SEOUL – Can mass deforestation cool the environment? Is there a real, working technology that literally reverses the CO2 emission cycle? And are there economically feasible, multinational regulatory frameworks that could de-heat the planet?
The answer to all these questions, according to Simon Mundy, is “yes.” He ought to know. Currently the “Moral Money” editor of the Financial Times, Mundy spent two years crisscrossing the world reporting from the climate change frontlines.
The result is “Race for Tomorrow: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis,” which hit bookshelves just before the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, kicked off in Glasgow this week.
On his odyssey, Mundy witnessed highly innovative, potential solutions. Some are on the ragged edge of scientific possibility. Others are actual working innovations whose scope and possibility extend far beyond renewable energy sources.
The only things missing at present are the financial resources to upscale these innovations – and the political will to unleash them upon greenhouse gases on a game-changing scale.
Rewilding prehistoric Siberia
Greenhouse gas emissions do not simply derive from human industry: A key emitter in our warming world is melting permafrost, notably in Siberia, an area larger than China. Yet Siberia used to have a global cooling, not heating, effect.
Thousands of years ago, Siberia was a band of cool grasslands which reflected solar heat. Today, Siberia is shadowed by dark forest, thereby losing its reflective effect.
Those responsible for this seismic environmental shift were our prehistoric ancestors. That may shock those who believe primitive humans were environmental saints. And the solution will strike many as sacrilege: grassland restoration via deforestation.
Yet the science is sound. While forests in most of the world are carbon-dense plant habitats that absorb CO2, in the far north, “forests are unhelpful,” Mundy explained.
The proponent of this concept is extreme Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, who oversees the Siberian research project known as “Pleistocene Park” (a brand inspired by Steven Spielberg). Zimov and his team, armed with chainsaws and tanks, are “very unusual environmentalists,” Mundy admits. But although Zimov chain smokes and chugs vodka with every meal, he is widely cited and has won international awards in the field.
And there’s more. Zimov’s wildest and wooliest idea is a proposed method to reverse forestation: Repopulate Siberia with resurrected herds of tree-trampling mammoth.
Yes, you read that right. The original reason Siberia’s tundra become forested is because mammoths and other huge herbivores were hunted to extinction by humans some 10,000 years ago.
Could such beasts return? Mammoth DNA has, indeed, been discovered in permafrost, but not in a complete enough form to recreate the great beasts. “This is something people have been talking about for a long time,” Mundy says. “We are nowhere near.”
Fantastical? Perhaps. But Zimov is not alone. A team at Harvard University is deploying genome engineering in an attempt to create a neo-mammoth based on modern elephants.
“The idea is to create a bigger elephant, give it wool and longer tusks and more blubber so it can take the extreme temperatures in Siberia,” Mundy said.
Gases emitted by thawing permafrost are already equivalent to that generated by all of international aviation, but transforming Siberia back into a global air condition is hardly an immediate solution.
A device or system that could literally reverse carbon generation in short order would, surely, be the Holy Grail for climate-change warriors. That is not a myth; it is a working technology.
Reverse emissions innovation
A novel, integrated solution that Mundy calls “amazing” is in use today by an Icelandic-Swiss academic-industrial partnership.
Mundy explains it in basic terms: Swiss-based Climeworks AG uses two-meter square boxes, with fans inside, to capture carbon from the atmosphere. The fan essentially sucks the CO2 into the box, where a filter absorbs it, and the box is then sealed. When the box is heated, the CO2 detaches from the filter, so can be pumped.
In Iceland, another company, Carbfix, takes the pumped CO2 and injects it into underground, volcanic bedrock. Once in the substrate, the CO2 undergoes a reaction: It is essentially turned into stone, a process that takes around two years. Research shows 95% success rates for the conversion process.
It may sound magical, but is not. “It is quite elementary chemistry – CO2 naturally forms limestone,” Mundy said. “You are reversing the fossil fuel cycle.”
The project, which started in earnest in 2017 and came fully online this year, is backed by such luminaries as philanthropist Bill Gates, carmaker Audi and European governments.
One issue is rock: Not all substrate worldwide is appropriate for the process. But the bigger issue is scale. Some 50 devices are in use, and each one sucks in around 50 tons of CO2 per year. Yet every year, some 30 billion tons of CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere.
