Podcast Episode 1.18

Carbon Dioxide Removal with Roger Aines

How do we reach global net-zero emissions by 2050, when there is almost no chance of completely ending our dependence on fossil fuels by that time? The solution will require Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) – a host of natural and technological techniques for drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere, effectively producing ‘negative emission’.

We spoke with Dr. Roger Aines, the Energy Program Chief Scientist and lead of the Carbon Initiative at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to learn about the various carbon dioxide removal methods, their advantages, costs and challenges, and who is helping advance them.

Featuring:

Roger Aines
Energy Program Chief Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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Roger Aines

Energy Program Chief Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Roger Aines is the Energy Program Chief Scientist in E Program at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which conducts government and private sector research in clean energy technology. Roger leads the Carbon Initiative, which aims to understand, develop, and implement technologies for the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so-called negative emissions technologies. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chemistry from Carleton College, and Doctor of Philosophy in geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology.

Hosted By:

James Lawler
Climate Now Host

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James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.

Katherine Gorman
Climate Now Host

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Katherine Gorman

Climate Now Host

Katherine Gorman is a podcast host for Climate Now. She has worked for terrestrial public radio stations across the US, and is also co-host of the podcast “The Talking Machines”. She is excited to democratize the climate conversation and to learn and share knowledge from experts in the field.

TRANSCRIPT

Katherine Gorman: (00:06)

You are listening to Climate Now. I’m Katherine Gorman.

James Lawler: (00:09)

And I’m James Lawler. And today we’re going to cover carbon dioxide removal or CDR, meaning the ways that humanity can take CO2 out of the atmosphere, more specifically the cost of these processes, the technologies that exist today and that are being developed, and the challenges of implementing them and more.

Katherine Gorman: (00:26)

Our guest today is one of the foremost experts on carbon dioxide removal, Dr. Roger Aines. Dr.  Aines, thank you so much for joining us today

Dr. Roger Aines: (00:33)

You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Katherine Gorman: (00:36)

You lead the carbon initiative at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Tell us about how you got where you are and what’s been your academic journey. How did you first get interested in the science of climate change?

Dr. Roger Aines: (00:48)

Well, I got interested in geology because I took a geology course in college when I was intending to go to medical school, an, took a geology course and then took another geology course and another geology course. And I fell in love with the fact that when I look out in the world today, I see a story. I don’t just see rocks and hills, I see what made them and it’s fascinating, and I love that connection. So I pursued geology. I went to work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which has a pretty big geology group. And at that time we were studying nuclear waste disposal, went on to work on cleanup of underground contamination, happy successes there, and then got involved in climate back in the days when we thought that storing CO2 underground was going to be a really difficult problem, it turns out it isn’t.

Dr. Roger Aines: (01:38)

But then from there got involved in the fact that now we know how to store CO2 underground. We couldn’t find any CO2 to put there. So we had to start learning how to actually stop emitting it from our smoke stacks, which is what we did for a long time. And then it became apparent that we weren’t going to have to stop emitting CO2 from our smokestacks. It was better just to get rid of the smokestacks. And, but then we were too late that there was still going to be too much carbon in the air. So we get involved in this question of how do we actually clean up the atmosphere? 

Katherine Gorman: (02:10)

And as the child of a geologist, I especially appreciate the idea that you can look around and see the story that the environment is telling you, that the rocks are telling you. So tell me more about this idea of taking out the carbon dioxide that we’ve already put into the atmosphere, but what are the fundamental technologies that we’re talking about here and how do we take back what we’ve already done?

Dr. Roger Aines: (02:31)

Well, let, let’s start by talking about why we’d want to do that. Um, cause I think that’s pretty important to establish that the problem is that had we really started cutting back on our missions back in the early eighties, when we first knew this was a serious problem, when our models were telling us this, we would be all right now, but we didn’t. And since then, we’ve doubled worldwide emissions and there’s just too much CO2 in the air. So we now have really accurate models that tell us how much the temperature will change as a function of how much CO2 is in the air, and what’s likely to happen in the long run. And when we run those models, even with really aggressive reduction in emissions, getting rid of all fossil fuels, replacing them with renewables, being as efficient as possible, getting rid of as many of the other kinds of emissions as we can, what we discover is we don’t come close.

