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B.C. should plan to suck carbon out of the atmosphere now, says report

"Can we achieve it? Well, it's not too late yet."
A skier stands on top of a mountain in Squamish, B.C.

A B.C. researcher says it's time for the province to sketch out a plan to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. 

In a report released by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions Wednesday, mechanical engineer Devin Todd laid out a case for why the province needs a strategy to take carbon from the air and lock it away in plants, trees, soil, or even deep underground.

Some of those solutions could be natural, like planting more trees or changing ocean chemistry to indirectly drawdown carbon dioxide levels from the air; in other cases, vast networks of carbon-absorbing machines — many still in the experimental stage — could serve to reverse terraform our planet after decades of burning fossil fuels.

“We need to take the wheel and decide where we're going,” Todd said. “If we don't come up with a strategy for ourselves, someone else will. And that might not necessarily be one that we're OK with.” 

Planning matters, said Todd, because some companies might look to profit or offset their own carbon emissions without fixing the bigger structural problems responsible for releasing emissions in the first place. 

Take B.C.’s forests, said the engineer — no matter how many trees you plant, the ecosystem can still emit vast quantities of carbon if the logging industry doesn't undergo a paradigm shift to halt and reverse deforestation. 

“If we turn around and we're deforesting for whatever reason and not solving it… we're kind of just fooling ourselves,” he said. 

Todd said this is a “crucial moment” to create a home-grown carbon removal strategy, though his report doesn’t favour any specific technologies or policies to see them through.

The report recommends policymakers and industry come together to pilot new ideas and scale up technologies as they prove themselves, while at the same time, not absolving government, industry, and individuals from pursuing “drastic emissions reductions.”

“I’m kind of laying everything on the table pleading for somebody… let's get together and make sense of this and determine what we want as a society,” he said.

One of the most polarizing carbon removal technologies is Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technology, which uses machines to scrub carbon from the smokestacks of coal power plants, steel makers, or other fossil fuel-heavy industries. 

Described by the International Energy Agency (IAE) as “the most important” technology for hard-to-decarbonize industries like cement production, governments around the world have been pouring vast sums of money into CCUS. 

In order to reach global net zero by 2050, the IEA estimates annual capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide will need to climb to 1.6 billion tonnes per year by 2030. From 2030 onward, that means equipping 10 heavy industrial plants with the technology every month — a massive investment. 

Proponents of the technology say it offers a realistic path to wean Canada — and indeed the rest of the world — off fossil fuels without sinking the economy. 

Those who oppose the widespread adoption of CCUS say pursuing the technology funnels money away from investments in technologies like wind or solar energy. Worse, say opponents, it is being used as a tool to ‘greenwash’ the oil and gas industry and let it carry on as usual. One recent report looking at 13 flagship carbon-capture projects around the world found the technology is failing to reduce emissions.

Direct air capture (DAC), on the other hand, pulls carbon directly out of the atmosphere, transforming it into a liquid and either burying it underground or converting it into a “net-zero fuel” for hard-to-decarbonize industries like aviation, shipping, steel and cement production, and long-haul trucking. 

This is the technology the company Carbon Engineering is using at its demonstration facility in Squamish, B.C. 

In his report, Todd warns that current negative emissions technologies “might not be aligned with a sustainable future.”

Outside of CCUS and DAC, the report says a plan to remove atmospheric carbon should consider reforestation, boosting the ability of soils to sequester carbon, or cultivating seaweed.

Another potential solution: pull carbon from the air and bury it as rock deep under B.C.’s seafloor.

Globally, one 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found humanity would collectively need to remove 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year by 2050 to keep average global temperatures below 1.5 C — the threshold beyond which scientists say the planet will face catastrophic consequences. 

That’s like capturing the mass of two billion elephants, enough to stretch from the Earth to the moon 10 times over.

B.C.’s share, meanwhile, could climb to over 24,000 kilotonnes of carbon per year by 2100 — equivalent to roughly 35 per cent of the province’s total emissions in 2019.

But if not accelerated, Todd warns those estimates could come long after a “grim milestone” — if by 2030, global emissions remain unchanged, the world will have emitted enough carbon to raise average global temperatures beyond 1.5 C.

At the same time, Todd says negative carbon technologies could be an economic boon for the province as it helps create a just transition for Canadian oil and gas workers and makes up for other countries looking to purchase credits to offset their emissions.

While a lot of uncertainty remains, Todd says the global negative emissions market would be worth $1.7 trillion per year by 2050. 

With its vast coastlines and forests, B.C. could take a good chunk of that market, he says.

“Can we achieve it? Well, it's not too late yet,” said the engineer. 

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