Where are India’s CarbonFree and LanzaTech? We need to mine air for CO2
On July 19, India’s premier natural gas company GAIL signed a joint venture agreement with Lanzatech, a Nasdaq-listed company that bio-converts carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from industrial effluents into chemicals that go into the making of plastics and polyesters.
LanzaTech claims athleisure star Lululemon among its customers for fabric made from captured carbon dioxide. This is an extremely encouraging development. What would be even more encouraging would be for India to throw up its own technology companies that work to mine the air for CO2 and use it as the starting block for products ranging from synthetic fuel and fabric to carbon fibre and guilt-free diamonds.
Mining atmospheric CO2 is the only sustainable solution to keeping greenhouse gas emissions below the threshold that would raise the average global temperature less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial times. The Paris Accord goal was to limit global warming to less than 1.50 degrees C above pre-industrial times.
Missing the Paris Accord goal
That goal has already been rendered obsolete, most probably, the world already having warmed to 1.10 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by 2019, and there being no sign in sight of containing additional emissions below the 500 gigatonnes of CO2 estimated to push temperatures above the Paris goal.
The Ukraine war has seen Germany, one of the greenest-minded of European climate champions, burn lignite, the dirtiest form of coal, to tide over the self-imposed shortage of energy arising from the boycott of Russian gas. Europe, which had been trying to wean developing countries off fossil fuels, has been actively scouting for natural gas in Africa, in its zeal to quash Russia as a viable superpower, to which end the West has been trying to throttle Russian energy supplies.
If Russian supplies have to be boycotted, alternative supplies have to be created. Geopolitics trumps climate concerns.
Even without the Ukraine war, the world was on course to miss the Paris goal. This is because the focus has all been on reducing further emissions, instead of on removing extant emissions.
Suck out emissions
The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says 58 per cent of the 2,400 gigatonnes of CO2 injected into the atmosphere since 1850 was released before 1990. China became a serious economic contender after it joined the World Trade Organisation in 2000, and Indian growth took off in 2003-04.
It is safe to say that the bulk of the world’s cumulative burden of greenhouse gas emissions was created by the rich world. The sensible solution to the climate crisis is for countries of the rich world to suck out the emissions they had released into the atmosphere in the process of growing rich, instead of sermonising the poor countries struggling to rise above subsistence to curb their emissions.
This is so starkly obvious that it takes someone especially naïve to say it aloud, like the child who pointed out that the emperor flaunting his new clothes and being complimented for his finery by all his courtiers was, in fact, dishabille. And global climate negotiations do not admit children or the naïve into their hectic halls.
Utilising sucked out CO2
It had been conventional wisdom till recently that sucking CO2 out of the air was phenomenally expensive, costing anything from $600 to $1,000 per tonne. And the only use thought of for the captured carbon was to bury it underground or to mineralise it — CO2 dissolved in water is acidic, and reacting it with a base would produce salts, say calcium carbonate.
Now, a new breed of companies have come up, which have figured out ways to utilise the CO2 removed from the air or steel or cement plants to manufacture things that are useful to humankind. CarbonFree has tech to use CO2 to manufacture specialty chemicals. It has tied up with the likes of US Steel and BP to do this.
LanzaTech uses biological processes to convert the captured CO2 into ethylene, which is a basic building block for a host of materials conventionally made from crude.
Right now, a market is growing for carbon credits, and the carbon capture for storage and use serves this market. That market exists only because mining CO2 from the air to produce what has so far been produced by oil refineries and petrochemical plants has not been economically viable. Research is needed to make this happen.
Uses for CO2
Carbon dioxide is already used to give cola and beer their fizz. Another use for CO2 removed from atmosphere or captured from flu gases is to pump it into depleting oil wells, to generate pressure that would push the oil out. There is limited demand for CO2 to make beer or soda. And pumping out yet more oil only adds to the greenhouse gases that need to be removed.
Laboratory level experiments have converted atmospheric CO2 into alcohol, derived carbon fibre from it and other useful materials. The point is to improve these processes or find superior alternatives that lower the cost when scaled up and mine the air to produce the entire range of petrochemicals and forms of carbon that humanity uses.
That would make CO2 removal economical and the best way to achieve net negative emissions and rid the world of its oversupply of greenhouse gases that warm the world.
With the billions of dollars of subsidy from the Infrastructure Reduction Act, climate technology is getting a big boost in the US. What the US does not have in abundance but India has is young engineering and research talent. India must put this resource to good use to generate the chemistry that would make cleaning the atmosphere of CO2 a byproduct of synthesising essential materials.
(TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)