Dr. Roger Aines: (03:26)

We‘re not going to get enough out of the air in order to hit these temperature targets that we’ve now all agreed are the most we can live with. Now for a while that was two degrees C, now we’re saying, well, what about one and a half degrees C? I agree. That’s great. One and a half degrees C is dauntingly difficult to do, and in order to do so, we’re going to have to remove a lot of the CO2 that we’ve already put there, make up for the fact that we were too slow. And the amounts are staggering. By the middle of the century, 2050, we’ll have to remove 10 billion tons per year of CO2 from the atmosphere. What is 10 billion tons? We produce 5 billion tons of oil worldwide a year. So that means 10 billion tons, means between now and 2050, we have to create this entirely new industry, whatever it is, to remove this something that’s twice the size of today’s oil industry. So it’s an exciting challenge and a difficult one, but it’s one that I think we can do.

Katherine Gorman: (04:33)

Creating something that’s twice the size of the oil industry in the next 30 years, sounds, you know, pretty daunting, to say the least.

Dr. Roger Aines: (04:40)

Well, you know the good news is, that first of all, awareness is, is, finally reaching the world. 60% of the world’s emissions now are associated with a commitment to get to net zero, either from a company or from a country or a state. That’s, that’s, pretty good. So people are recognizing that we need to do this. That’s the first thing that is good news. Second is that technology is getting better while the problem is not as bad, we’re actually gaining ground on it. You’ve seen this or renewables and things like that. So I feel like we can accelerate, but it’s going to take a lot of attention and we can’t slack off. It’s very much like COVID, it’s like, wow, we just back off for a minute and boom, we’re in trouble. But if we pay attention, we can get it done. So I’m confident that we can do it. I’m quite certain that we can do it at a price that we can afford. That’s the amazing thing about technology development is it is not going to be expensive. It’s mainly a matter of shifting our activities and doing things in a different way.

James Lawler: (05:41)

So Dr. Aines, I’d love to talk about your book Bending the Curve. There’s a chapter in the book on carbon extraction, and in it you described five different methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And I was wondering if you could talk us through those.

Dr. Roger Aines: (05:55)

The five ways are divided into two camps. One is the sort of natural solutions and one is technological solutions. Let’s talk about the natural solutions first. Those are fundamentally the things that the planet already does to remove carbon dioxide from the air. And the great majority of the CO2 that’s circulating in the atmosphere is being removed by natural processes. The natural process has worked very well, and there’s a huge flux that comes out from animals and from volcanoes and even from the ocean and places, and then gets removed again by other natural processes. And the problem that mankind has done is if we just tip the balance a little bit and, and it was a finely tuned balance, and it didn’t take much for us to sort of tip it out of balance. So now we’ve doubled the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the natural solutions that work really well, and those are, are basically trees and plants absorbing it.

Dr. Roger Aines: (06:53)

It’s, that’s pretty straight forward. Everybody knows that soil absorbs CO2 because of the plants and the microbes that live in the soil. And it turns out that’s a gigantic reservoir. There’s more carbon in soil and there isn’t the atmosphere by far. And so that’s a really important sink, as we call these things. And the third one is the ocean, the ocean, when, before mankind was messing with this, the ocean was an interesting sink because CO2 would go into the ocean would dissolve animals would make that CO2 into their carbonate shells. Those shells would sink to the bottom of the ocean, turn into limestone and be permanently kept out of the atmosphere at least for hundreds of millions of years. And that was the basic thing that controlled the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere; was how much went into the ocean and got deposited. Well today the oceans are absorbing it too fast, and it’s acidifying.

Dr. Roger Aines: (07:50)

And the fact that the ocean is taking up CO2 is not necessarily a good thing right now because we’re pushing those ecosystems past their pH limits, where they can actually live. So those are the natural solutions. And what generally we want to do is get out of their way. We want to let those things run, let them happen. Let forest grow, let soils be in their natural state and let the ocean do its normal chemistry. The problem is that again, those are not fast enough. We’ve been dumping our garbage into the atmosphere at an incredible rate. Now we need some things faster to take it out again. So there are a family of technological solutions as well. These are, are, nowhere near as big at the moment, but you know, they all come down to ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and then permanently keep it out of the air.

