By David Keith
My academic work is focused on solar geoengineering. I am also founder and part-time employee of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company commercializing technology that captures carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.
It’s easy to confuse the two efforts, in part because of sloppy use of “geoengineering” to encompass a range of unrelated ideas, from planting trees to massive space mirrors between Earth and the Sun. Words matter. Critics sometimes exploit this confusion, implying that our work on solar geoengineering aims at profit, or takes funding from oil and gas companies to serve industry interests.
Pointed critiques aside, there is room for misunderstanding. A few months back, a cousin of mine who does environmental art asked if Carbon Engineering was commercializing my academic research on geoengineering. The answer is an emphatic, “No.” I oppose commercial work on the core technologies of solar geoengineering, yet I am very proud of the work Carbon Engineering is doing to commercialize carbon-neutral transportation fuels made from atmospheric CO2 and renewable power.
The remainder of this essay provides some personal reflections on the difference between direct air capture and solar geoengineering, differences that shape my views about the very different roles commercial interests play in their development. I also reflect on the conflicts of interest that arise from me working on both topics. I assume that you, my reader, have more familiarity with solar geoengineering than with Carbon Engineering’s work, so I start my explanation there.
Carbon Engineering is a privately held company developing technology for direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 from the atmosphere. It was founded in 2009 in Calgary AB and is now based in Squamish BC. As of June 2018, we have just under 40 employees and have raised a cumulative total of 30m $US including both investments and government support.
Our research began as an academic effort to understand the cost of DAC by doing a bottom-up engineering cost analysis of a DAC system constructed using off-the-shelf technologies. Our work was motivated, in part, by what I suspected were over-optimistic claims that DAC might be very cheap. As we dug deeper, the effort gradually shifted from assessment to problem-solving. We began to innovate until we reached a point where it seemed the most effective way to enable this environmental technology was to create a company, so we could focus on practical research to de-risk the innovation and drive it towards commercialization.
Carbon Engineering’s primary business model is to use DAC to make carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels from carbon-free energy. Cheap solar power plus electrolysis can be used to make hydrogen at a price that gets more competitive every year. Carbon neutral hydrogen and DAC CO2 are combined using gas-to-liquids technologies to make transportation fuels such as aviation kerosene, diesel, and gasoline. We call this our AIR TO FUELS TM process. These fuels would be compatible with existing infrastructure but have no connection to oil and gas, and have near-zero lifecycle carbon emissions. They provide a way to use intermittent renewable power from sunny and windy locations to power transportation around the world. On a large scale, Carbon Engineering aims to make synthetic fuels at $1 per liter. Fuel from early plants would be more expensive, but in the long-run costs will come down below $1 per liter as the cost of solar and other low-carbon power decline along with the cost of electrolysis. When derived from oil, the same fuels now have production costs of about $0.6 per liter.
Our fuels are unlikely to beat oil in a head-to-head fight unless oil is penalized for its climate impact. Carbon Engineering has a strong business case today because policies that penalize CO2 emissions and reward ultra-low carbon transportation fuels are already in place and evolving rapidly. Examples include the various biofuel standards, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), and European fleet emission vehicle standards.
While synthetic fuels are our primary business case, Carbon Engineering is also exploring the use of atmospheric CO2 to make high-value products, and of markets that reward permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through a combination of DAC and carbon sequestration technologies.
Conflicts of Interest
Ignoring larger questions about carbon removal and solar geoengineering, what about the conflict between my roles at Harvard and Carbon Engineering? Harvard allows faculty to spend up to 20% of their time on outside work, and I spend that working for Carbon Engineering. My view is that universities including Harvard are too willing to accept a professor’s involvement in companies that are tightly tied to their academic research. This problem seems most acute in biomedical research, but it also applies in cleantech. I try and keep the division sharp. I ended all my academic work on DAC soon after forming Carbon Engineering. I have no research grants on DAC and no students or research staff working on it, or any similar technology. I do a limited amount of collaboration with other researchers interested in DAC, but in doing so, I make it clear that for DAC related work my primary responsibility is to Carbon Engineering.
As I see it, I have a clear conflict of interest if I do academic or advisory work on DAC (or related areas such as low carbon fuel policies) using my status as a professor or as an “expert” in energy and climate policy without indicating my vested interest in a company that has direct benefits from low carbon fuel policies.
That said, the concerns about my conflicts of interest have focused on the conflict between Carbon Engineering and my academic work on solar geoengineering.
