at the moment show only 40 million tons of CO2 per year.  Remember our project objective?  It was 810 billion tons by 2100.  That’s 10 billion per year.  40 million, as they say, ain’t going to cut it.

So there will need to be a wave of innovation over the next decades which focus on adding value by subtracting carbon (and other greenhouse gasses).  This will spell opportunity for large R&D as well as deployment projects, which in turn will require informed, inspired, capable project managers.  Are you ready for a challenge?  Get informed, stay informed, and get ever more curious about greenhouse gas extraction.  We’re hoping that this story provided you with a good (excuse the pun) takeaway.

For more information about the technologies involved, try these sources:

The Guardian: Startups have figured out how to remove carbon from the air. Will anyone pay them to do it?

Knowledge@Wharton – Can carbon extraction solve the climate crisis?

TED Talk - This country isn't just carbon neutral — it's carbon negative

Science Magazine – In Switzerland, a giant machine is sucking carbon directly from the air

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: November 25, 2017 01:45 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Let's not forget that people and animals are carbon, not to mention methane, emitters. Even if our factories were a net zero emitters, we'd still need sinks just for the living.

Yeah, why are we so obsessed with getting rid of the carbon that was blasted out of a star and forged into our planet and bodies. The day after we get rid of the carbon, an asteroid will probably hit us anyway. Chill ;-)

Interesting article.

very interesting
We need to repair many many thing that we keep on destroying CO2 is one, Plastic in the environment! we are now eating the plastic we put in the ocean, when eating fish or seafood!

Many projects of restoring our planet!

@Sante, appreciate your comment as always. Cyanide is also present in over 2000 plants ( and that's something we avoid obsessively - for good reason. 97% of scientists tell us that carbon (not in and of itself, but in the form of CO2 along with other greenhouse gasses) is causing ill-effects on our planet. I happen to believe them. But even if they're wrong (and the 3% who deny it are right), the opportunities I've mentioned for PMs are actually happening, so I'd assert that it still helps PMs to be informed about them.

Thanks Richard, I do find the numbers misleading. Yes if we only look at the last few hundred years, the global temps have risen. But then temps have spiked every thousand years or so. If you look at 1000 years ago in medieval times, 2000 years ago in Roman times, and 3000 years ago in Minoan times, these times were above what they are now. In fact they were called the Minoan Warm Period, The Roman Warm Period, and the Medieval Warm Period respectively. Those periods eventually dropped and then began a slow rise again, not dissimilar to the current upswing in global temps.

A similar spike presents itself every 100,000 years or so also. Regarding Co2 levels, over 400 million years ago in the Ordovician Period, C02 levels were more tan 10 times the current level, and yet the global temperature was about the same, so that kind of debunks that Co2 alone is responsible for global temps.

I always get into hot water when I talk this way, I mean in social circles, but there numbers are the numbers, and we can interpret all day long.

But certainly there is a statistical correlation between rising Co2 levels and health/environmental issues, and to your point, that alone is a good reason for projects and project managers to assist in reducing these effects.

Nice to read, everyone should take action on Co2.

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