Dr. Roger Aines: (08:48)

The ways to remove it include machines that just take CO2 out of the air by using chemicals that capture the CO2, those, those, work they’re the most expensive. Another way is that to take all of our trash or waste our forest waste that we in California, we’re creating this by, by trying to thin the forest to reduce forest fires. 70% of our, or our, trash is organic waste in California and take that carbon that’s already there and get it permanently out of the atmosphere. How do you do that? Generally you convert it into CO2 and then put that CO2 underground. And there are a variety of other methods. There’s biochar, which is kind of a derivative of what I just said, where you convert biomass into a charcoal that permanently stays in soil. And one of the ones that I’m very fond of is, is, going back to the rocks, the natural process of the earth. There are rocks that absorb carbon dioxide, react with it and ultimately turn into bicarbonate and then calcium carbonate limestone in the ocean. So those rocks are absorbing CO2 all the time, but the technological aspect of it is that you need to expose them. You need to grind them up. You need to basically make that go faster. And that’s, that’s, sort of the theme of a lot of these things is let’s take what nature does and do it faster. 

James Lawler: (10:11)

So If we get to net zero annual missions by 2050, we’ll be okay? Is this the target to which we should aspire?

Dr. Roger Aines: (10:17)

Yes. 

James Lawler:

Yeah. 

Dr. Roger Aines:

That zero by 2050 would put us on a solid track. It would stop the increase of warming. 

James Lawler:

Uhuh.

Dr. Roger Aines:

So that’s the goal, and that’s probably about three quarters emissions reductions, stopping smokestacks, stopping fossil fuel use, and about one quarter removing what’s in the atmosphere already, uh, to get to that net zero.

James Lawler: (10:47)

So let’s project forward. And imagine that we’re in 2050, we’ve successfully found a way to sequester 10 billion tons of CO2 annually. I’m guessing that’ll be done through some portfolio of solutions. What is your best guess as to what that portfolio construction is going to look like? What are the different technologies? To what degree are we relying on each of them, etc?

Dr. Roger Aines: (11:04)

So, the most important concept to think about here is a big tent that we’re gonna need them all. And then we’re going to need some more. We can’t throw anything out of the tent. We have to figure out where they’re all going to work well. And there’s a thing that people love to do. They love to find the optimum. They love to do a worldwide analysis and say, here’s the best answer for the whole world. Well, unfortunately there’s no one who’s actually telling the whole world what to do. We have to have, you know, individuals or regions or states or companies who do these things. And so they’re all gonna have different choices. They’re gonna find different things work for them in their local environment, or that they just like, because it’s the way, you know, I want to grow forests because I like forests. Well, good, then you should.

Dr. Roger Aines: (11:50)

Or you know the people who engage the oceans are like, the ocean is bearing the brunt of this, the ocean should be part of the solution, things like that. So all these are going to be important. We’re never going to have enough because remember we’ve already put too much in the atmosphere and the more we can take out the faster we make it up. So it’s not like we stop at 10. If we can get 10, we want 11 and we want 12 and we need 20 by the end of the century, we need it all. And then we need some more. 

Katherine Gorman: (12:18)

And in a world of finite resources, such as capital, places to allocate that capital, where do you actually invest? I mean, ideally there are business models that could support and encourage capital deployment towards these CDR strategies. But where are we on that front? And how should people think about the investment opportunities in this space right now?

Dr. Roger Aines: (12:37)

First of all, a statement about who’s going to pay for this. This is fundamentally taking out the trash. Now, I don’t know where you all live, but here in Livermore, we don’t throw trash in the street. We pay someone to take it away and put it away carefully, permanently, where it doesn’t hurt things. We’re going to have to do the same thing with CO2 and it’s not going to be free, but hopefully people like me. You’re going to make sure that it’s affordable. We spend about 3% of our economy in California on trash. The estimate that we’ve made of what it takes for California to do the things we’ve just been talking about to meet its net zero plan by 2045 would be one 10th of that. So it’s still billions and billions of dollars, but the economy is big. So, you know, hopefully we can afford to do these things.

