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NYC Climate Week: Carbon Removal Technology – The Pathway to Reaching Net-Zero

Image from climateweeknyc.org

By Chelsea Young

Manhattan is engulfed in an environmental frenzy, as people from all over the globe have traveled to the island for NYC Climate Week. This week of lectures, panels, and discussions is a forum for the fight against climate change, and its goal is to provoke serious steps in improving climate consciousness, worldwide. Honeysuckle was privileged to livestream the panel entitled “Carbon Removal Technology” this past Tuesday. This event focused on the importance of carbon removal to the success of minimizing climate change and was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, The Aspen Institute, and the Canadian Consulate. The event was a powerhouse: it was moderated by Fred Kupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, and the President and CEO of Energy Futures Initiative and Former US Secretary of Energy, Ernest J. Moinz, was the keynote speaker. These figures were joined by a panel of carbon removal experts. 

In his speech, Ernest J. Moinz outlined to the audience the Energy Futures Initiative “Clearing the Air” report, a technological carbon dioxide removal RD&D initiative. This goal of this initiative is to reach net-zero emissions with the hope of addressing some of the damage humans have wrought through past, unregulated carbon emissions. “Net-zero,” Moinz explained, “means there is no credible pathway to get there without significant negative carbon technology contribution, and that, fundamentally is the subject of our report.” 

A cross-cutting agenda that will require the cooperation of multiple departments and agencies, accompanied by a budget of about $10.7 billion over ten years with $325 million, to start, is one path to pursuing this goal. The report includes an extensive R&D portfolio that highlights capture technology pathways, CO2 disposition, and cross-cutting, as well as 27 individual portfolio elements to explain how this initiative will run. “We can not underestimate the scale of this challenge,” Moniz warned the audience, and that is why it is so important to get this initiative into congress and distributed across the country. 

The panel that followed Moniz, again moderated by Fred Kupp, consisted of four different experts in various aspects of the growing carbon removal field. First to speak was Etosha Cave, co-founder and chief science officer of Opus 12. At Opus 12, Cave and her partners have built a machine meant to pull carbon dioxide from the air and break those molecules into small atomic bits that can be restructured into new atomic bits. Their first commercial prototype is about the size of a dishwasher, and it runs on electricity. The company plans to use the Opus 12 to make jet and diesel fuel, alongside other consumer products. 

The next panel member was Giana Amador, Founder and Director of Special Initiatives at Carbon 180, a non-profit on a mission to rethink carbon. Their goal over the past few years has been to bring carbon removal to the forefront of the climate change discussion. Following Amador was Julio Friedman, senior research scholar at Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy. Friedman explained that his main role was his knowledge in arithmetic. When introducing himself, he explained that, “If you can do arithmetic, you know that we have to balance the books on climate, and it’s not easy.” The last member of the panel was Canadian Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering. Oldham and his company began working in the carbon removal field about ten years ago, and he has since opened a plant in British Columbia. Soon, he will open an even bigger plant in Texas with the energy company Occidental. “Negative emissions allows you to eliminate any emission,” he explained about his company, “of any type, from any country, from any moment in time. It removes the excuse ‘we can’t fix this.’” 

After the panelists gave their introductions, Kupp questioned them about the role and importance of policy in this field. Every panelist was quick to emphasize the significance of putting policies in place to allow the carbon removal field to thrive the way it can, in the time we need it to. Cave broke down how, “early development grants to de-risk technology is key” for Opus 12 as a technological startup, because the research and development arms of the company are crucial. 

“I think about policy in two ways,” Amador from Carbon 180 explained to the audience, “the first is to deploy the solutions that are ready today and [the second] is to develop solutions for tomorrow.” Agreeing with Cave, she stated that increasing research and development portfolios, specifically in the carbon engineering fields, would help grow the companies, bring down the cost, and de-risk the technology. In addition, Amador stated that federal governments could play a role by providing incentives to help startups build up their technology, infrastructure to help the private sector deploy some of these solutions, and lastly, federal procurement in the near future. 

Friedman piggybacked off what Amador had to say about procurement policy, stating that “any clean energy technology to enter the market started with about a decade of government procurement” before it became readily accessible. Another policy issue that he acknowledged was the need for incentive to create a market potential, and (often missed according to Friedman) a compliance option. To explain this option, Friedman referred to the 100% Clean Energy Act currently being evaluated by congress, which would require a mass fix of carbon emissions and the replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy options across all sectors of the economy. 

Oldham then delved into the struggles his company faced and how “when you’re looking to finance a first plant, it’s tough to get commercial financing.” Incentives, like the panelist mentioned before, played a crucial role for Oldham and Carbon Engineering, specifically California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, better known as LCFS. Oldham explained that LCFS “works by requiring a gradual reduction in the carbon intensity of fuels sold in California. In short terms however,” Oldham concluded, “I like policies that allow innovation and allow the best ideas to come to market and incentivize the various players to come to the table and put real cash in.” 

The panel concluded with a few questions from the audience. While many asked for more detail about the process of these companies, a few audience members expressed reluctance to buy into the idea that this technology would make a significant impact on climate change. The panelist answered those questions of doubt by explaining that while they will continue to do as much as they can, it is up to the public to push for these innovations as hard as they have been for years now. The public must become informed of the options out there and fight to see them implemented to reach net zero. 

Chelsea Young is a staff writer at HoneySuckle Magazine and alumna of Pace University NYC where she studied Communications, Journalism, and African American Studies.

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