Scientists attempt to roll back emissions

Sorry I’m late. I’m back at work (kind of – for a couple of days).

Amongst my limited news-reading were a few enivoronmental stories in the Guardian, beginning with science saving us all (I was always led to believe it would be the children).

It is a technology which may just save the planet: a machine capable of scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air, potentially halting global warming and returning the atmosphere to its former glory.

David Keith, an environmental scientist at the University of Calgary, has built a prototype device which does precisely this; sucking air into one end of a five-metre high vertical tower and pumping it out at the other end with 30% less CO2 in it.

Inside the tower the air is sprayed with droplets of a sodium hydroxide solution, which absorbs CO2 gas. This produces a solution of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. By adding calcium oxide – also known as lime – the sodium hydroxide can be recovered for reuse. This lime is then also recovered, again for reuse, by heating the resulting calcium carbonate – which finally leaves just the CO2. There is nothing magic about it, says Dr Keith; a similar reaction has been used by the paper industry for many years to chemically pulp wood.

Not only is this out there, as it were, but it has competition:

…one company believes it can do better. Global Research Technologies (GRT) in Tucson, Arizona, recently demonstrated a prototype based on the work of Klaus Lackner at Columbia University, in New York. This uses a proprietary material to absorb the CO2, which is then removed by washing it with a solution of sodium carbonate. “Chemically and energetically it’s much easier than using sodium hydroxide,” says Dr Lackner.

According to Allen Wright, president of GRT, a single device measuring 10 metres square could capture 1,000 tons of CO2 each year. On this scale, 1m devices would be needed to extract a billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere in a single year. Given current trends, this would be enough to start significantly reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere, he says. What’s more, GRT believes that when they scale up their prototype it will be able to this at a competitive price.

I have several colleagues (and former students) who will love this. The impetus for this innovating? Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, a USD25m prize for:

whoever can demonstrate to the judges’ satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.

That’s right: like the X prize (or, hell, the Millenium Prizes), it is a private fund for which to be competed by the smarties.

The scale of these are immense, though the latter is a bit cheaper. Only the second one is even being sent to the Earth Challenge folk – even the cost of a demonstrable cost-effectiveness of the the University of Calgary’s idea is well above USD25m anyway.

There also exists the moral hazard problem: if you’re insured, you act with less risk-aversion; if you think your gasoline is ‘good’, you drive more. If we think our CO2 can be sucked out of the air, we’ll run our shitty CAFE-standard cars, burn up all the coal we can find, etc. and basically overdo it, until we’re right back where we started.

A correction for this has also been considered (like I said, they’re smart):

According to Dr Hansen, who is also head of Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an environmental scientist at Columbia University, in New York, the way to avert this is to set a tax on coal use that is equal to the cost of getting the CO2 out of the air.

This would be in line with Pigovian taxation, previously seen here. In this instance, the perfection of both funding (partly, at least) the solution while containing the cause, with the same tax is as textbook as it gets. Very elegant – if it comes off. The worst-case scenario of course (I mean, not including Douglas Adams’ stuff) is that we burn up all the fossil fuel we can in the false hope that this fix is in, only for it to come to naught.

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