Dr. Roger Aines: (13:24)

So the next question becomes, how do we start? That’s great for 2045 or 2050, but what do we do next year? And so there’s a few things that are paying for that. There’s a federal tax credit that pays to remove CO2 and all kinds of other things as well in terms of stopping emissions, that’s about $50 a ton. That’s good. Companies can take advantage of that. But a bigger thing for right now is a really interesting thing that’s happened the last couple years. Companies have picked up the banner on this and they said, “we want to be net zero. We don’t want to be impacting the climate. Zero or better, we want to be improving the climate”. And there are at least 1100 companies around the globe that have committed to this. Um, most of their plans are vague, but that’s, you know, that’s a terrific driving force because once they commit to it, then activists and, and stockholders and employees can say, wait a minute, you’re not quite making it, we need to do better. And so that’s actually the first thing that’s driving this investment chain, is the fact that these companies are looking around, go – great idea, we want to be net zero. Oops. How do we do it? What do we have to do? And they’re buying these things. They’re, they’re buying the services of people who are removing CO2 from the air. 

James Lawler: (14:55)

And what do you think of those companies? I’m sure all 1100 of them would want to say they’re doing something. And perhaps they do have a rigorous approach they intend to pursue in terms of deploying these resources. But from what you’ve seen, what you’ve analyzed, how real are those plans, who’s actually going to be doing something that’s worthwhile?

Dr. Roger Aines: (15:10)

I wouldn’t say that there is a lot of ambition here, and a lot of aspiration, and that’s good. That’s where we start now. Let’s, let’s talk about, can you actually get there? And this is, I’ll talk about two companies here. Um, one is Microsoft and one is Shell. Both of whom I think are seriously trying to get to net zero, who take this problem very seriously, but have very different problems, very different products and, you know, have, have, different reactions. Microsoft is an interesting one. Microsoft is by far the most proactive, honest and thoughtful company in the world on this topic. And it’s just who they personally decided to be. And for them, their emissions are relatively small. You’re probably running a service on a Microsoft data server right now that is sucking up an enormous amount of electric power. They have contracted to buy only renewable power to run those data centers.

Dr. Roger Aines: (16:11)

So they removed that as one of their emissions sources. And it turns out that was the biggest direct emission source the company had. But interestingly enough, when they count up their emissions, a company that’s doing this appropriately counts the products that they sell as well. Now, in the case of Shell, they sell gasoline. It’s pretty obvious what the emission is, but in the case of Microsoft, what they’re selling is your software or your operating system on your computer that you use at home and you use electricity on. So they actually emit 10 times as much carbon from you using their product as they do in making the product. And it’s about 11 million tons of carbon a year, but they’ve committed to canceling that out, to zeroing that out. And that’s an interesting one because they can’t, they can’t go into your home James and say, you should buy electricity from this person.

Dr. Roger Aines: (17:04)

So what they’re doing to cancel those out is finding people who will remove carbon from the atmosphere for them, that they can pay to do that. And they’re, they’re working through what are all those sources, which ones are real, which ones are additional, which ones wouldn’t have happened unless Microsoft gave them money to do it. That’s important. If you can’t count something that would have happened already. And I’m quite confident that they’re going to get to net zero and they’re trying to not only do this for their own company, but for their customers, as example for their industry and they’re being quite public about it, you know, which is one of the reasons that I have all these details to talk about them because they’re being quite public about it. So that’s an interesting one. And that negative emissions is really a central part of what they do because they can’t control what their customers do with their product.

Dr. Roger Aines: (17:52)

And, you know, they can stop selling their product, right? That’s always an option, but then we wouldn’t be having this conversation on the other side is the oil companies. And, and I’ll, I’ll talk about Shell because I think Shell is really serious about getting to zero. You know, for them it’s, let’s, let’s have products that emit less carbon dioxide, but they’re like, oh, but those are the products we sell. And so, you know, for them, they would like to offset those emissions by negative emissions. Now, the challenge is that for Microsoft, their 11 million tons is really hard to find today. They can’t find 11 million tons of negative emissions yet to buy. They’re not there at any price. Can’t buy them. Shell needs 500 million tons. Now they’ve run the numbers and they would, if they planted new trees and let those trees grow up to full size, they would need something, I’m paraphrasing, something on the order of the size of Brazil.

