Profiting Through Decarbonization

The Problem in Paris

Groping Toward Paris, [1] an essay from last winter, discussed prospects for finalizing a global agreement for carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to be finalized in Paris late this year. Primary emphasis is placed on drastically reducing the use of hydrocarbons as fuels. To date, about 50 nations – most of the developed world — have proposed GHG emissions reductions over a range of coming decades.

With four months to go until the Paris meeting, it is clear that emissions reductions currently proposed will not be even close to sufficient to achieve the key goal for this agreement: to achieve GHG emissions reduction sufficient to hold peak global temperature increase to 2 oC maximum. It is reasonable to expect that leaders, especially leaders of developed nations, will be pressured to increase their nation’s emissions reduction commitments. Of course, each leader is constrained by political and practical realities in doing so. (A Carbon Conundrum, [2] a recent essay to this blog, discusses one such reality).

Further, experience from the Kyoto Protocol, an earlier global agreement on GHG emissions reductions, suggests that actual emissions reductions may be considerably smaller than those promised. In summary, it appears that reductions from any GHG emissions agreement likely to be achieved at the Paris meeting this year will be insufficient to limit peak global temperature increase to 2 oC.

The Carbon Cycle

There is a more comprehensive way to think about this. Mean global temperature is affected by the mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 enters the atmosphere primarily as a result of oxidation – the respiration of animals and people, as well as the combustion of carbon – based fuels, especially coal and petroleum. Since CO2 is somewhat heavier than air, CO2 in the atmosphere tends to sink toward the ground, where, as you learned in the 4th grade, plants convert CO2 into carbohydrates (sugars) by photosynthesis, emitting oxygen while doing so. The carbohydrates react by physical and biological reactions to form various biomasses, some of which, over time, become part of the earth’s crust (coal, for example).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that a stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentration at between 350 and 440 parts per million will suffice to limit global warming. That stabilization can be achieved by limiting CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, by expediting the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, or by some combination of both. The prospects for GHG emissions abatement being as they are, the expedited CO2 removal part of the carbon cycle deserves more attention than it has received to date.

There are lots of ways to expedite removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, including natural (like increasing forests), biological (such as bio-fuels and photosynthetic processes), and thermo- or electro-chemical approaches. Any or all of these can help to some extent or another. However, all are constrained to some degree by costs, available space, scalability, disposition of recovered CO2 or other concerns. There is currently no readily available “silver bullet” method to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in gigaton quantities without losing money in doing so. [3]

For Smaller Manufacturers

The carbon cycle presents concerns as well as opportunities for smaller manufacturers.

One of those concerns is a rising chorus for applying a price to GHG emissions, in order to force their reduction. This might be a “cap and trade” scheme or a straight – forward tax. Either way, a price on carbon means additional cost for smaller manufacturers.

Opportunities may be present in developing new products, processes and possibly entire industries that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and put it to profitable use. There may be possibilities “inside the box” as well as “outside the box”. All of us have thought about profiting through reducing CO2 emissions. Few have given much thought to profiting through recovering CO2 from the air. There is a lot of room for imagination and innovation.

Chuck and Joan - Paris low resThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This essay and 200+ more are available at www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. Fresh essays are published weekly.


[1] Groping Toward Paris http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/02/07/groping-toward-paris/

[2] A Carbon Conundrum http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/06/20/a-carbon-conundrum/

[3] For an extensive look at current technologies for carbon capture, see K. S. Lackner et al, The Urgency of the Development of CO2 Capture from Ambient Air, available at: http://www.columbia.edu/~ap2622/pdf/PNAS%20paper%20on%20CO2%20air%20capture.pdf

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