California’s plan for net-zero by 2045 and net-negative after that

Getting to Neutral cover.jpgIn January 2020, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory released their detailed report Getting to Neutral: Options for Negative Carbon Emissions in California. It provides a detailed plan, with estimated costs, to reach California’s goal of net-zero by 2045, and net-negative thereafter, thus reducing carbon in the atmosphere and potentially returning it to pre-industrial levels.

The plan’s focus is carbon sequestration. For a plan on carbon emissions reductions, see California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan.

[Note: “ton” always refers to tons of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e).]

The plan relies on three main pillars:

  1. Natural sequestration thru improved land management (sequesters 25 million tons/yr);
  2. Biomass fuels made from forestry and agricultural waste, and garbage, with capture and storage of CO2 (sequesters 83 million tons/yr) (and also displaces the use of fossil fuels);
  3. Direct air capture of carbon, sucking carbon out of the air with large machines (sequesters 17 million tons/yr).
  • Natural sequestration

Chapter 2 focuses on natural solutions, which are among the cheapest options for sequestering carbon. However, they are also all limited by the number of acres upon which we can apply them. There are only so many acres of forests, wetlands, etc. By far, the largest (and cheapest) option in this category is changes in forest management.

Changes in forest management

The easiest way to increase carbon sequestration is to change to the way forests are managed. Specifically, those changes include increasing harvest rotation length, maintaining stocks at a high level, and increasing productivity by removing diseased or suppressed trees. Negative emissions are based on ongoing sequestration of carbon, which may include the transfer of harvested carbon to durable wood products. These practices would sequester 15.5 million tons/yr at a cost of $0.80/ton.

Other natural solutions

Other natural options, in order of the maximum amount of carbon they can sequester, are reforestation, tidal marsh restoration, freshwater wetland restoration, and grassland restoration. These are smaller players—more limited and more expensive. The habitat restoration options are especially limited in their potential contributions and very expensive per ton of CO2 sequestered (although restoration provides other benefits, of course). Together, these options can sequester another 10 million tons/yr at costs that range from $16.4/ton (for reforestation) to $440/ton (freshwater wetland restoration).

  • Biomass fuels

Analogous to current ethanol production, Chapters 3 and 4 call for turning leaves, branches, almond hulls, and human garbage into biofuels, but then also capturing the CO2 and burying it in old oil fields. A small part of the plan includes sequestering, rather than releasing, the CO2 produced during ethanol production. In terms of sequestration, this is the largest plank of the plan. It envisions a massive shift from fossil fuels to plant-based fuels, complete with new pipelines to transport and bury the CO2. It relies heavily on the Central Valley’s agricultural sector and old oil fields. The plan assumes existing crops and does not consider planting crops purely to create biofuels; thus, it does not displace food production.

Because biofuels would displace fossil fuels, it would also result in massive reductions of carbon emissions. However, that is not the focus of the report; the focus of the report is to sequester carbon.

Here is where the biomass would come from:

Forest biomass

Slag from logging, sawdust from sawmills, cleared shrub and chaparral. This would sequester 24 million tons/yr.

Municipal solid waste (household garbage)

This would sequester 13 million tons/yr.

Ag residue

  1. Almond hulls and shells (41% of total ag residue biomass)
  2. orchard and vineyard clippings (30%)
  3. other above-ground plant parts after harvesting from other crops (29%).

These would sequester 13 million tons/yr.

Other

Landfill and anaerobic digester gas. This would sequester 6 million tons/yr.

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All this biomass would be converted, thru various processes (gasification, combustion, fast pyrolysis, hydrothermal liquefaction, and biogas utilization) into various products: hydrogen, grid electricity, liquid fuels (e.g. “gasoline”), biochar, and renewable natural gas.

The cost depends on the biomass collection, transport, biofuel conversion process, and CO2 transport for sequestration. All of these will vary in order to provide a suite of biofuel energy needs (e.g. electricity, transport fuel, etc.). Overall, this biomass fuel network would sequester 83 million tons/yr at an average cost of about $60/ton (ranging from $29-96/ton).

  • Direct Air Capture

Chapter 5 of the report goes into detail about direct air capture (DAC) technology, machines that would suck carbon out of the air and store it in underground (primarily around oil and gas fields in the Central Valley). The report highlights DAC’s unlimited potential in sequestering carbon, but also its high energy demands (and thus expensive cost). In the end, they focus on two main options:

  1. Natural gas-based plants located near underground storage sites. These would still be net-negative.
  2. Geothermal plants (primarily around the Salton Sea), which would require the captured CO2 to be transported a long distance to underground storage sites.