Dr. Roger Aines: (18:44)

And so, you know, they’re also looking at some of these, these other more technol, well, as Microsoft looking at more of these technological options that maybe can be done faster or more condensed way, but obviously for a company like them, the principal thing that will reduce their emissions is to just change their products. You know, can they stop selling gasoline? Convert to electric vehicles? Can they reduce the carbon intensity of the products they do sell? Um, one thing that, uh, companies are looking at the French oil major, Total, is looking at making more of their products out of carbon dioxide instead of out of oil. Like, okay, we’re, you guys are probably sitting on a carpet right now. That’s made out of oil, does need to be why can’t you make it out of carbon dioxide? So, you know, that’s a, that’s a thing that’s happening in there. So that’s this range of thought process that’s going on from companies that I think are, are going to make it, they’re going to drive thought, they’re going to create these new businesses they’re gonna make, you know, make them possible for these new businesses to be profitable. And then that will eventually filter through, into large corporations, states, nations. It will happen, but it’s going to start with the smaller scale. 

Katherine Gorman: (19:57)

And when we are talking about getting to those huge numbers, you know, creating that forest, the size of Brazil, what technologies are we seeing in use today around CDR? I mean, I assume that the natural ones are already in play and that it’s the technological ones that we’re trying to develop and scale as fast as possible, yes?

Dr. Roger Aines: (20:14)

You know the biggest one that’s in play today is forests, and around the United States, particularly if you go to the Eastern United States, Maine is my favorite. Go to Maine and recognize that everything you see was farmland 150 years ago and darn near everything is forest today. That’s storing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide. By the time a tree gets to be about 40 years old, it really hits its peak for storing carbon dioxide. And it’s really removing a lot. So that’s in place and any place that’s deforested and is allowing the forest to grow back, that’s a big contributor to the United States. It’s, it’s, a couple of hundred million tons a year. It’s a big deal. A second one is soils. It turns out, when we farm. Every time you plow up the soil and it’s carbon dioxide, you’re basically burning it out of the soil and that didn’t happen naturally.

Dr. Roger Aines: (21:04)

So as you sat there and accumulated carbon, and so trying to get back to those practices is a really good way to remove carbon and things like cover crops are a really good thing. Don’t let the soil go barren in the winter, cover it with another plant that puts carbon into the soil, and then plow that plant in before you plant your next thing. So those are the two biggest ones that are actually happening today, and people are getting compensated for. The technological ones, the flashiest by forest direct air capture. There’s a couple of companies that are actively, you know, demonstrating that this works. There’s a company called Climb Works in Switzerland, that you can go buy credits for. You can sign up to have some CO2 removed from the atmosphere every month for you, but that’s still by far the most expensive of the methods. So it’s not large scale yet, but I think the technological options are just really starting to catch on now, because remember I said that these corporations that are ultimately going to be the big source of funding in the near term really only got into this a year or two ago. So it’s a cycle that’s happening now. It’s pretty exciting, but it’s just, sorry… 

James Lawler: (22:12)

It seems like we have two big limiters that you’ve touched on. The first is supply. You know, as of today, Microsoft can’t find enough credits to sequester more than 11 million tons of CO2. And that’s just one company. If you take into account the oil industry and all these other major polluters, the supply of carbon credits is simply minuscule. It’s not going to cover all of our emissions. And then you have the other factors. You mentioned other factors you mentioned, which is cost. I think that to sequester a ton of CO2 via direct air capture today is on the order of maybe $600 per ton.

Dr. Roger Aines: (22:42)

Six hundred. If you want to buy it today. 

James Lawler: (22:44)

$600 per ton of CO2, very expensive. And if you’re trying to buy 11 million or so of those, that’s, that’s huge. So how do we get from this scenario to one that’s actually going to be successful in removing 10 billion tons a year?

Dr. Roger Aines: (22:55)

The first thing is to remember that we’re already paying for this with damage. It’s not like we’re comparing this to, if we, that the world would be fine, if we didn’t do it, it won’t, we have to do it. Second thing to recognize is that a hundred dollars a ton. That’s where you hit that number that I quoted for California of three tenths of a percent of the gross domestic product. Um, that’s, that’s a reasonable number so we can afford these things. Companies can afford these things. And the biggest thing that has held up the companies from acting is the availability of these things. They’re willing to buy these things and they’d like to buy them for 20, but they’re going to come around the idea that they’re really a hundred, by the way, that’s the number it’s really going to cost a hundred dollars a ton to do this.

