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The most important carbon dioxide removal question

Protocol Climate

Hello and good day, Protocol Climates. (Pronounced cli-mates. We’re practicing being Aussie today.) It’s a busy week at Protocol with the entire staff meeting in D.C., but we couldn’t leave your inbox high and dry, so here we are, serving up a dive into how much carbon dioxide removal we might need and — in a turning of the tables — a little Q&A with our Lisa Martine Jenkins. Throw a vegan shrimp on the barbie and join us.

How much carbon dioxide removal do we need?

Need is a very subjective concept. Do I “need” a $140 shirt? Probably not. But it sure felt nice when I tried one on this weekend, and I think I could convince myself I need it even though there are perfectly good options at Goodwill. (That are better for the climate to boot, natch.)

So it is with carbon dioxide removal. Like a shirt, we know we need it. Whether we need the $140 shirt or the thrift-store version, though, is very much up for debate.

Sucking carbon from the sky is going to be a must. Well, at least if we want to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate research body. Seems like we should probably heed that advice.

How much carbon we have to pull from thin air is a question mark. There are numerous estimates for how much will be required. That may sound odd, given the fact that the IPCC is pretty definitive, but there’s a reason why the ranges are so wide, which we’ll get to in a hot minute.

  • On the low end, the Carbon Dioxide Removal Primer, a comprehensive book on the technique, estimates we need 1.5 to 3.1 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of carbon removal annually for the back half of the century.
  • The IPCC puts it at about 5.8 gigatons.
  • A different United Nations report pegs it at around 10 gigatons by midcentury. So does Shell. Yes, Shell.

In fact, “need” is the wrong metric. OK, we made it through the hot minute. The reason there’s such a range of options isn’t necessarily because of the climate system itself. It’s because of us.

  • Well, not you and me necessarily. That is, unless you run a multinational oil corporation or a state or national government.
  • Rather, it’s based on the political decisions the world makes in the coming decades. If Shell has its way, the world will slowly wind down its use of fossil fuels. That’s great for Shell’s bottom line, but it leads to higher carbon dioxide removal totals.
  • That 10 gigaton target cited from the 2017 U.N. report is an outlier. Yet it’s been picked up and amplified as conventional wisdom.
  • The CDR Primer number, though, shows how much carbon pollution we’ll need to clean up from sectors with emissions that are tough to wind down, such as aviation.

The point is we still get to choose how much carbon dioxide we need to suck from the atmosphere. Obviously, there are technical considerations (namely, can we even do it at scale). But how fast the world chooses to end using fossil fuels is just as big a deal.

—Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

Turning the tables: My turn to be interviewed on climate tech

In a real departure from my day-to-day routine, I was recently the interviewee rather than the interviewer. The subject? Climate change storytelling, i.e., what we do here every week.

The resulting conversation, which appeared as a feature on public relations firm InkHouse’s blog, got me thinking about both the climate beat and the individual stories to tell on it.

Some excerpts from my conversation with InkHouse’s Lexi Herosian are included here, edited for brevity and clarity.

Where do you see the biggest innovations happening in climate technology (or climate tech convo)? What are you most excited about and why?

It’s not particularly glamorous, but I’ve been really excited about the development of new battery technology and long-duration battery storage. Batteries are a really important part of making sure that renewables are viable, not just when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. If you can actually store that energy and use it at all times, that is a potential game changer for the way we can integrate renewables into the grid. And although this type of technology has existed for some time, it is improving to a point where it can be scaled and really transform our electricity and transportation systems. That has potential to be really meaningful on a wider scale, really soon.

One tricky thing about climate technology is that you hear a lot of great ideas that are in very, very early stages of development. And this really is a race against time at this point.

In connection with this, I see companies are lining up net zero commitments often without a clear pathway to achieving them. With both legislative and popular support to reduce global emissions, do you think we’ll start to see more corporate accountability?

My impression is that there are three things that actually impact corporate action: investors, policy-makers and the political winds, and — to a lesser extent — public opinion. The confluence of all three expressing concern about climate change is powerful. One illustrative example: It’s my impression that the recent SEC rules were less about the commission being worried about climate change and requesting that large corporations act, and more about investor concerns and insulating potential investments from climate change. I think it’s important to recognize that climate change is no longer just an issue that activists care about.

Reporting on this space would be a really hard job to do if I wasn’t fairly optimistic about the tides changing when it comes to what companies and politicians — and what society as a whole — are willing to do. It wasn’t so long ago that a big debate in journalism was: “To what extent do we give credence to people who say climate change isn’t happening and/or real?” And that is a conversation that I haven’t seen anyone engage in multiple years at this point. That part of it is encouraging.

Want to read more? The whole Q&A is on Inkhouse’s website.

Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)


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The Commerce Department puts climate change on its agenda

Climate change is taking center stage in yet another corner of the Biden administration. On Friday, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo celebrated Earth Day on Friday by approving a departmentwide directive to consider climate change in its work. The order also creates a new Climate Council within the department.

What does that mean? Commerce is the parent agency for both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association — a big fish in the climate research world — and the Patent and Trademark Office. The latter plays a crucial role for new technology companies, including those working on renewables and other climate tech.

  • NOAA is already charging full steam ahead on climate change, but the department calls for a formal review of its climate programs in order to “oversee, coordinate, and strengthen” its work.
  • Meanwhile, it specifically directs the Trademark Office to consider accelerating its “review of patent applications that pertain to environmental quality, energy conservation, development of renewable energy, greenhouse gas emission reduction, or other climate related topics.”

Reading between the lines: It might soon get easier for companies to patent the tech we need to dig ourselves out of the climate crisis hole.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

Hot links

Proud to report that I (sort of) saved the world! Or at least the world according to the Financial Times’ climate game, which I most definitely recommend.

The week’s biggest piece of Twitter news: The company celebrated Earth Day by updating its climate misinformation policy. Some guy also bought the company.

Presenting a who’s who of climate technologies,according to a handful of experts convened by The Wall Street Journal.

Soon, you’ll have some peace and quiet. Gas bans are hitting the landscaping sector, and electric mowers and blowers are here to save the day.

Your climate team might soon be buried under a mound of trash. New York is struggling to handle its own waste.


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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to See you Thursday for a dive into Protocol’s Subscriptions Week!

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