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The great carbon clean-up

The great carbon clean-up

Imagine the Victorians never bothered to build sewers under London. By the 1870s the place would have been unliveable. And when eventually someone did decide to deal with the poo problem they would have had to do more than arrange for future disposal. They would have had to clear up the existing mess.

Humanity now has to do the same with CO2. The sewage-carbon analogy isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either. The latest IPCC report and abundant peer-reviewed academic literature agree that 

  • net zero is not enough; 
  • planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) will therefore be needed, especially in the second half of this century; and 
  • while some of that can be nature-based (tree-planting and regenerative agriculture, for instance), some will have to be technology-based.

How much? About 5 gigatonnes’ worth a year by mid-century according to a new working paper by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). That is 500 times more than the International Energy Agency says will exist by 2023 and 500,000 times more than exists now. 

What technology? The best-known and most-hyped is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which has been shown to work commercially, but so far only when harnessed to oil firms’ needs. This is when CO2 is scrubbed from industrial waste streams and pumped underground to push more oil to the surface. 

Less widely-discussed and more directly-attuned to the planet’s needs, but not yet deployed at scale, is direct air capture (DAC), which uses big, costly machines to remove CO2 directly from ambient air. 

There are three serious problems with DAC:

  • Moral hazard. Anything that seems to let emitters off the hook by offering a way to clean up after them rightly carries a Zeppelin-sized health warning waved by activists who want the world to concentrate on cutting rather than cleaning up. But the time for cutting alone has passed. Both are essential, and anyone who doubts this should review the literature mentioned above.
  • “Cost”. DAC machines can currently take CO2 out of the air for about $600 a tonne. The best incentive for technological sequestration currently on offer in the US (via a tax break called 45Q) pays out $50 per tonne. That’s an order of magnitude too small and anyway it’s for CCS, not DAC. 
  • What carbon clean-up is. It’s a common good, not a commercial product. No business is going to get behind it without massive artificial incentives (see Cost above).

So how, in theory, might planetary scale DAC – or any other technology-based carbon sequestration – be funded? The EDF has run the numbers on a variety of scenarios and alighted on a simple one: government procurement. Put the job out to tender, choose contractors via reverse auctions (whoever offers to do the work for least gets it, within reason) and pay for it with public funds. 

The EDF’s best analogy is war, paid for by taxpayers, fought for the purposes of peace – another public good. 

Is there an alternative? In principle, yes: carbon trading with a hard and shrinking cap, to drive up the price per tonne of CO2 sequestered until DAC or its equivalents become commercial. But no carbon trading system has accomplished that yet and the most important one from the planet’s point of view, in China, is way off target. Since the market was established earlier this year the price per tonne has fallen sharply because emissions allowances aren’t rationed. This is the opposite of what’s needed. Allowances have to be rationed for the market to do its job. This is the cap in cap and trade. 

America has just finished a 20-year war in Afghanistan. It’s time to start another one, at home, in which no one dies and everyone could end up living better.  


ESG claptrap
How on earth, in 2021, after so many warnings about greenwash and so many reassurances from the world’s biggest investors that they get it and are on the side of progress, can a BlackRock fund that claims to be “fossil fuel screened” hold shares in Marathon Oil and Phillips 66? Well, there’s an answer, if we’re being charitable. It is that through “engagement” investors can nudge corporates to be greener. But that is not the defence offered by BlackRock when approached by the FT after a survey of 130 supposedly climate-focused funds by InfluenceMap found that more than half of them weren’t aligned with the Paris climate goals. Instead, BlackRock said InfluenceMap hadn’t looked at several of its green funds, some of which are meant to be Paris-aligned. OK. But why not all? It’s not as if the Paris goals are meant to apply only to those parts of the global economy that support them. While we wait for an answer, we should probably get used to the idea that “fossil fuel screened” can mean “screened for fossil fuels that we don’t happen to like”. 

Science and Tech

Fusion fantasy
The fusion power optimism cycle is on an upswing. It happens every decade or so, when memories of lost billions fade, new leadership pledges new money and credulous hacks like yours truly (£) are blown away by huge machines and dreams of limitless clean energy. The Guardian has a long-ish read by an avowed fusion enthusiast on the significance of the energy boost achieved recently by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. It was a big step forward: 192 powerful lasers were fired at a pellet of tritium-deuterium fuel mixture the size of a ball bearing and 70 per cent as much energy was released as was put in. That was eight times more than the previous record and four times more than expected. Which is impressive. Moreover, the technology already proven for blowing up ten of these pellets a second should “ignition” (getting out more energy than you put in) ever be achieved, is truly mind blowing. But ignition is still a long way off, both with lasers and the more popular tokamak approach to fusion, which heats plasma to sun-light temperatures in hollow magnetic donuts. And let’s remember: the NIF doesn’t actually exist to create clean power. It’s there to model H-bomb explosions as an alternative to actual nuclear tests. Wind and solar are still better bets for saving the planet.


French Greens
Why haven’t French Greens ever established a foothold in the political mainstream as their German cousins have? The short answer is: because they are determined not to be mainstream. The longer answer is they want to junk nuclear power even though it supplies 70 per cent of France’s power needs without emitting any CO2, and among the party faithful who will choose their presidential candidate for next year, many are anti-growth. This is intellectually tenable, but not a great platform after a deep Covid recession and a Gilets Jaunes rebellion that showed how severely any pretender to power who neglects everyday concerns like the price of petrol will be punished. Even so, 81 per cent of voters now rate climate a serious concern, up from 69 per cent in 2017. The result is an unusually busy French Green primary season and nerves among the socialists that les écolos will peel away their votes. The Economist reckons this augurs well for Macron, although he has plenty to worry about on the right.

Engagement and activism

Shell and Science
We’re a week into XR’s two-week London protest and there’s been some dire community theatre in Trafalgar Square, a blocked road outside the National History Museum and a die-in inside the Science Museum next door. The target of the die-in was a Science Museum exhibition on the future of the planet, focused partly on technologies in which Shell has an interest and funded by Shell on condition that the museum not publicly criticise it. Kudos to Fatima Manji at Channel 4 News for that scoop, a while back. Since then XR has been taking flak for being annoying, white and middle class while patiently explaining that being annoying is the essence of its strategy because nothing else is working, and the latter two are problems it’s trying to fix. Anna Highfield, an ex-XR member, wrote a thoughtful piece on what it’s like inside. From the outside, one thing sticks out: founder Gail Bradbrook driving a diesel. She should junk it. 

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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