Dr. Roger Aines: (23:39)

Many of the forest offsets today are, are, cheap. They’re $10 a ton. And that’s basically somebody saying, I will not log my forest if you pay me. Okay, that’s good. That forest continues to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but that’s a kind of a limited option. You know, that’s not all that extensible as these, more of these things come online. I think that we’re going to find that the expense is, is, not that large. If you were in, in medieval Europe and thought about the amount that we pay, you know, on having a trash dumps here in, uh, the United States, you’d be appalled by it, but the economy’s growing, we’re doing this. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I think we’re going to be able to afford to have the planet that we want to live on.

Katherine Gorman: (24:26)

Now, in terms of the cost of direct air capture technology, what do you think it’s going to take to get us to that a hundred dollars per ton of CO2 mark in a way that’s, you know, reasonable and accessible?

Dr. Roger Aines: (24:36)

Well, I think part of it is that people are going to have to realize that that’s the price, that many of the credits that are for sale today, are I hesitate to say this, but I have to, they’re not real. They’re either not additional, in other words, it would have happened anyway. So you, you really shouldn’t be counting the money you paid for it. That’s a big thing in the forest. You know, people have a stand of forest and they’ll say, I’ll protect my forest if you pay me. Well, they weren’t intending to do anything to the forest. So recognizing that it’s going to be more expensive is going to be the first step. And then companies are just, you know, they’re sort of putting their toe in the water. They’re discovering what matters and this issue of accounting for it. Scientists tend to think about accounting as tracking carbon atoms and things like that, but it’s not, it’s money, it’s accounting.

Dr. Roger Aines: (25:29)

And, and if somebody pays you a hundred dollars a ton for 11 million tons, that’s a lot of money. They want to know where the money went. And, and so that’s a super important thing that before you can talk to people about investing that kind of money, you have to have those methods in place to say, “I spent your money on exactly what you thought and achieved, what you thought, and this is the risk with doing it in the future. And this is the benefit you’ve got to have those things.” People are not going to sink that kind of money without that kind of assurance.

James Lawler: (25:59)

And that actually gets to one of our next questions, which is related to the regulation and monitoring of some of these programs. For example, if I go out and say that I have this new technology, and I claim that it sequesters X amount of carbon, what kind of assurance can a company or country have in knowing that I’m actually going to do what I say, and my solution is being monitored or that my carbon sequestration is being tracked.

Dr. Roger Aines: (26:23)

There’s, uh, a rather nasty fight going on in the forest world right now, over that, over, you know, exactly what these credits are worth and to the extent which they really achieved, what they were supposed to. I think that this is a place where government has to establish standards, but, but private organizations really are important in this too. And there’s an organization called Carbon Plan. That’s really been out front in terms of let’s do the math. You know, it’s one thing to, to, hope you’re doing the right thing, it’s another thing to actually work it out. So I think we have to do that and establish those things. Many of the people who are interested in direct air capture are interested in it because it’s relatively simple. It’s like, here’s some air. We took CO2 out of the air. We put it in a bucket, we took that bucket and we put it permanently underground.

Dr. Roger Aines: (27:15)

And that’s an easy thing to, to, track. You can say, oh, I know exactly what happened, but if you’re doing a tree or worse for the soil, soil’s a hard one. Um, you know, what if somebody plows it up two years from now, or, you know, what, if there’s a drought. So working out all those things I think is going to be super important. The Biden administration is very attentive to this. And I think that they’re going to be out in front, on coming up with those standards. But I think that’s some of the early science that has to be done is that, establish those standards and then create the companies that actually do those jobs. We don’t, you don’t go into a bank and check that your money is there. You have an accounting firm that goes into the bank and checks that your money is there and you pay the accounting firm. We need the same thing here. 

Katherine Gorman: (27:59)

I really appreciate what you said there, because I think it really clarifies the huge impact of greenwashing. And, and, over-exaggeration in this conversation and it’s really detrimental. What do you think we need to do to combat that? And how do we actually get to a place where we’re all speaking the same language? And it’s a realistic conversation that we’re having?

