A zero world requires new markets and institutions
The EARTH’s large cycles are mostly driven by the sun. Sunlight evaporates water to form water, thus powering the water cycle; it heats the tropics more than the poles, thus driving the ocean currents; it is used by plants and algae to convert carbon dioxide into wood and sod, food and fibre, mulch and decay, spinning the biological carbon cycle. A real exception is plate tectonics, driven instead by the Earth’s internal heat.
Any anthropogenic additions to the roster of major recurrences must also be managed, and the immediate driving force is money. At the moment, the money driving sustainable carbon removal comes mainly from investors who are willing to give companies the money needed to develop their technology. to develop and build their businesses and from rich companies and people who are willing to pay handsomely for the small amount of removal. an offer.
Over the past five years that money has fueled growth in the sector, although it is from such a low base that even the growth is small. But in the medium term carbon sinks move beyond technological uncertainty – what are the possible paths? how low can costs get for different methods?—to more basic ones. Where is the request? Who will actually be willing, or required, to buy their services, and to what extent?
Some governments are helping. America is the most generous, offering a $180-a-ton tax credit for direct air capture projects that begin by the end of 2032; there is also support for carbon storage hubs and a small program for purchasing products that are removed directly. But “tax credits are not a long-term policy for a rate CDR We need to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and meet our net-zero targets,” said Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary for fossil energy and carbon management at the Department of Energy. “There needs to be long-term policies that reward these actions in the market.”
The obvious markets are those of cap-and-trade systems. The introduction of withdrawals in such markets would mean that distributors could mix allowances issued under the scheme and credits for sustainable CDR when they are working off their carbon debt. Net zero was the point where licenses were no longer issued, and all work was removed.
Some emissions trading schemes (ETS) is open to the idea of allowing carbon credits. But the political economy is dangerous. For such schemes to work in terms of net emissions, any credit added to the allowances must have a real impact on what is in the atmosphere. In order for schemes to be attractive to the businesses that operate under them, the credits must be cheap and plentiful, and experience suggests that means false. Thomas Gresham, a merchant from the 16th century, believed that bad money produces good. The same would be true of carbon credits.
The European Union, which has the most advanced ETS, currently allows external credits to work. It has said it will have reached a position by 2026 in terms of integrating removals into the scheme; first, it is focusing its efforts on an official carbon removal certification scheme. The California ETS allowing companies to meet a small portion of their obligation with officially sanctioned offsets that are largely based on carbon storage in forests. South Korea ETS and Colombia’s carbon tax has similar provisions.
If well researched, these arrangements could include some prestigious “nature-based” schemes that use forestry, coastal mangroves and the like. But the share price in cap-and-trade markets looks far too low to cover more stable forms CDR. So the attraction is to create a separate mechanism for removal, at least as an interim measure.
One option is a reverse auction: the government sets a target for removal and awards contracts to the companies with the cheapest bids. Sweden is taking this route for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage; Britain is considering auctions with a “contract for difference” mechanism like the one it uses to promote offshore wind and nuclear power: the government would not pay for all the removal , but for the difference between the removal price and the carbon price. .
Such an auction system could, in time, develop into a market for removals that operated simultaneously with a market for emissions. Companies in some sectors would have to buy emissions to cover a fraction of their emissions. One version of this, championed by Oxford University’s Myles Allen and his colleagues, would be a “carbon recapture obligation” under which the fossil fuel industry would have to cover an increasing fraction of production has an equal number of subtractions. . When the fraction reached 100%—perhaps in 2050—the industry would be carbon neutral. Such a long-term increase in demand would encourage innovation.
Trust is the problem. Could governments be relied upon to buy their obligation to move away? The fossil fuel industry has a history of being duplicitous and unreliable when it comes to reducing emissions; its popularity makes it a major influence on governments and the well-oiled lobbying operations increase that. It is very easy to imagine that the fossil fuel industry is trying to freeze their emissions obligations at a very low level while continuing to make large emissions possible.
That makes the case for institutions that build trust. Ottmar Edenhofer, an economist from Germany, and his colleagues have suggested that the EU they could create a central bank for carbon to monitor the use of emissions, prevent politicians from debating the money or breaking promises. Most of the EUMembers have given monetary policy to an independent bank. Perhaps they could do the same for carbon policy. But which other states, or groups of states, could do the same?
Earth, remote and ancient, recycles everything. It is also producing new things, such as phenomena ingenious enough to recycle basic flows of matter and energy at the level of the planet itself. It is strange to imagine institutions based on agreement and trust operating on a similar giga scale. But the energy movement shows that things like this can be done, although they are too slow and too late. If that transition continues as it should, the knowledge and planetary perspective gained could be the basis for concerted efforts to repair the remaining leaks in the carbon cycle. ■