They reject solar and wind-powered DAC as requiring too much land for the energy needed. They do not explore nuclear-powered DAC, such as fourth generation thorium reactors.

All of Chapter 6 is dedicated to long-term geologic storage. They conclude that oil and gas fields in the Central Valley offer the greatest promise, and that “these areas will be safe and effective storage sites. At depths below 3,000 feet, CO2 converts to a liquid-like form that has about the same density and viscosity as oil.”

Their initial cost estimates for DAC exceed $200/ton, though they assume, with learning, an eventual cost of $190/ton.

The Whole System

Fig60.jpgChapter 7 dives into the logistical details and infrastructure needed to connect the gathered biomass to the biomass fuel plants and the DAC plants to underground storage reservoirs. Among their main conclusions:

  • Transportation is a relatively small portion of total system cost, between $10 and $20/ton of CO2 removed.
  • Preexisting rail would the most efficient way to move collected biomass to biomass fuel plants, though some short spur lines would need to be constructed, depending on plant location.
  • A CO2 pipeline would need to be constructed along existing pipeline corridors in the Central Valley and to the Salton Sea, but not elsewhere.

Chapter 8 explores technology learning curves and cost reductions over time, mostly with respect to DAC.

Chapter 9 explores total system cost under several scenarios. They note there is “considerable flexibility among the technology pathways and scenario options.” Table 40 offers the optimum combination of technologies, sequestering 125 million tons per year (and avoiding another 62 million tons in emissions avoided) for a total of $8.1 billion/year, which is an a total average cost of about $65/ton.

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The Role of State Government

There is a plan for California; will it be implemented?

The report does not go into specific policy initiatives or economic incentives necessary to jump start, implement, or transition to this plan. I will address that in another post. Their only mention of public policy is with regard to the CO2 pipeline, where the report notes: “industry experts have expressed concern about the costs and legal difficulties of obtaining rights-of-way for new pipelines in California. One power company shared that running CO2 pipelines on existing natural gas rights-of-way requires renegotiating with the landowners because CO2 pipelines are higher pressure and thus are not covered by existing agreements.”

Direct Air Capture: How the fight against climate change will be won or lost

Fifteen years from now, when the Great Barrier Reef is a thing of the past, when downtown Atlantic City, Bangkok, Boston, Charleston, Dhaka, Galveston, Honolulu, Jakarta, Lagos, Manhattan, Miami, Mumbai, New Orleans, Newark, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, and Venice relocate, and when Australia and California burn, everyone — from farmers to stock brokers, peasants to politicians– will be asking the same question: Are the machines working?

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Those machines will be sucking carbon out of the air and burying it deep in the ground or under the sea. We don’t know exactly where they will be, what they will look like, or even how well they will work. All we know is that we need them (Lackner et al 2013).

Reducing our carbon emissions, which humans have proved incapable of, is not enough now. Even reducing to zero emissions tomorrow is insufficient. We are too far gone in the wrong direction. What’s more, like a ship heading for the end of the world where the water falls off the edge, our foot is still on the accelerator. Slowing down is good, but insufficient to avert disaster; we must turn the ship around and head the other way. We need to not just reduce emissions, we need to reduce the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere. That means negative emissions– sucking carbon out of the air.

Direct Air Capture vs Flue Capture; Sequestration vs Re-Use

Carbon capture from ambient air, also called Direct Air Capture (DAC), is different from conventional carbon capture at factory chimney flues (i.e. point source carbon capture). First, it’s a lot easier to capture carbon from flues because the CO2 is concentrated. Second, typically the goal of flue carbon capture is to minimize CO2 emissions and often to re-use the CO2 in a process that reduces the need for fossil fuels. If it is re-purposed, you’ve reduced CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but the CO2 is still released into the atmosphere. This is a process to reduce emissions; it is not net-negative.

There are also plans to capture carbon, from the air or from flues, and use it in a variety of other industrial processes, from putting bubbles in soda to (wait for it)… extracting more oil. These plans are merely meant to reduce emissions and also to incentivize the private sector to capture carbon. But it’s not net-negative.