As things stand, the solution sinks a tiny crack across the vast carapace of a mighty problem. Yet its potential to go massively upscale is real – as evidenced by existing industrial economies of scale.
“The co-founder of Climeworks said, ‘We make nearly 100 million passenger cars a year, and these boxes are about the same size, and are easy to produce,” Mundy related. “So, if we really wanted to make these we could. It is not impossible.”
The potential is tantalizing: While CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, it is the most critical. “Now we have this technology, we can talk about carbon net-zero,” Mundy said.
The question then becomes how a massive increase in production, and a relatedly massive global roll-out, could be funded. As a financial reporter, Mundy has also examined that question.
Given that economic regulations drive economic behavior, he suggests policy changes are in order for both producers and consumers.
Frameworks for the future
When it comes to the generation sector, developed countries are deploying wider-than-ever shares of renewables in their energy mixes: solar, wind, hydro, wave, geothermal. At present, solar is leading the pack.
“The cost of renewables, especially solar, is coming down,” Mundy said. “Solar keeps outperforming as economics of scale and technologies have been advancing; this is largely driven by China.”
But unlike militant environmentalists, Mundy is not insisting on a full switch to renewables, given the lack of utility these oscillating sources have for manufacturing and heavy industry.
“You need a guaranteed source of power to run a factory,” he said. “As it stands at the moment, a lot of industries have a problem relying on a source of energy that is not fully reliable.”
A further issue is the problem of storing renewable energies. Technologically, “there is scope for a big ramp up of storage technology,” he said.
Convergence technologies are one solution. Mundy visited a Texan startup that is using fracking technology to store water underground at high pressure, using a solar pump as the power source. At night, when the solar goes out, the pump is released and the water shoots up to drive a turbine.
On the large scale, clean – or cleaner than traditional – fuels such as LNG and hydrogen are entering widespread use. But one of the most promising and cleanest fuels – next-generation nuclear – may never win acceptance. Mundy reckons that safety concerns around atomic energy mean it can never become the central power source.
“Nuclear is interesting as we have a well-established zero-carbon energy source, but a large number of people are uncomfortable and it will be very difficult for governments to steamroller it through,” Mundy said. “In my opinion, we should not rely on breakthroughs in nuclear technology.”
Shifting from energy generation to the production and consumption sectors, economics is central.
Given the realities of 21st century comforts and behaviors, Mundy does not believe that promoting changes in consumer behavior – “fly less, eat less meat, buy fewer clothes” – is a solution.
“That helps at the margins, but is not realistic,” he said. “You have to put a price on carbon that creates an economic incentive that changes the rules of the game.”
On the big-picture level, he favors the widely debated “Carbon Club” approach. Under this, large, prosperous players such as the EU and US would pioneer a set of sound and ethical rules around carbon emissions.
Domestically, these rules would penalize organizations and companies which emit. Individuals who stick to rules would be granted dividends from the resultant tax base, providing an economic incentive for citizens, too, to go green.
Externally, tariffs would be placed upon products imported from territories not in the “club.” If the founder members of the club are prosperous nations of prosperous consumers, this tactic would compel outside countries to join.
This raises the specter of injustice toward developing countries whose power generation sectors and companies cannot afford to upgrade.
Mundy admits that there is “no single-sentence answer.” He suggests that the Global North must inevitably support the Global South. “It is pure self-interest, as developing countries’ emissions cloud the whole planet,” Mundy said.
The world’s biggest emitter is at one both a developed and undeveloped country: China, the world’s G2 economy and “workshop of the world,” comprises a coastal strip of well-to-do middle classes, and an interior of peasants.
President Xi Jinping is not among the world leaders attending COP26. At a time when China’s image in the eyes of many developed nations is already badly frayed for diplomatic and political reasons, Xi’s non-appearance may also make him a villain in the eyes of environmentalists.
But Mundy believes that the current situation facing China needs to be examined through a wider, historical lens.
“China now has the most annual emissions, but historically, it had way less,” he said. “Rich countries have so much more responsibility for cumulative carbon emissions – way more than China.”
This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part one can be read here.