Here’s a sobering and depressing fact – the level of Atmospheric CO2 required to keep our climate stable should be no higher than 350 parts per million. We’re well over 400 now and climbing fast, and we have condemned our children and grandchildren to a massive project to pull carbon out of the atmosphere or face mass extinction, billions of climate refugees, coastal flooding, and many related catastrophes. In the words of Greta Thunberg, models that predict a livable future “rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” Given we’re dumping this problem on the future, we should invest billions or even trillions of dollars on R&D, but instead of a Pentagon sized R&D budget, paying for these technologies has largely been relegated to people of conscience like you and me.
I’ve written before about offsetting your emissions by buying carbon offsets, which largely consist of providing money for other people to avoid emissions. These schemes do things like protect forests, pay for renewable energy generation, and improve infrastructure to avoid innefficeint and costly transportation of goods. These things are worthy causes and to a degree they avoid making the problem worse, but they are not a solution. If you actually want to directly remove the quantity of greenhouse gases that you personally emit, you can send some money to Climeworks to develop and use the technology that “barely exists.”
The cost to remove 100kg of CO2 is US $120. For reference, the average American has a carbon footprint of 20 metric tons, though this varies a lot by state. My home state of Washington is around half the national average (10.5 tons per person), thanks to an abundance of renewable electricity. Let’s do the math: even 10.5 tons would cost a shocking $12,600 to scrub from the air. For the average American, the bill would come to $24,000 per year.
As a thought experiment, think about what it would cost to offset the emissions of everything you do through direct capture, and then imagine how you would act differently if you had to pay for it. One mundane example is a gallon of gas, which when burned creates about 8.9 kg of CO2. The cost to pull that out of the air is $10.68.
A friend of mine once said that not emitting is much cheaper than negative emissions technologies, and you can see that from the numbers above. Choosing renewable electricity costs a mere $12 per month extra, heating your house with a heat pump can save you money, riding a power bike and taking public transportation will keep you happier and in better shape, and a low carbon diet is healthier and less expensive than the alternative. It is the fundamental thesis of this blog that a low carbon lifestyle is less expensive, more fulfilling, and healthier than the way most people live in the USA. When you include about the costs that you are imposing on your children and future grandchildren, it’s much less expensive.
If forking over $12,000 – $24,000 per year isn’t in your budget and you’re diligently working on cutting your own emissions, there are a few other carbon negative things you can do. One is planting trees, which act as a carbon sink, at least while they are alive. Another is terra preta, which means burning wood and then mixing the resulting charcoal and embers with soil as a fertilizer. I’ve experimented with in my backyard. Neither can be done at the scale needed to combat climate change, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth doing. As always, you should act as well as you can in your own life. You’ll feel better about yourself, and you might find that doing the right thing is contagious.