Much of the concern about solar geoengineering is rooted in the fear that its development will sap efforts to cut emissions. This is often called geoengineering’s “moral hazard.” I think it’s somewhat more useful to think of it as a political risk. Put simply, I expect that work on solar geoengineering, including my own work, will be actively exploited by those who oppose emissions cuts, most obviously fossil fuel companies and fossil-rich nations. Such groups will likely exaggerate the effectiveness of solar geoengineering and minimize it’s risks in order to weaken efforts to cut emissions. Whatever it’s called, concern about political misuse of solar geoengineering research is real and serious. To my knowledge, I was the first to call it out as a “moral hazard” in a review article in 2000.
If solar geoengineering weakens climate policies, then it threatens cleantech companies like Carbon Engineering. This is not a minor issue. The only way that Carbon Engineering succeeds is with strong carbon policy. When raising funds for Carbon Engineering, one of the biggest concerns we hear from potential investors is that government policies penalizing high-carbon fuels (such as California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard) might not be politically stable if governments waver on environmental policies.
To sum up: there would be conflict of interest if my advocacy of solar geoengineering research benefited the interests of my company. But this cannot be the case. My advocacy of solar geoengineering research is contrary to the interests of Carbon Engineering for two reasons. First: because of the potential for solar geoengineering to weaken mitigation policies, i.e. the “moral hazard”. And second, because my involvement in solar geoengineering increases the chance that Carbon Engineering will be seen as a “geoengineering” company with all the ethical and regulatory concerns that this entails.
Conversely, there would be a conflict of interest if my work at Carbon Engineering made solar geoengineering more credible. This seems implausible. Many climate policy advocates see a trade-off between solar geoengineering and carbon removal. They argue that mitigation alone cannot meet the ambitious climate targets agreed to at Paris, and either carbon removal or solar geoengineering may be needed to keep the world from warming more than two degrees. As most see carbon removal as much less risky and politically problematic than solar geoengineering, it follows that if work in Carbon Engineering and its competitors help make carbon removal more plausible, it weakens this case for solar geoengineering.
Divergent Roles for Private Capital
As explained in an earlier blog, I oppose commercial work on core solar geoengineering technologies. My essential concern is that commercial development cannot produce the level of transparency and trust the world needs to make sensible decisions about deployment. A company would have an interest in overselling, an interest in concealing risks. Solar geoengineering is not cleantech. It’s not a better battery or wind turbine. It’s a set of technologies that might allow humanity to alter the entire climate. As much as possible, it needs to be owned and controlled by transparent democratic institutions. It requires global governance.
It might be argued that, in forgoing commercial development of solar geoengineering, we lose the chance to harness commercial innovation to reduce costs. But cost is already so low that it’s more of a bug than a feature. Low cost may make it too tempting. Low cost enables unilateral action.
Why commercial work on DAC but not on solar geoengineering? It’s true that as a company, Carbon Engineering’s development process is less transparent than academic research. But transparency in the development process is not needed if the final product can be easily validated. When Carbon Engineering succeeds and large-scale air capture plants are built, it will be very easy for outside entities such as governments, third parties, or citizen groups to monitor the net flows of energy and materials in and out of the plant, as well as various industrial byproducts or emissions. The potential environmental risks of a Carbon Engineering plant are well-regulated by existing regulations on similar industries such as power plants, paper mills, and chemical plants.
This difference is linked to the fundamental difference between solar geoengineering and a carbon removal technology like DAC. Solar geoengineering is large-scale climate modification which inherently has global consequences that are difficult to quantify even after deployment. DAC results in emissions reductions (carbon-neutral synthetic fuels) or net CO2 removal (sequestration), with local impacts that can be measured with reasonable accuracy.
For public policy, the essential distinction between solar geoengineering and DAC rests on their very different distributions of risks, benefits, and costs: solar geoengineering entails uncertain global risks and benefits with negligible direct costs, while DAC and similar carbon removal technologies provide a global benefit in exchange for local risks and significant costs. Their very different governance challenges arise directly from this asymmetry.
Clean energy technologies like wind or nuclear power also offer the global benefit of reduced emissions in exchange for local costs and environmental risks. DAC is, as I see it, more like an energy technology than a form of geoengineering. And, the use of DAC to make carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels is an energy technology that competes directly with batteries and biofuels to provide low-carbon transportation. Finally, unlike solar geoengineering, there is a large public benefit to driving down the cost of DAC. That’s why I am very proud to be part of Carbon Engineering, but strongly oppose any commercial work on solar geoengineering.
Calling both “geoengineering” is misleading. Words matter.