Feasibility

Back to direct air capture. Here’s the catch: we don’t know if we can do it at the scale needed. Fortunately, humans have been much better at finding technological solutions than political ones. There are more than a dozen pilot projects in Iceland, Switzerland, and elsewhere showing it can be done– on a very small scale. There are a host of questions, but the biggest challenge is sucking it out of the air in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Funding

Feasibility aside, there’s the question of how to pay for it. Suppose we wanted to capture and sequester 7 billion metric tons of CO2 annually, which is the IPCC goal by 2050. Currently we emit 43 billion. Early estimates are that it would cost $700 billion/year (at $100/ton) and require an enormous amount of energy, up to a 12% of annual worldwide energy use. But those are early estimates. Technology gets better and cheaper with time. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University thinks it can be done for $210 billion/yr (using $30/ton) and require only 1% of worldwide energy use.

For context, worldwide military spending is $1.8 trillion/yr (or $1,800 billion), nearly half of which is by the US. If the armies of the world ever wanted to save a city, let alone a village, they have the money to do it.

Ultimately, governments will have to pay for carbon capture and sequestration. There is no way to incentivize the private sector to bury a product rather than re-use it. In the near term, we can benefit from private sector carbon capture and re-use because, although it is not net-negative, it can incentivize research into DAC technology. And it does reduce emissions.

DAC on a meaningful level requires international coordination and, of course, cost sharing. The two most obvious models would be to apportion cost share based on current or past CO2 emissions.

Each nation will likely be up to its own to develop their own funding mechanism. A carbon tax is an obvious solution. If DAC costs $100/ton, that translates to 88 cents/gallon at the pump. Other fossil fuel uses would also have to be taxed as well. While this sounds affordable, there are two complicating factors: 1) we can’t just address the gallons of gas we are buying now; we have to address all the gas we have ever bought and all our parents have ever bought; and 2) carbon taxes are regressive, hitting the poor more than the rich (as a percentage of their income). There are ways around that, a subject for another blog post.

The enormity of the task means that technological innovations to lower the cost are critical. This should not be left to small policy initiatives like research grants and tax incentives. This requires the full weight of all the major governments and universities in the world. Progressive governments in Europe and California (where Democrats have super-majorities in both houses of the legislature) could and should embark on DAC projects immediately.

The Free Rider and Moral Hazard Problems

CO2 released anywhere in the world spreads everywhere, and DAC done anywhere reduces CO2 everywhere. This is both good and bad. It means that DAC can be done anywhere, allowing us to select the most expedient locations. For example, a DAC pilot study in Iceland uses clean geothermal energy to capture carbon and inject it into porous volcanic rocks.

But it also means there’s a potential free rider problem, where countries will shirk their obligations in the hopes that others will take care of it for them. One can imagine rogue nations that refuse to pay their fair share and free ride on the public service provided by other countries. The US, whose share would be large by any measure, is a candidate for such recalcitrant behavior. Public support for DAC could overcome this.

It is possible that Republicans would support DAC. The US Congress recently passed a $50/ton tax credit for DAC removal, the most ambitious such incentive in the world. Republican support, however, probably came from the associated $35/ton tax credit for carbon captured from the air and used for enhanced oil extraction. Regardless, Republicans could see DAC as an opportunity to extend fossil fuel use into the future. And therein lies the moral hazard problem. If we’re doing DAC, one could argue that we don’t need to reduce emissions as much. And if DAC became cheap and easy, fossil fuel use (aside from the spill risks and air quality impacts) could arguably continue.

But, like with a penny saved rather than earned, carbon not emitted is carbon you don’t have to capture and sequester. There are two more reasons why reducing emissions must still happen: 1) at the moment, it’s still cheaper to reduce CO2 emissions than to capture it; and 2) we are nearing the edge of the world, when it’s too late even to capture carbon.

Positive Feedback Loops

This brings us to the gremlins in the room– positive feedback loops. These are additional sources of global warming that are caused by the current global warming. They are force multipliers, accelerators, that can make global warming much worse very fast. It’s hard to predict when they will kick in. If they do, our job will become much much harder. We will lose ground, a lot more ground (read human suffering) before we win. They put victory in doubt.

Some positive feedback loops, such as increased water vapor in the air and dark seas and mountains exposed from melting ice and glaciers, have been accounted for in climate models. More pernicious are the more unpredictable “time bombs”, such as permafrost melt and massive wildfires.