Dr. Roger Aines: (28:20)

I think until the government gets around to things like, you know, those appliance stickers you have on your washing machine that tell you how much energy it uses. Pretty good, pretty far too. You’re pretty confident on that one, right? Until we get to that, I think it’s going to be these, these, or these non-governmental organizations that supply those things to begin with. And I think that’ll be really useful. I don’t think that there’s ever going to be a time that individual buyers, you understand, or even, even to a certain extent, the company like Microsoft knows exactly what’s going to be so, so we’re going to have to establish these intermediate companies that do this, but you know, this is, this is what we call a commodity market. When you buy a grain to go into your cereal, when you buy natural gas to heat your home with, you don’t contract with a farmer or a gas weller in Texas, you work through somebody who you trust to provide the product that you’re buying.

Dr. Roger Aines: (29:12)

And we have to, we, it just takes a while to set those things up. And this is where activism is really important. You know, calling bullshit on people is going to be really valuable here. All these, these 1100 companies who have said, they’re going to be net zero, the activists who go into their stock meetings and say, you haven’t done it. You haven’t met your standard. That’s going to be super important. And then the consumers who say, well, I’m not going to buy that product because it doesn’t meet my expectation of climate goals. 

James Lawler: (29:50)

One thing you said which I think is super interesting is that this is a commodity market, or should be a commodity market down the road. I’d love to explore that idea a little bit. So, you know, in a commodity market pricing is transparent. You can go into the marketplace and you can see what the bid is, what the ask is. You can trade these things, you know, they’re, they’re liquid, there’s supply, there’s demand. You know, there’s, there’s no question over, you know, there there’s, there’s rarely questions over the sort of integrity of the product. Um, eh, so what is preventing us today from having a viable market for negative emissions and, you know, going into a marketplace and saying, I want an option on X number of negative emissions in three months, I’ll go and purchase that contract. What do we need to do to get from where we are today to a true commodity market for negative emissions

Dr. Roger Aines: (30:38)

Confidence in the systems. And this is something that we’ve seen evolve in California. We’re now on our third generation of climate regulation in California, we first started off by saying, you can’t sell electricity, unless it meets a certain carbon emission standard. That was a pretty good rule that worked really well. Then we got into cap and trade. We started saying, if you’re going to emit, then you have to purchase the right to emit, you have to purchase from somebody else who reduced their emissions, except we’re going to put a bunch of licenses out there that, you know, to keep industry rolling. And that’s kind of a mess. Nobody trusts it and the big fight about forests and offset is basically around the California cap and trade system right now, are, is it paying for things that aren’t real? So a company buys a credit that’s not real,a nd then they emit CO2.

Dr. Roger Aines: (31:24)

So you’re essentially paying them to emit CO2. Oops. So, but the good news is California works and works and works. The California air board really pays attention to these things. And there’s a whole building full of them up in Sacramento that thinks about this. And the third generation is this thing called the low carbon fuel standard. And that basically says you can’t sell motor fuel in California, unless it has a certain cap carbon intensity. What that means is how much CO2 is emitted by using that fuel too, in terms of energy. But, you know, think of it in terms of driving a mile or something, how much CO2 that it emits. And every year that number goes down. And so you have to get better and better. And the great thing about this is that in order to calculate those numbers, they put a system in place where there’s a model that was developed by Argonne National Laboratory that calculates all these things.

Dr. Roger Aines: (32:18)

And then there’s rules for how you apply for it. You get your, your fuel pathway approved by the, the, Argonne. You can’t sell it unless it’s approved. And then if you do better, then, then this is where the commodity market comes in and says, you do better than that standard degenerate credits you can sell. And those credits are selling for $200 a ton today. Remember I said, a hundred was the right number. Guess what people were making money, doing this, making money, cleaning up the atmosphere. So that’s pretty exciting, but it really tells us what it’s going to take to get to this point. It, you can’t just imagine that tomorrow you’re going to have a market that works. It took years and years and years to set this up and it’s still argued about all the time, but that’s the kind of complexity that it’s going to take to do this. 

James Lawler: (33:05)

I’m wondering about the intermediate steps to making this market. Let’s say I’m a company and I want to offset my emissions. What’s my first step?

Dr. Roger Aines: (33:11)

The first thing is hire some people who know what they’re doing, uh, which, you know, these companies are all doing today. That’s a great new field. And let me tell you if you’re a science graduate, who’s thinking about a job getting into working with companies to figure this out is going to be a good and important job to do, so please think about that. The second thing though is, is to start putting your toe in the water. What, what many of these companies are doing is buying credits just to practice, just to understand how it works and what they’re getting when they buy it. And, um, you know, a really good example is Stripe, which is the credit card transaction company. They just said, you know, we’re just going to put a million dollars in this. We’re not going to say how much we’re going to get.

