On Jan. 21, Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to announce a prize donation toward carbon capture efforts.
“Am donating [sic] $100M toward a prize for best carbon capture technology,” Musk tweeted.
Climate change Twitter was quickly alight with praise, admonishment and — most predictably — mockery of the world’s wealthiest person. While most people agree that removing carbon from the oversaturated atmosphere is a necessary step in mitigating the damage of continued climate change, they remain divided on proposed solutions to the problem.
Many believe an uninvented amalgam of technocratic solutions is our best bet. The problem is, these solutions are, in most cases, all but hypothetical.
The cornerstone to the technocratic game plan is carbon removal technology, specifically direct air capture. Direct air capture, as its name suggests, is a process by which carbon is taken directly from the ambient atmosphere and made inert in some solid form that can be easily stored.
This potential solution ensures the carbon dioxide that is captured is never returned to the atmosphere.
Obviously, there are caveats the size of Musk’s ego dampening the promise of this technological marvel. The largest of these is direct carbon capture cannot remove carbon at the rate needed to be effective.
Those words may sound loaded, but even with the most forgiving data, they are objective.
The measurement used most commonly when talking about the carbon cycle is the gigaton. A gigaton is a truly unfathomable unit of mass equal to a billion tons, a trillion kilograms or 2.2 trillion pounds. To get an adequate visual understanding of what a gigaton looks like, check out this infographic.
According to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, plants capture and sequester about 19 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere, while humans emit about 37 gigatons. This led to an unnatural annual excess of 18 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere.
This disruption, in what is known as the carbon cycle, is the basis of climate change.
However, measurements when talking about current direct air capture technology are in fractions of a megaton.
A megaton, while still large in scale, is one-thousandth of a gigaton. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the amount of carbon removed from the air by direct air capture in 2020 was .01 megaton.
That is a bit over half of a millionth of the amount we need to remove to achieve net-zero with current emission levels. Upon further inspection of the most hopeful projections from the IEA, we might be able to scale that removal up to 10 megatons per year by 2030.
When talking about plants the math gets a bit easier. As we know, plants already sequester about half of the excess carbon humans emit into the atmosphere every year.
Yes, the difference is that stark and just about that plain. Humankind’s best technology permanently removes half of a millionth of the annual carbon excess in the environment plants — you know, the things we clear out so we can have nice even fields of asphalt parking spots — that remove a whopping half.
Plants are self-replicating at absolutely no cost to humans, just leave them alone and they mature and multiply and capture more carbon. They are also masters of efficiency. This leads to the second-largest caveat of our direct air capture technology — energy demands.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates it would take 10% of global energy production to remove 1 gigaton of carbon from the atmosphere. We could spend all of our current energy production on removing this carbon with currently nonexistent machines, and we would still only remove about half of what we need.
Plants run on the sun.
These giant machines would also require metal to be mined to create its parts and land allotments to be razed for their placement, both of which emit additional carbon, not to mention the carbon emitted in order to power them.
Again, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, plants perpetually reproduce themselves and run on sunlight.
Not only are plants far better at what they do than people, but they come with inherent benefits. Plants keep our living spaces cooler. A recent investigative report in The New York Times shows the link between racist housing policy and extreme heat-related deaths.
The article asserts that because of a historic lack of government investment in beautification and public works projects — like planting trees and creating parks — poorer communities tend to be deprived of living surfaces that provide shade and help lower surface temperatures.
This has caused redlined neighborhoods in 100 cities across the United States to be an average of five degrees hotter than more affluent neighborhoods.
Plants are, in and of themselves, a life source for humans. The ability to breathe is only because plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. Additionally, all food exists because of plants.
Although conventional farming is a major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, alternative agricultural practices show potential for utilizing the natural carbon sequestration ability of crops.
Regenerative agriculture utilizes cover crops in the offseason to balance the chemical composition and maintain the health of the soil. It also discourages the use of chemical pesticides and overuse of tilling, both of which are shown to be harmful to soil biology and impede its ability to store carbon dioxide.
According to WRI, simply the use of cover crops could isolate half a metric ton per acre per year. There are 900 million acres of farmland in the U.S. alone.
Additionally, there are drastic implications in allowing a privatized corporate interest to have control of the global thermostat. That is, should humanity trust the man who named his first and only child X Æ A-12 to decide how much carbon in the air is too much?
It’s time to have to make hard choices. We need to decide what funding priority we give to which strategies to help us combat the impacts of climate change.
My best wishes to Musk and his future investing in technological carbon capture.