Melting permafrost is the proverbial elephant of the gremlins in the room. Research suggests that rapid methane releases from melting permafrost may have been the final driver in runaway climate change that led to past mass extinction events, including the End-Permian Extinction in which 97% of all life on earth perished. This effect is already happening. NOAA recently reported that melting permafrost now contributes as much as net 0.6 billion tons of carbon (equivalent to 2.2 billion tons of CO2) to the atmosphere each year; “the feedback to accelerating climate change may already be underway.”

Forests are normally carbon sinks, taking in CO2. However, in 2006 Westerling et al warned that “forests of the western United States may become a source of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide rather than a sink, even under a relatively modest temperature-increase scenario.” Since then, wildfires have increased dramatically.

These positive feedback loops are like an increasing current threatening to pull the ship over the falls. If we are waiting for technology to save us, we may have waited too long.

Controlling the Climate

In the long run, Homo sapiens might eventually hopefully maybe win the climate battle and be able to capture and sequester enough carbon to return the earth’s atmosphere to normal conditions. But there will be suffering in the short-term, for the next two hundred years, thru sea level rise, heat waves, droughts, powerful hurricanes, and agricultural disruption. The poor will suffer most. Turning the climate around is like turning a cruise ship. There’s a lot of lag time between cause and effect. That’s why humans have found themselves in the current crisis. Only the scientists saw it coming. Nobody felt the impacts until now, and now it’s too late to avoid them. The same is true regarding corrective measures. A lot of sea level rise, caused by ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica, is already built into the system. It is coming and coming at an increasing and exponential rate. We may have to actually cool the planet beyond the recent historic level to stop it. And that may take 150 years. In the meantime, hundreds of coastal cities will go under water. This appears inevitable, even under the most optimistic scenarios.

The graphs below present the most wildly optimistic scenario, achieving the Paris goal’s peak emission in 2020 (this year), DAC of 7 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050, plus optimistic net removal thru reforestation and new soil management practices, all of which help to get us to net-zero emissions by 2050, another Paris goal. After that, we remove more than we emit; we are net-negative, returning the earth to under 400 ppm.

It would be great to just use natural approaches to sequester carbon (e.g. reforestation and soil management). But the numbers just don’t add up fast enough. During past global warming events (e.g. the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum), it took the earth’s natural processes tens of thousands of years to restore balance. We have put so much carbon up so fast thru industrial processes that we need the same kind of speed sucking it back in. Nevertheless, looking at the graph below, reduced carbon emissions are still the biggest player, followed by DAC and the natural processes. We need it all to the maximum extent possible as soon as possible.

But this wildly optimistic scenario still has us peaking at 510 ppm in 2050, high enough to hit 2.0 Celsius warming, which is perilously close to unleashing enough carbon and methane from permafrost and other positive feedback loops to launch us toward 3 or 4 or 5 C warming and create another mass extinction event  (which we know from the past the world will recover from, re-evolving new life forms, in a few million years).

DAC chart1.jpg

The graph of CO2 levels below is derived from the assumptions regarding CO2 emissions and removal above. This is a best case scenario.

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But suppose humanity gets past this. Successful implementation of carbon capture and sequestration would mean that Homo sapiens can control the earth’s climate. That brings with it a host of other questions. At what level do we set atmospheric CO2? Do we return to 300 ppm or lower? Who decides? Because carbon released or captured anywhere affects everywhere, who will police it? These are questions for our children, if they are fortunate.

The international climate report in three diagrams: The world at a crossroads

On October 6, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (known at “SR15”), looking at the benefits of keeping global warming under 1.5 °C, as compared to 2.0 °C, and the potential pathways to get there. The report was commissioned after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which subjected nearly every nation in the world to voluntary goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are already at 1.0 °C and climbing, so this is a late-in-the-game analysis.

The results, based on the latest science, are sobering. While past IPCC reports were known for being rather conservative, largely due to political pressure, this one is more direct, practically screaming for a radical reduction in fossil fuel use (which must fall to near zero by 2060 even with a technological breakthrough in carbon sequestration). When it was approved, participating scientists cried tears of joy that their report, dire as it is, was allowed to be published as it was.

The full report, a little over 1,000 pages, is available in chapters here.  It provides important details regarding the effects of climate change from region to region.

A 34-page summary for policy-makers is available here.

But even that summary is full of technical jargon that most politicians and members of the public would find cumbersome. Here I’ve taken some of the most important diagrams from the summary and modified and annotated them.  Here is the report in three diagrams:

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IPCC1

 

IPCC2

 

IPCC3