The Big Suck
The "Lean In" Solution to Climate Change We Desperately Need
All it takes is a cursory look at the news to see that our world is changing, and faster than ever before. It seems like every month a new disaster looms, threatening to put lives in danger and billions of dollars of infrastructure at stake. Whether it be the infamous west coast wildfires, the Texas blizzard of 2021 (which you can read about here), an unprecedented heatwave in the pacific northwest, or a devastating hurricane, the true costs of climate change seem to be showing themselves more and more clearly. However, this should not be cause for lament! Do not succumb to the cult of the climate doomer! Humanity already has solutions at hand to address the issue of climate change, the most exciting of which I’d like to talk about today. But before I present any solutions, let’s take a moment to define the problem.
There is simply too much CO2 in the air. To put in perspective the rate of change, here’s a graph.
CO2 concentrations have risen by 46% over the past ~2000 years. Of the IR absorbing particles that make up our atmosphere, (most of our atmosphere does not produce a greenhouse effect) CO2 makes up just over 9%. However, the vast majority of this class of particles (~90%) is water, which given the surface area of the ocean is not something we can really control directly. Our tampering with this 9% worth of global greenhouse gasses has been devastating to the planet, and increasingly to ourselves. However, there is a simple question that not a lot of people ask once they come to know this information. Why do we keep doing it?
How we got here.
We know what one side of the tradeoff looks like, so what could have compelled us to continue to use fossil fuels and pump more CO2 into the atmosphere? Well, there are really two answers to this question. The first, is that on the whole, industrialization has been good. Like really good. Like kind of the best thing to ever happen to our species. One way to see this is by looking at the graph of poverty over time and comparing it to the graph of atmospheric carbon levels above.
As you can see, things have been getting better since around 1800, right when we hit our stride in terms of industrialization. While there are certainly other ways one could frame the world to try to show depreciation of human welfare, these tend to fall apart in the face of data and are mainly the result of negativity bias. Thus, the question is not whether the world has gotten better as a result of industrialization, it’s whether the world has improved enough for the process to be worth the cost of carbonizing the atmosphere.
I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question, as it’s a tradeoff where both sides are difficult to measure. But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe, with technology, we can have our cake and eat it, too. To be clear, I am not arguing for de-growth or de-industrialization. I think those ideas are both steps backwards in terms of human progress and rather unimaginative ones at that. It would simply be too hard and possibly too morally reprehensible to tell someone in the developing world that no, they won’t be getting a malaria net, because the atmosphere has too much carbon. We can do better than that. Here’s how.
There have been huge leaps in greening the grid recently, with the ever increasing affordability of wind and solar renewables shouldering a lot of energy demand for a low (but not 0) carbon cost. Eventually, we may reach net 0 carbon emissions this way, at least in large point source emission scenarios like power plants. However, this process will take an astoundingly long time, and doesn’t begin to address the problem of the carbon in our atmosphere, meaning that the higher temps would persist for a long time, the permafrost could still melt, releasing naturally occurring reserves of CO2 and also CH4 (Methane) into the atmosphere, spiraling us into hotter and hotter temps despite total carbon emissions capture.
The Big Suck
Some people call it carbon capture or carbon dioxide removal , but I prefer “The Big Suck” to capture the scale we’re talking about here. Specifically, this is not referring to capturing carbon at a point source like a smokestack, as those systems really only serve to reduce carbon emissions. That’s great, but it doesn’t soak up the carbon that’s already out there. I’m talking about large scale, atmospheric carbon capture.
Obviously, our basic understanding of chemicals concentrations informs us that this is a lot more energy intensive, because carbon in the atmosphere is much less densely packed per unit of air than carbon at a smoke stack. This means that if we want to run our “Big Suck Machine” (TM) that we’ll need a LOT of energy, and that’s something that renewables just cannot provide. So where ought we turn? I have two answers.
1.) Nuclear energy.
With the advent of fusion reactors on the horizon (admittedly, this has been said for a decade), we are on the precipice of cheap, carbon clean energy, and in huge amounts. Doing some back of the napkin math, with current carbon removal tech like that of Climeworks, cited at around 8 GJ/tCO2 removed (source for this stat here), and 3210 gigatons of CO2, we know we would need 11,812,800,000,000 GJ to pull the 46% extra carbon in the atmosphere out. Currently, the world has a nuclear capacity of 415000MW, or 415 GJ/s, meaning at current capacity, it would take 54,156 years to filter all the extra carbon out of the atmosphere exclusively using the power from existing nuclear plants, or alternatively, in order to accomplish this feat in 50 years, at current carbon removal efficiency rates, we’d need nuclear energy to become 1000x more efficient (more than that because it takes time to build new plants). This is not to say that nuclear isn’t one of the best options, as it still outstrips almost every other power generation method in terms of energy density. It would probably be impossible to even consider powering The Big Suck with solar or wind.
