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The Need for Speed: Response to Comments

Barclay Rogers, CEO, Graphyte

I wrote The Need for Speed to draw attention to the fact that we need to accelerate the deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies. Wil Burns, Co-Director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, wrote a response piece noting that “I believe that the author’s conclusion … favor[s] … focusing on investment in biomass burial rather than purportedly early-stage approaches like direct air capture[1].”

Let me clarify my point. I’m not arguing for an “either/or” approach to policy initiatives, investment, and purchases to drive the carbon removal industry forward. Instead, I’m suggesting a “both/and” approach that seeks to encourage adoption of “deployment ready” solutions, particularly those that do not impose a heavy economic burden, while at the same time investing in other technologies that have the potential to remove additional CO2 assuming they can come down the cost curve. The point of The Need for Speed was to show that this approach is working in the electricity sector by encouraging deployment of wind and solar.

Professor Burns argues that “investment in novel carbon dioxide removal approaches, such as direct air capture, in their formative phase, can drive a positive feedback cycle of growth and investment providing a platform for rapid scaleup [2].” Burns cites the fact that Graphyte’s unit cost are already below $100/tCO2e and contends that Graphyte’s “approach is already very economically viable [and] … does not require massive infusions of capital to effectuate economies of scale for this approach.” This argument can be distilled down to a simple assertion: the role of government policy, advanced market commitments, or similar buy-side approaches is strictly limited to subsidizing currently high-cost technologies “where economies of scale and learning-by-doing can help move us towards the ‘sweet spot’ for prices that can help to scale the technology up substantially over the course of the next few decades.”

I disagree. Let’s return to the renewable energy example that illustrates the core point in The Need for Speed. In the United States, electricity generation grew by 25% from 1990 to 2022 while emissions fell by nearly 40% from their peak over that same period.  We accomplished this by deploying renewables and replacing carbon-intensive coal with natural gas. The U.S. government has played an important role in encouraging the deployment of renewables, particularly through investment tax credits and production tax credits. These tax credits were originally adopted decades ago, but they continue to play a meaningful role encouraging the deployment of renewable electricity generation. In particular, the Inflation Reduction Act extends the production and investment tax credits for renewable energy through 2024, at which point they sunset in favor of technology-neutral, emissions-based credits. Importantly, these subsidies continue notwithstanding the fact that renewable energy generation is cost-competitive with fossil-fuel generation under certain circumstances.

One can reasonably ask: why do we continue to subsidize renewable electricity generation if it is cost-competitive with fossil-based electricity generation? The simple answer is that we want to encourage the adoption of renewables at a rate that exceeds what the market would otherwise embrace. This is the central thesis to the only real success story we have in reducing atmospheric CO2 levels. 

The importance of accelerating market adoption and the urgency in reducing greenhouse gas concentrations is clear when you consider the science underlying climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), US EPA, and other scientific bodies have explained that the longer we wait to reduce greenhouse gases, the harder it will be to address the negative impacts of climate change. To summarize the key scientific points:   

  1. Radiative forcing is how we measure energy buildup in the atmosphere associated with climate change: “Natural and anthropogenic substances and processes that alter the Earth’s energy budget are drivers of climate change.  Radiative forcing quantifies the change in energy fluxes caused by these changes in drivers” (IPCC).

  2. Increases in greenhouse gas are trapping more heat in the atmosphere, which leads to more radiative forcing: “Total radiative forcing is positive and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750” (IPCC).

  3. The oceans store most of this energy building up in the atmosphere: “Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010” (IPCC).

  4. Warming oceans will contribute to increases in temperature well into the future. The more heat stored in the ocean, the harder it will be to reverse the impacts of climate change: “[if] the composition of today’s atmosphere remained steady… surface air temperatures would continue to warm.  This is because the oceans, which store heat, take many decades to fully respond to higher greenhouse gas concentrations.  The ocean’s response to higher greenhouse gas concentrations and higher temperatures will continue to impact climate over the next several decades to hundreds of years” (US EPA).    

The reason for this digression into climate science is that it reinforces the fundamental point of The Need for Speed: we need to invest in technologies that can reduce atmospheric CO2 levels at scale today. Any delay in our progress towards reducing atmospheric CO2 levels means that we will have to take greater action in the future given the tendency of greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere and the role oceans play in storing energy. Robert Hoglund recently made a similar point about the role CDR can play to constrain increases in temperature. He makes the case that deploying permanent CDR “would not automatically reduce peak temperatures, but it would delay the peak. That would allow time for non-CDR mechanisms (e.g., reduction of other greenhouse gases) to lower temperatures, keeping the peak down. It could also shorten the peak, limiting harms such as glacier melt.” In other words, if permanent CDR is deployed sooner, it can have a bigger impact reducing the harms of climate change.

I support investment in all types of technologies to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, including direct air capture. But I can’t bring myself to agree that we need to focus only on those technologies that may be ready to scale “over the course of the next few decades.” The climate simply can’t wait that long. 

It's important to stress that this call to action for immediately deployable CDR solutions isn’t limited to the government. Indeed, purchasers on the voluntary carbon market have a very meaningful role to play. To date, most durable CDR purchases have been oriented towards future deliveries. For example, according to CDR.FYI, a total of 10 million tons of carbon removals have been sold, but only 260,000 have been delivered. In other words, roughly 97% of durable CDR sold to date will be delivered sometime in the future. This illustrates the point that we aren’t focusing enough on CDR approaches that are ready to deliver now. Committing to purchase from early-stage carbon removal suppliers is hugely important and will likely help these technologies move down the cost curve. Equally important is accelerating deployments of technology-ready solutions today that will have lasting climate benefits for years to come.

I would encourage policy makers and carbon removal buyers to think about portfolio balancing between (1) initiatives that may help to bring down costs as certain technologies scale over time, and (2) initiatives that are ready to deploy today to start making meaningful impacts on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.  When it comes to solving climate change, it’s not going to be an “either/or” game; it’s going to require a “both/and” approach.

[1] Bolded emphasis added and internal quotations omitted

[2] Internal quotations and hyperlinks omitted


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