Dr. Roger Aines: (33:58)

We’re going to get as much as we can for that million dollars, but we’re going to buy state-of-the-art stuff and try to encourage the market. But also they become very knowledgeable about what’s real, how it works, who they can regulate, who they can build a relationship with, who they might want to invest in. So, you know, I think it’s a, it’s a continuous learning process that is going to have to happen. There are, there are companies forming that are trying to get this commodity approach up and running. And I think, you know, working with those companies is a really good way because they’ve got a portfolio of experts together, but that that’s, I think that’s kind of how you have to do it as you would with any big investment. You’ve just got to get knowledgeable.

Katherine Gorman: (34:38)

So one thing we haven’t touched on yet is the role of policy, what are your thoughts? How might a new policy force or, I mean, even just encourage the development of a negative emissions carbon market?

Dr. Roger Aines: (34:51)

This individual drive by corporations is going to help replace that. I think it’s still important to have those policy mechanisms, but the most important thing for countries to think about right now is reducing emissions is the policies that, that discourage fossil fuel use that encourage efficiency, that encourage renewables, that encourage us to stop other greenhouse gas emissions like refrigerants and methane and things that we have control over. So I actually think that’s where policy should be focused now because that’s the big hammer we’ve got, you know, every, every ton we admit now, somebody else has got to go grab out of the atmosphere later and that’s harder. So we should not emit it. I think that right now, helping develop these technologies, the incentive part of it is going to be really important right now, so that they’re available so that the companies can make money, uh, maybe purchasing some of these credits, you know, that that can be useful.

Dr. Roger Aines: (35:52)

California has done a remarkable thing in their low carbon fuel standard. They included director capture in there. And they said, if you remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we’re going to say, it’s just the same as if you didn’t emit it from your car. So you can get paid for direct air capture today. No one’s doing it because it takes, these projects are big and it takes a while to get built. And, and the $200 still, isn’t the $600 that I told you it would cost yet, but still that’s a, you know, that, that’s a good thing. So that’s a good step. I think it’s an important step, but it’s by no means the primary thing that government should focus on now.

James Lawler: (36:30)

Now zooming out on the global picture, looking at the disparate emissions between wealthier countries and developing countries, how can we pull on that policy lever in wealthier countries to help encourage and stabilize the growth of developing countries? Or is it just that we need to encourage these sorts of reduction policies across the board and do our best to encourage our neighbors as well?

Dr. Roger Aines: (36:48)

Well, I think the very first thing that the rich part of the world can do, is to make sure that we develop the technologies that help the less developed parts of the world, do the things they want to do without pollution. And let’s face it. We’re the ones who have the money to do that development. We should do that. The second thing is we need to recognize that there are parts of the world that don’t live like we do. And to tell them you can’t have the things we have is that’s climate colonialism. That’s not okay. So we need to, first of all, make it possible for them to do that and be tolerant to the fact that some emissions in the course of doing that are nothing like the, you know, billions and billions of tons that we’ve emitted over the years. And we have an obligation to clean that up before we start complaining about them. 

James Lawler: (37:35)

Thank you, Dr. Aines. And before we wrap up, is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you think we should?

Dr. Roger Aines: (37:41)

No, I think the thing I want to encourage everybody to think about is that you all have ways to take action. There are things that you can do. You can encourage companies to step up. You can reduce your own carbon footprint, but let’s face it. It’s mostly about taking action on a global scale. And so encouraging that, encouraging companies to do the right thing, I think is going to be one of the most powerful things that individuals can do. And I encourage you all to do that. And please don’t set one climate technology against another. We need them all. It’s hard sometimes too to say, well, there’s only a certain amount of money that I need to pick this one instead of that one. But what we need to do is keep talking to policymakers and make sure that they support all of these things because we need them all.

Katherine Gorman: (38:26)

Dr. Aines, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. That is it for this episode. You can check out our other interviews, watch our videos and sign up for our newsletter at climatenow.com. And if you want to get in touch, email us at contact@climatenow.com or tweet us @weareclimatenow. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation. 

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