1000x the efficiency of nuclear power isn’t as daunting a task as it seems though, because nuclear reactors and the efficiency of carbon capture are both improving. Just this week, two separate companies (Terrestrial Energy and Thorcon) announced that they’ve made breakthroughs in commercializing nuclear fusion. With the added scalability and safety of fusion, we could build many more reactors and operate them at higher and higher rates of efficiency. In fact, much of the barrier to nuclear innovation is not bounded by the laws of physics, but rather the laws of regulators. Regulations on nuclear construction are so strict that they’ve essentially stopped us from building anything other than the 1960s style Homer Simpson nuclear plants. This has created a huge disconnect between what’s become scientifically possible in nuclear energy and what is politically feasible, seemingly getting worse as each day passes, with countries that had previously been innovators like Japan and Germany shutting down many of their plants in favor of coal plants (of all things). I still argue for optimism in this case, because of all problems to have, ones that can be overcome with a simple signature are preferable to ones that may require years of research.
2.) Geothermal energy.
It just so happens that most of the energy used in “Big Suck” tech is in the form of heat energy, which warms up water to capture the carbon and concentrate it for collection. Nuclear plants are a great way to make a lot of heat energy, but what if there was heat energy already available?
Enter geothermal energy plants. Just take a look at the following graph to get a sense of scale we’re talking about here. Geothermal energy, just in the crust, (not including deep core reserves)
The geothermal energy reservoir contains 1500000000000000000GJ, meaning if we could tap into that energy, we could use it to decarbonize that atmosphere 126,000 times over (using the aforementioned napkin math). Or put another way, we would only need to capture 1/126000th of it to power The Big Suck. Besides their high potential, geothermal plants have another advantage as compared to nuclear. They have yet to draw the ire of regulators. This means that innovations in this space could translate much more easily and quickly into real world applications. In fact, there are already companies working to make this a reality, like Quaise Energy, who I highly encourage anyone interested in geothermal energy to check out. Geothermal may be closer to tomorrow than we expect as well, because they use a lot of the same technology as fracking, and can even reuse the same drill shafts.
“Her team is building a network of autonomous drone ships that will trawl the great pacific garbage patch, planting, growing, and eventually sinking deep sea kelp as a means of carbon sequestration. They estimate that at scale, they could remove a ton of carbon for $100. This pattern of price reduction mimics that of renewable energy, and is likely to accelerate as the market for carbon offsets and climate change mitigation develops and matures.”
So, let’s sum up. There’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, and it is beginning to wreak havoc on our world. But, we put it there for a good reason, and we are better off living in an industrialized society than one focused on degrowth. Additionally, there are solutions on the horizon that mean we don’t have to give up our quality of life improvements to reverse climate change. This includes many technologies that reduce emissions like carbon capture and greening the grid with renewables like solar, wind and hydro. The problem with these technologies is that they do not address the problem of the carbon that is already in our atmosphere. Taking into account the effect that maintaining current carbon levels will have on natural carbon sinks like the permafrost layer, boreal peat bogs, or the ocean means that even if we hit net zero emissions with the aforementioned tech, temperatures and extreme weather events may continue to spiral out of control. Thus, our only out is to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere. There are companies out there that are doing this, funded by big names like Stripe and even Elon Musk (via XPRIZE) but they rely mainly on renewable energy sources, which cannot provide the necessary power at scale without huge efficiency leaps on both ends. Nuclear power seems ready to make those efficiency leaps, with the advent of fusion ever on the horizon, but is hamstrung by regulators. One alternative power source may be crustal geothermal energy, which not only dwarfs nuclear in available power but is likely to be less heavily regulated and thus could experience the necessary growth rate to pair with current DAC machines for us to achieve The Big Suck. Also interesting are some projects that seek to use biology rather than machines to accomplish, such as kelp, algae, and peat moss farming, or the possible reintroduction of wooly mammoths to the Siberian plain.
Needless to say, there are tons of new technologies out there, and as the problem of climate change and our carbonized atmosphere grows larger, so too will the marketplace of solutions. I hope that in reading this, you’ve learned something today and have come away with a sense of excitement for the future of our world. Thanks for reading,
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