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Carbon Removal Might Be the World’s Most Important Technology. How Does It Work?

Derek is joined by Giana Amador to explain the different carbon removal technologies and why some people think this advancement won’t ever work

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Last year, somebody explained the problem of climate change to me with a metaphor that I’ve never been able to forget. They said: Imagine a bathtub. The bathtub is the planet’s atmosphere. The faucet is on full blast and it’s quickly filling with water. The gushing faucet represents every source of global carbon emissions, from “Big Agriculture” and energy companies to cars and cow farts. The water is carbon itself. The challenge of climate change mitigation is straightforward: Stop the water from filling the tub, spilling over the edge, and destroying the planet. There are a lot of environmentalists and federal policies that focus on one part of the picture. They want to turn the tap to reduce emissions. This is what wind, solar, and geothermal energy does. This is what electric cars do. It is an absolutely essential goal. But a very full tub can still overflow even with a slower-dripping faucet. So we need to think bigger to save the world. We need a plan that goes beyond the faucet. We need to drain water from the basin by pulling the plug at the bottom of the tub—that is, to suck a huge amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and flush them away. So, how do you pull the plug?

In the last few years, I’ve become very interested in a technology called carbon removal—and especially direct air capture. Imagine, basically, a giant factory that pulls carbon from the atmosphere and buries it. This technology is still incredibly expensive. In August 2022, it is not remotely close to being a global solution to climate change. But there is a chance it may be the most important technology of the 2020s and 2030s, if you understand the problem of the tub, the water, the faucet, and the plug.

Today’s guest is Giana Amador. She is the co-founder and policy director of Carbon180, an interdisciplinary organization devoted to carbon-removal technologies. In this episode, she explains how different carbon removal technology works; why there are a million carbon removal plants all over the planet already; the technology and cost problems of vacuuming the atmosphere; and why some people think this technology won’t ever work in the first place.

Giana shares the story of how two sentences buried deep in an IPCC report on climate change led her to carbon removal, and then defines a few terms that are important to understanding this powerful technology.

Derek Thompson: I want to start with what might sound to listeners like a bit of a strange way into the story. You and I have a bit of a history. We’ve talked a few times for a couple other projects that I’ve been working on. And I know a little bit about your origin story in this space, and how interesting and sort of unusual it is. So I want you to tell me about Page 485, Section 6911 of the 2014 fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Tell me the story of this page, and how it changed your life.

Giana Amador: This page haunts me at night. A lot of thoughts on Page 485, but I think stepping back a little bit, before Page 485 was in existence in 2014, I had been doing a lot of research on climate change, and in particular state-level renewable energy policy. And I had also, starting in 2014, begun working at a sustainable development nonprofit that was really focused on clean energy access in Nicaragua. Being in the climate space for so long, there’s almost like a communications problem, I think, both with people who work in the field and with the general public in the fact that a lot of the ways that we communicate about climate change are in very technical forms. We use a lot of degrees of warming, feet of sea level rise. And in that way, I think we dehumanize a lot of the impacts of climate change.

And when I was in Nicaragua, I think I really had the opportunity to see firsthand a lot of the climate impacts that were affecting people today. And this was really a little bit of the come-to-Jesus moment for me to say, “Oh, we always talk about the fact that we’ve already experienced 1 degree Celsius of warming, but that actually has real demonstrable impacts for these people who are moving sandbags out to the coast every day to help prevent erosion and to protect their land from sea level rise.” At the same time, the community where I grew up in the Central Valley of California, which is a very agriculture-focused community, was experiencing the worst drought that they had ever seen on record. The California snowpack was the lowest it had been in the last 500 years. So I was sort of at this point where I was extremely frustrated with our lack of climate progress, and was really seeing the impacts that it was creating for people on a day-to-day basis.

And I think when the IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, came out with their fifth assessment report, I was like, “OK, we’ve got to do something. Something needs to shift.” And I think like you said, buried 485 pages deep into this report, there were about two sentences with an assumption that we needed to not only reduce our emissions drastically and rapidly, but we also needed to clean up carbon that was already in the atmosphere. And as someone who had worked in the climate space for a number of years, this is something that was never brought up. I had no idea what carbon removal was. I was shocked. And I think that really kicked into gear the idea that in order to move faster, in order to put more climate solutions in our tool belt, we can bring these carbon removal solutions to life and really help bolster climate change and prevent some of those impacts from happening.

Thompson: That’s fantastic. And I just think it’s so interesting and telling that this technology was, yes, 485 pages into the document. So in 2014, this was way, way, way on the back burner. And it’s interesting to me to see it come forward, forward, forward, and obviously Carbon180 is doing important work there. Before we get into the nitty gritty of this technology, I think it’s important to lay the table here. So, in the open, I talked a little bit about this popular metaphor of the tub, and why it’s so important to drain the carbon tub. But there are a couple different terms that I think are really important to nail before we talk about strategies to drain the tub. And those terms are carbon capture, carbon removal, and carbon sequestration. Just really quickly, so that we can jump past this and get into the fun stuff, can you tell me what the difference is between carbon capture, carbon removal, and carbon sequestration?

Amador: Absolutely. So glad you asked about definitions. I think I’ll start with carbon capture. Typically when we’re referring to carbon capture, we’re referring to a set of technologies called carbon capture and sequestration—or CCS. This is actually capturing carbon from a point source. So it’s either an electrical facility, like a natural gas power plant, or an industrial facility, like a cement factory. And what we’re doing in these situations is capturing carbon from the smokestack before it goes into the air, and these technologies are net neutral. So they’re an emissions reduction technique. They prevent more emissions from going into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, carbon removal solutions are ways that we actually clean up carbon emissions that are already in the air. So these are our legacy or our historic emissions that, back to Page 485, we need to clean up the past emissions that are already in the air. And we can do this through a whole portfolio of solutions from land-based solutions like forestry and carbon sequestration in our soils to also technologies like direct air capture. And so this whole portfolio of solutions is referred to as carbon removal. And these are the ones that allow us to not only go net zero, but actually net negative.

This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Giana Amador
Producer: Devon Manze

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