Monday, May 23, 2016


A lecture last week at the Oxford Martin School, by Dan Kammen, climate adviser to President Obama, touched on the issue of negative carbon technologies, and emphasised its importance, a point made strongly in my blog a week earlier. And a reader commented that I had previously understated the task of introducing new technologies. Their observations have emphasised, for me at least, the research priority attaching to negative carbon options, and also the dangers of excessive reliance on a “silver bullet” to resolve the problems of climate policy.

The need for negative carbon

Professor Dan Kannen pointed to a particular category of research. Particle physics was fundamental in its character but not always obviously useful in an immediate way. Developing Edison’s light bulb had been usefulness driven but not fundamental. But sometimes we need use-inspired basic research. (The lecture at the Oxford Martin School can be viewed on Youtube.)

The very challenging objectives set in Paris, even if aspirational rather than obviously attainable, set a clear premium on negative carbon technologies. Although there are known processes that extract carbon dioxide, the most promising to date are those that form part of the natural carbon cycle, or derive from finding means to enhance it.  The task is to replicate or improve on a process with which nature and evolution have experimenting for hundreds of millions of years, to speed it up, and then to convert to an industrial scale of operation.  All this suggests that some research into basics, and some fundamental breakthroughs, are indeed going to be needed.

The value of finding a means of sequestrating carbon directly from the atmosphere is immense.  It is a backstop technology, as Myles Allen has also argued, that provides at least a partial insurance against the worst consequences of excess GHG and climate change. But in the absence of carbon pricing regimes that come remotely close to matching the value we should be attaching to carbon concentration reduction, it also hard to see how it translates into a product of immediate commercial value. It shares the characteristics of other forms of basic research but is essentially use inspired.

Moving from innovation to realisation

A visit to the Ecological Laboratory at Wytham Woods, and discussions with biologists there, reminded me of the complexity of biological processes and hence of “bio-solutions”.  Bill Gates’ optimism over the breakthrough that will “save the planet” is a natural extrapolation from the world of information technology, where a new algorithm can sometimes translate almost instantly into a new solution for an old problem. The biological world is both more complex and much less completely understood, by an order of magnitude. This reinforces concern for reliance on a single “silver bullet” drawn from development of processes in the natural carbon cycle. A biological approach to carbon capture may be a major contribution but it may well turn out to carry its own baggage in terms of unforeseen side effects, unanticipated costs, competition for land use, and public acceptability.

The second comment simply drew attention to the relatively slow pace of change  that typically accompanies major technical changes in energy technologies. Developments in solar energy and battery technology have been remarkable, but progress to effective deployment will still be a lengthy process. The world of energy, unfortunately, is more physical and less virtual. Its stranded assets have longer lives, central solutions with quantities of energy in concentrated form are almost by definition intrinsically dangerous, and the solutions need to penetrate every aspect of energy use. For these reasons we cannot depend on a single simple solution.

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