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What do we do with all this carbon?

We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land.

Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of Commons ,1968

 

Being of organic nature and found in the earth’s crust, the history of carbon is as old as the earth itself, and yet it is closely connected to the history of humankind. As soon as humans moved from hunting and gathering to permanent settlements, CO2 release in the atmosphere started to rise. It was not until the 20th century, however, that the rise started to be exponential. In fact, for millennia before the 1950s, atmospheric carbon dioxide has never been above 300 ppm (parts per million). Since the 1950s until today, the levels have risen above 420 ppm.

We have known about CO2 since 1856, when physicist Eunice Foote described that although sunrays heated all the gases, it heated CO2 the most, and the heat was retained. In 1859, John Tyndall described the relationship between atmospheric concentration of CO2 and the average surface temperature of Earth. He was the one who alerted the world that halving the amount of existing CO2 would lead to an ice age, whereas doubling it would lead to a 5-6 degrees Celsius increase of global average temperature.

In the 1960s, we realized that if we continue our growth in the same direction with the same speed, continuing to produce the same amount of CO2, our planet will heat up to the extent that we will not be able to maintain the same life. Many areas will become uninhabitable, with food and water shortages threatening many lives. Since then, humanity has tried to find the solution. We came to an agreement that we must significantly cut down worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that global temperature rise stays below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, aiming for 1.5°C, which would decrease the effects of climate change. However, it quickly became clear that this is no easy task, to say the least.

Susan Solomon, originally famous for her work and insights on the Antarctic ozone hole, in her paper published in 2009, presented studies showing that even extremely aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will not reduce the level of warming in the atmosphere in a meaningful way. The level of reduction that we are looking for would take hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. So here comes the question: What do we do with all this carbon?

Before we look at the existing ways to deal with carbon, let us consider the concept of weak versus strong sustainability.

Weak sustainability assumes that manufactured capital and natural capital (the stock of biological and abiotic materials) can be substituted for one another and produce the same kind of well-being. Weak sustainability places no unique value on natural capital beyond its ability to produce human well-being.

Strong sustainability maintains that manufactured and natural capital are fundamentally different. Natural capital is not dependent in any way on manufactured capital, while manufactured capital is completely derived from natural capital. Manufactured capital, once depleted, can be replaced, while many elements of natural capital cannot. Moreover, strong sustainability considers natural capital to have an inherent value of its own. The mere fact of its existence is valuable.

In a nutshell, weak sustainability allows for solutions that solve a problem by shifting it to another area rather than solving it fully. An example is regulations that allow for degradation of the environment in exchange for economic benefits.

Because the field of sustainability is still relatively new, with some data missing and some being misinterpreted, it is very important to keep in mind the common final goal. The concept of weak and strong sustainability becomes very important. We will see later how it plays an important role in handling carbon emissions.

Let’s start with carbon offset. It gives us a perspective on how businesses manage their commitments when it comes to sustainability and the level of complexity involved.

Carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of CO2 or other greenhouse gases (GHGs) that is intended to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. There are two types of markets for carbon offset: compliance markets and voluntary markets.

The compliance market includes global carbon pricing initiatives, such as emissions trading schemes and carbon taxes. Global carbon pricing is a legacy of the infamous Kyoto Protocol.

The voluntary market is based on certification programs that provide standards for entities to generate carbon credits, which are later traded on the market. The concept allows anyone, whether a company or an individual, to purchase carbon credits to compensate for the emissions they produce.

Whilst the Kyoto Protocol has been replaced by the Paris Agreement in 2020, which is still not fully decided on carbon offset, societal focus has shifted towards carbon capture as a more sophisticated and impactful measure to tackle carbon.

Carbon capture is a process of trapping carbon in such a way that it cannot be released into the atmosphere, thereby preventing it from contributing further to global warming.

A plan for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions aligned with the Paris Agreement involves reducing emissions significantly every decade, with the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This approach, known as the “carbon law,” is slightly more ambitious than other proposed scenarios.

