Michael Ashcroft

How should we think about carbon removal?

It’s 2119 and the tide has turned for global warming. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is returning to safe thresholds on its downward trend towards pre-industrial levels.

Nations came together to almost fully decarbonise the now buoyant world economy, supported regions that bore the brunt of global warming and invested in programmes to restore the Earth’s biosphere. The global effort far exceeded the ambition, scale and optimism of the Apollo lunar missions.

Hundreds of billions of trees were planted. Billions of square miles of marginal land were rewilded. Global infrastructure scrubbed carbon dioxide from the air, safely storing it or using it as a feedstock for chemical processes, advanced fuels and building materials.

From this vantage point, the people of 2119 look around, smile, and ask: “what’s next?”

Now let’s rewind 100 years to today. How do we make this happen?

Carbon removal is removing carbon from the atmosphere to reverse global warming.

Since the industrial revolution, we have lifted billions out of poverty and created time for pursuits beyond immediate survival, like thinking, exploring and creating. We wrapped our planet in communication, transportation and information technologies, compressing time and space from the unimaginable to the mundane. We left our planet and looked down with feelings of awe and humility long forgotten.

In the process, we have been increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mainly though pollution and land use change. This is amplifying the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect, trapping more of the sun’s energy and driving unnatural global warming.

The damage this is causing is real, serious and needs urgent action. Left unchecked, global warming will create a world very much unlike the one we currently enjoy, which allowed our civilisation to rise and flourish. It threatens the progress we have made and risks future generations being ever worse off.

I have been following carbon removal for the last ten years (and I am now a co-founder and Non Executive Director of the Carbon Removal Centre to advance constructive discourse around it). I believe it is an idea whose time has come. The prospect of removing carbon from the atmosphere is fascinating, because it places two perspectives on how to respond to global warming into stark contrast.

On one side we have those who seem to have adopted a view that humans are a blight on the Earth, that we are morally obliged to undo progress and modernity themselves. Their discussions around solving global warming often contain ideological motivation like bringing down capitalism, deindustrialisation and an implicit yearning for a simpler time. And with moral obligation comes moral judgement: you are simply a bad person if you disagree.

On the other side are the techno-optimists, who seem to believe that if we can just innovate quickly enough then we can stay one step ahead of global warming. Progress and modernity are placed on pedestals higher than all others, including the health of the biosphere that gives us life. Implicit in this is the idea that there is no real need to change how we live, because technology will save the day. Where the de-industrialisation crowd says “you simply must stop flying”, the techno-optimistists say “No worries! There’ll be hydrogen planes and hyperloops.”

I do not advocate returning to some romantic idea of what pre-industrial life was like. Global warming is not a sign of some moral failing. We have not misbehaved in trying to better ourselves. I would rather be alive now than at any point in history and it is my hope that each generation hence will look back and say the same.

That said, neither do I believe that technology alone can be a climate panacea. Global warming is an undeniable feedback mechanism telling us in no uncertain terms to adjust our course dramatically and quickly. And we should both keep moving forwards and change course. How we do that and what role carbon removal plays are the real questions.

Carbon removal sits in an emerging third pillar of climate action: restoration. So far we have focussed on mitigation, like reducing emissions through renewable energy and saying we fly less, and adaptation, like building flood defences or inventing new insurance products.

Restoration, though, is about how we can undo the damage to and ultimately enhance our environment. It is the next step in accepting the power we have and taking responsibility for it.

There are many ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere and a full treatment deserves its own article. But to give you a flavour, we can do it by changing existing carbon flows between air, earth, sea and life. We can plant more trees, which absorb carbon as they grow. When we burn plants for fuel, we can capture and store the carbon dioxide they release. We can even build “artificial trees”, machines that capture carbon directly from the air. The potential for these is limited only by the energy we need to run them.

Carbon removal is a dream to the techno-optimists. Nothing needs to change, and prescient innovators and investors will find a way to make money out of it. Why not use this new technology to compensate for all those flights?

But of course, this is a nightmare to the de-industrialists. When you drive an insured rental car, are you as careful as you are with your own? And if you can convince people, rightly or wrongly, that you can suck carbon out of the air, are you motivated to reduce your own emissions?

There is a middle way between these two ideological extremes and how we move forwards is crucial. We are at a critical moment in history, where carbon removal is just below the radar for most people, but not for much longer. What was once on the fringe of crazy is becoming a serious option.

We can choose to stay in the relative comfort and simplicity of our ideological extremes, pointing our fingers and blame at each other while our life support systems fail around us. Or we can choose to walk that middle way together, moving hopefully towards a bright and welcoming future, asking ourselves what’s next. I made my choice.

Want more?

I publish a regular newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which covers things like stuff like building in public, Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity and various other things.
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