There is lots of new drawdown technology, which claims to be able to make plastic and fuel out of CO2 extracted from either the air, from coal power, from cow farts and so on. I’m not being sarcastic about the cow farts, that is apparently a real claim (although I doubt it is functional).

The argument seems to be that as this tech exists, and people seem to keep demanding new electricity, we can happily extend, or increase, the use of fossil fuels and be ok with any ‘temporary’ increase in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

To me there seem to be a number of problems with this approach.

1) We seem to be perilously close to massive tipping points. This is vitally important:

  • If we get a run of summers like the one we have just had in Australia (and there is no reason to assume that we will not, as the trend for average temperatures has been increasing steadily over the last 20 years), then, we will have little surviving natural bush, we will have no place for the bush fauna, and we will lose a large number of our farmers, for economic and fertility reasons. We have almost certainly lost some normally non-inflammable rainforest forever.
  • The fires have come close to increasing Australia’s carbon emissions to 175% of normal.
  • The fires have significantly reduced our natural extraction of CO2. We hope that regrowth will compensate, but regrowth could be problematic and slow (See previous post).
  • Rivers and creeks will continue to breakdown and dry up. The water supply situation will get worse. Fish and other fresh water creatures will continue to die. Local food supplies for people outback will decline.
  • It is highly probable, that large numbers of Aboriginal people (and other outback based people), will no longer be able to live on their land, or maintain their ways of life.
  • Other countries are likely to follow a similar course. Australia is just more sensitive to global warming than most other places, we are a country of erratic weather, droughts, floods and storms.
  • The permafrost is melting elsewhere in the world, due to global heating. There is thought to be a large amount of methane and other green house gases stored in the permafrost. If so, there will come a time when this gas starts to leak. Some reports suggest this is already happening. When it does, climate turmoil will accelerate even more rapidly than it is doing. It is extremely likely that the resulting weather changes will affect the world disastrously.
  • There are other effects which will accelerate as well, but you probably already know this.

Summary: We cannot afford to increase the amounts of Greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere.

If we increase GHG emissions we are heading for destruction. It is that simple.

We need to lower emissions now and we need drawdown of CO2 from the atmosphere now. Technological drawdown is a great idea in principle. Whether it is currently useful is another issue.

2) Historically, drawdown technology has not eventuated, but the promise of drawdown technology has been used to increase GHG emissions: “Soon we will be able to extract all this, and fossil fuels will be clean!”

In Australia, the government has given the fossil fuel industry significant amounts of money to build this technology.

  • The coal industry largely used the money for dinners and promotion of coal. No vaguely working extraction and drawdown technology emerged. Naturally they did not have to pay the money spent on parties and promotion back.
  • Some gas companies did some work, but this was primarily to use extracted CO2 to push more gas out of wells. The successes in extraction, or storage, were minor, or significantly less than the increased emissions, arising from the use of the field.
  • No commercially useful long term, non-propaganda, successes were reported, or implemented outside the test sites.

3) It is possible that the empty promises of drawdown tech are not essential to the talk about it any more. We may even have working tech. If so, the basic conditions for acceptable working tech are:

  • If it is making fuel, then the total amount of energy consumed is considerably less than the amount of energy emitted (ie it has an Energy Return on Energy Input greater than 1).
  • If making plastic or any other substance, then it has to have significantly less emissions than the normal production of the substances, and it has to be economically competitive with recycling and normal production. If it is massively more expensive, then it will not be deployed, or be deployed as a novelty, or demonstration of capacity to be discontinued when the costs do not come down.
  • If we are storing the extracted CO2, then we have to be able to test the stored CO2 for escape into the atmosphere. If such tests are impossible then storage should not be undertaken. Theory of success is not enough.
  • If extracting CO2 directly from the atmosphere, then the technology has to be able to deal with the small amounts of CO2 in real atmospheres and again not be dependent, in any way, on GHG emitting sources of energy.
  • It should be competitive with reforestation, regenerative agriculture, or education of women, over the long term, otherwise let’s use an existing (simpler) working technology.
  • Technical data and the results of experiment has to be freely available. In most of the sites dealing with the new tech, the technical data seems to be mainly hype, based on assumptions of success. They rarely tell you current data. Sometimes there is no technical data at all. This may not be the case about every product, but it is common enough that we cannot assume it is not the case in advance.
  • Independent testing is needed before we risk the technology’s use for GHG reduction.

Summary: We cannot assume, without thorough investigation, that the hype about drawdown technology is accurate, and the technology is ready for commercial or effective layout now rather than in some distant future.

4) Given these issues, if we are to increase the amount of fossil fuels we use, for whatever reason, then we need to be sure that:

  • We reduce the use of other fossil fuels so that the amount of GHG emissions does not increase.
  • If the drawdown technology is being used to extract new fossil fuels, or otherwise unviable fossil fuels, then the total levels of emission (including those from burning the fossil fuels extracted) has to be zero or less; otherwise we are increasing emissions.
  • Drawdown tech has to be installed, thoroughly tested, and shown to be viable, before any new emissions get released. AND we measure the drawdown accurately, and make sure there is no escape.
  • We increase the fossil fuel emissions by less than we are actually drawing down through tech now, so the emissions trend really is downwards.
  • We do not increase the fossil fuel energy supply, or GHG emissions, to power the drawdown technology.

If drawdown technology is ready and functional, then these conditions should seem fairly straightforward. If these conditions seem onerous, then the drawdown technology is not ready, and we need to stop increasing GHG emissions now. The easiest way to stop increasing emissions is to stop increasing fossil fuel based power.

5) We should spend the limited amounts of money, and energy available, primarily refining technology we already have that works to reduce emissions now. If that includes drawdown tech that meets the criteria above, then great.