Project Management

Ten CO2 Risk Response Pathways

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As project managers we are (or should be!) very familiar with the concepts of risk response, including secondary and residual risk.  As a quick refresher, secondary risk is new risk (threat or opportunity) generated by the risk response.  For example, an air bag is a risk response to the impact of a car crash on a human.  It is possible that this very air bag causes injury to you (this has happened - see this video).  The new threat, generated by the air bag, is a secondary risk (in this case, clearly a threat).  If the air bag does not do a sufficient job in reducing the impact (perhaps it does not inflate fully), and injury still occurs, then that’s residual risk.

In this post, I’ll talk about CO2 emissions (which 99% of scientists agree is a threat) and the threat responses that have been proposed.  This is taken mainly from a Nature magazine article from this month (Vol 575, P87) and 10 “pathways”, which we can consider risk responses, and the potential secondary and residual risks of these pathways.  

Below is the abstract from the article:

"The capture and use of carbon dioxide to create valuable products might lower the net costs of reducing emissions or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Here we review ten pathways for the utilization of carbon dioxide. Pathways that involve chemicals, fuels and microalgae might reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but have limited potential for its removal, whereas pathways that involve construction materials can both utilize and remove carbon dioxide. Land-based pathways can increase agricultural output and remove carbon dioxide. Our assessment suggests that each pathway could scale to over 0.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide utilization annually. However, barriers to implementation remain substantial and resource constraints prevent the simultaneous deployment of all pathways."


The pathways focus on utilization of carbon dioxide, as opposed to carbon capture and storage (CCS) which I have blogged about several times on People, Planet, Profit, and Projects, for example here, and here.

Why talk about this in a project management blog?  Well, there’s already the connection to risk identification, analysis, response, and control, but the ten pathways discussed here each offer significant potential for project initiation – and project management jobs.  So there’s another good rationale to cover this topic!

So: on to the ten ‘utilization pathways’.  Utilization here refers to the use of carbon dioxide – not as naturally occurring, but ‘concentrated’ at levels above those found in nature – to serve as raw material to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process (feedstock).  One example is using derivatives of ammonia to capture and condense the CO2 from the air for use as feedstock.  The article defines utilization as “a process in which one or more economically valuable products are produced using CO2 whether the CO2 is supplied from fossil-derived waste gases, captured from the atmosphere by an industrial process, or – in a departure from most of the literature – captured biologically by land-based processes”.

Covered below are some – not all – of the utilization pathways, but the ten that are illustrated will give you an idea of the potential projects that could be launched, and some of the secondary and residual risks involved.

In short form, the 10 pathways are:

  1. Chemicals from CO2
  2. Fuels from CO2
  3. Products from microalgae
  4. Concrete building materials
  5. CO2 Enhanced Oil Recovery
  6. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
  7. Enhanced weathering
  8. Forestry techniques
  9. Soil carbon sequestration techniques
  10. Biochar (see this reference)

The image below (from Nature magazine) provides a clear graphic explanation, including net flows, and coding as to whether the pathway is closed, cycling, or open.

(Figure from cited Nature magazine article)

Fascinating to me as a project manager were facts such as this:

“perverse indirect effects – such as land-use change resulting from BECCS* – could increase net atmospheric CO2 concentrations”.

*Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage

This is actually up for debate.  See the video below for coverage of that scientific debate about BECCS:

As far as the 10 pathways, I won’t discuss them all, but here are a couple of examples (see the article for a table that summarizes all of them):


Enhanced Weathering:

In this technique, atmospheric CO2 is mineralized through the use of pulverized igneous rocks to be used for cropland, grassland and forests.  The product is agricultural crop biomass, and it has low probability of release, except under extreme acidic conditions.  The process is described in the 8-minute video below from Harvard University.

Products from microalgae:

CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by microalgae, producing biofuels, and bioproducts such as food for aquaculture (fish farming).  This has a high probability of release, based on combustion and consumption of the bioproducts.

This process is explained in the short video below:

Again, what was fascinating to me as a project manager was the attention that this article gave to secondary and residual risk.  In particular there is a sidebar in the article dedicated to “net climate benefit” which refers to doing LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) on the entire pathway to see if the process under consideration actually does contribute a net benefit or a net problem with respect to carbon impact.  The conclusion of this article is as follows:

Life-cycle analyses on some industrial CO2 utilization pathways suggest that the potential for net emission reductions is much larger than for net removals (CCS) which appears very modest.

The article closes with a mildly optimistic view of the pathways of carbon utilization:

CO2 utilization is not an end in itself, and these pathways solely or even collectively will not provide a key solution to climate change.  Nevertheless, there is a substantial societal value in continued efforts to determine what will and will not work, in what contexts the climate will or will not benefit from CO2 utilization and how expensive it will be.

From a project management perspective, the “efforts to determine what will and will not work” sounds to me like a set of projects to be launched.  The 10 pathways are already launching real projects all over the world, and the lessons learned from the life-cycle analyses are applicable to projects of all kinds.

So whether this means a new job – or even a new career path – for you, or whether this simply yields a learning opportunity, there’s value in discovering what is being done in this area of CO2 utilization.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: November 19, 2019 11:47 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Thanks for sharing & giving us this interesting approach.

Population growth poses a deadlier threat than current CO2 emissions. With the outer core of the earth filled with liquid iron of some 1,500 miles deep (200 times deeper than the deepest oceans), the next volcanic-inspired extinction will dwarf current CO2 emissions by a factor of thousands or millions. Fix population and pollution, and we will be on the way to fixing the planet. CO2 will be reduced naturally by the evolution of technology, but that same technology will bring something far worse than CO2.

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