In his “Roadmap to rapid decarbonization” article for the Science journal, Johan Rockstroem emphasizes that achieving the targets set in the Paris Agreement requires relying on increasing human-made carbon sinks, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), changes in land use, and maintaining natural carbon sinks. This strategy aims to stabilize global temperatures and is estimated to have a 75% chance of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C by 2100, with a median increase of 1.5°C, peaking at around 1.7°C. There is also a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C by 2100, with CO2 concentrations around 380 parts per million in 2100.

Let’s take a closer look at those modern carbon captures technologies. There are 6 main types of CO2 Removal Technologies:

Direct air capture refers to chemical processes designed to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, concentrate it, and prepare it for injection into a storage reservoir.

Coastal blue carbon refers to land use and management practices that enhance carbon storage in living plants or sediments found in coastal ecosystems like mangroves, tidal marshlands, and seagrass beds. These methods are often referred to as “blue carbon,” even though they focus on coastal areas rather than the open ocean.

Terrestrial carbon removal and sequestration refers to land use and management practices, such as afforestation or reforestation, adjustment in forest management, and changes in agricultural practices that increase soil carbon storage.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration refers to utilizing plant biomass for energy production to generate electricity, liquid fuels, and/or heat, while capturing and storing any CO2 emitted during bioenergy use, along with sequestering the remaining biomass carbon not converted into liquid fuels.

Carbon mineralization refers to an accelerated “weathering”, where CO2 from the atmosphere chemically bonds with reactive minerals such as mantle peridotite, basaltic lava, and other reactive rocks. It happens either at the surface, when CO2 from ambient air mineralizes when exposed to these rocks, or subsurface, when concentrated CO2 streams are injected into ultramafic and basaltic rocks, where it mineralizes within the rock pores.

Geologic sequestration refers to CO2 captured through BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) or direct air capture is injected into a geological formation, such as a saline aquifer, where it resides in the rock’s pore space for an extended period. This represents the sequestration aspect of BECCS or direct air capture, distinct from carbon dioxide removal (CDR) efforts.

All those technologies are widely used, with more and more innovative applications being created every day. The UAE has recently launched a number of projects using the technologies mentioned above. Examples range from planting date palms, which are known for their carbon-stocking properties, as part of anti-desertification and carbon-sequestration efforts, to the ADNOC mineralization project in Fujairah. Here, carbon sucked directly from the air is injected into the Hajar mountains and a local saline aquifer. According to ADNOC, carbon capture technologies are the key lever in reaching their Net Zero by 2045 goal.

At the same time, Emirates Nature is partnering with WWF on a coastal ecosystems project to restore mangrove ecosystems in the Northern Emirates. The goal is to plant over 50,000 mangrove trees.

Dubai has also recently unveiled a project to plant a staggering 100 million mangrove trees by the year 2040. This is a good example of strong sustainability, where the emphasis is placed on natural capital. Mangroves are indigenous trees that not only capture carbon four times more effectively than tropical forests but also restore local biodiversity.

After all, mangroves are home to endangered species of turtles, seabirds, sharks, and rays. They also help reverse the decline in fish stocks and improve water quality.

It is great to see that we have learned from New Zealand’s example. For many years, in order to tackle climate change, New Zealand was planting so-called large-scale, non-native monocultures—forests consisting of one type of non-native trees. These forests did not sustain the level of biodiversity that indigenous forests do, and as a result, New Zealand significantly affected the biodiversity of its forests.

It was a good intention (to capture carbon), but unfortunately scientifically ill-informed. This is an example of weak sustainability, where a biotic system is industrialized for the purpose of delivering a singular result (capturing carbon emissions), which at the same time has undesirable side effects of reducing biodiversity.

In conclusion, is carbon capture and storage (CCS) the answer to our carbon problem? It is certainly a part of it. The implementation of carbon capture technology is imperative for effectively “bending the curve” of CO2 levels, considering that curtailing our current levels of emitting will not be enough given the existing CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.

However, learning from the shortcomings of previous approaches, in addition to carbon capture, we must adopt the principles of strong sustainability, promote a circular economy, and fundamentally shift the existing paradigm. These steps are essential for navigating the challenges posed by climate change in a cohesive and sustainable manner.


Abdulla Ziad Galadari

Senior Partner

abdulla@galadarilaw.com

 

 

Yuliya Dumanetskaya

Senior Client Relationship
& Sustainability Executive

yuliya@galadarilaw.com