The Carbon Pledge

Among the most important things in the world are the catastrophic consequences of heat being trapped by greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air.  The melting Arctic is bringing this to a head, since when the last summer sea-ice is gone, all the trapped heat will go into water rather than ice, and climate change will spiral out of control.  Faced with this we can panic, or else we can commit ourselves to a rational determination to seek a better outcome, whatever the cost or risk.  This determination could be expressed through a global, participatory action known as the Carbon Pledge.

Hundreds of billions of tonnes of the main GHGs – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – must be stripped from the air, and fast.  In that critical sentence, a billion means a thousand million, a tonne is a metric tonne or 1,000 kg (almost the same as a ton), and COand CHare chemical shorthand for the combinations of elements (carbon C, oxygen O, and hydrogen H) that make up the GHG molecules.  There are other GHGs, and all can be dangerous, but carbon dioxide and methane are the ones that will kill us if we let them.

There are lots of ideas on how to get GHGs out of the air, and the best involve breaking down GHG molecules into oxygen (O2), water (H2O) and elemental carbon (C).  The carbon would be laid down as bricks buried under water or soil, where it would stay for ever.  We know that elemental carbon is stable because of coal, and because we can dig up ancient charcoal, but it does have to be kept out of contact with the air.  To make elemental carbon, though, we have to reverse the processes by which carbon was combined with oxygen and hydrogen to make GHGs and release energy in the first place.  Whether the actors were human machines or bacteria, it was the energy that was being sought and the GHGs were just exhausts. The key problem here is that some energy is needed to reverse the chemical reactions that produced the GHGs. The question is: how much?

Catalysts are molecules that reduce the amount of energy needed for bonds between atoms to be broken and re-formed, thus making chemical reactions easier to do.  We need the right catalysts to make it easy to break down GHGs.  We do not need catalysts made of gold or platinum that work only at high pressures and high temperatures.  We have those already.  What we need is cheap catalysts that work in the open air and ordinary temperatures, in every village and wind-farm on Earth.  Once we have them, we can do the simple engineering for making carbon bricks, and sort out how to buy the bricks off the people who make them, and bury the damn things.

Thus the first aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to finance international prizes, to be awarded to people who invent the right kind of catalysts.  In this way the creative power of all people can be guided to the most important challenge that has ever faced our species.  It is based on the hope that somewhere, in some university or research lab or garage or factory, licenced or unlicensed, which might be anywhere in the world, there is someone who has an answer to our immediate need.

The Carbon Pledge would offer cash for each catalyst, specify what is needed, advertise like mad, and see what comes up.  And once we have the catalysts, a crash programme to do the engineering will be needed to integrate them into useful machines. I imagine a machine like a wind-mill, that uses wind-power to suck air over the catalysts, that pounds the carbon dust into bricks, and that generates electricity as well.  That’s the easy part.

But we know that people won’t do anything, even save the world and the lives of their own grand-children, without being paid.  Or rather, without a revolutionary change in human consciousness first, it is safer to assume that they will have to be paid. Therefore, we need to be able to buy the carbon bricks – trillions of them – and to bury them properly. Therefore, we need a price for carbon that is high and stable enough to motivate people to invest time, effort and money in conserving the stuff.  So the second aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to make possible the burial of hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon over the next 50 years.  Again, there have been lots of ideas about how fund this, but all come down to the people who use energy from burning carbon paying to make good the consequences. This is reasonable, and there is no way around it, but the means so far available are not satisfactory.

Taxing carbon is unpopular and allows richer people to burn more, and any tax effect on GHGs emissions is indirect at best.  Likewise for higher electricity prices through bills. And likewise for rationing systems that you can buy your way out of, like ‘cap and trade’.  Low ability to pay by the poor public, and low willingness to pay by the rich public, combined with a lack of fairness, transparency, and effectiveness, adds up to political paralysis and nothing useful being done.  I no longer believe that mandatory universal carbon rationing to solve these problems fairly is feasible in the available time.

Some governments have tried to create markets within which carbon that has been certified as ‘conserved’ can be traded. The aim is for the market to define a price that can then be used to justify investment in decarbonisation (renewable energy, energy efficiency, forest ecosystem protection or restoration, etc.). But it has proved impossible to ensure a price for conserved carbon that is high and stable enough to make the investments attractive.  Markets cannot do this alone because speculation undermines predictability, and governments are too fractious to form a universal agreement.  We tried all this, and it doesn’t work.

The other way forward lies in deliberate price creation, driven not by what speculators are willing to risk, but by what the living world needs if we are not to go extinct. People might still become rich by saving the world, but we need to do things the right way round.  So, what’s needed is a price guarantee, backed by big enough assets that it will hold up for the entire time when the future of the living world will be decided.  Every investor needs to know for sure what a tonne of conserved carbon is going to be worth in decades, not what it was worth in this morning’s trading, whether they are going to borrow a billion or build a community wind farm.

So how to create a big enough asset base?  One way would be for some big, stable, rich governments to get together and announce their intention to buy, at a fixed date in the distant future, a large amount of certified conserved carbon at a price high enough to promote rapid worldwide decarbonisation.  I floated this idea as a ‘thought experiment’ in my 2017 book Aid Performance and Climate Change.  It would have the effect of setting a floor price for the duration of the commitment, starting immediately.  But it would also create a liability.  Not a blank cheque, since the numbers are predictable, but a public liability nonetheless.  Yet we should bear in mind: (a) that the value of conserved carbon may increase by the date set, so there’s a potential up-side as well as a known liability; (b) that governments could save up by investing in decarbonisation assets that may appreciate in value, so there are ways to manage exposure; and, most importantly (c) that if we haven’t solved the climate change problem in a few years, nothing will be of value anyway.

But foresight and leadership would be needed, and the chance of enough governments accepting this kind of liability without heavy prompting by the public is probably zero.  So we can either prompt them by building a mass movement demanding political action, or we can show the way by doing the job ourselves, and shaming them into joining in later.  In other words, we could crowd-source a stable carbon price by obtaining pledges from individuals, companies, cities, states and charities.  We could all participate in solving the climate problem, just as we all share responsibility for creating it.  Millions of people could promise to buy certified conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future and bequeath this debt to their heirs.  If secure and permanent records were kept, for which distributed ledger systems are now available using blockchain designs, all of these promises would become one huge asset to use in stabilising the long-term carbon price.

In this way, the price of carbon would cease to be an unknown in investment decisions, and the world’s private sector would be free to invest the trillions in decarbonisation that the World Bank says is needed for survival.  And the Carbon Pledge asset itself could be used to guarantee payments to carbon-brick manufacturers the world over. All conserved carbon would be worth the same, so companies that previously created GHGs could sell carbon bricks instead, and communities likewise.  Everyone would of course be paying for it in the end, but it would be fair and transparent, and we would all have a future.

So, the Carbon Pledge would allow two key services to be offered.  First, it would finance and organise global prizes for the cheap catalysts needed to break down GHGs into elemental carbon and harmless exhausts under open-air conditions.  And second, it would collect and record commitments to buy conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future.

These things must happen at the same time, and they must both succeed.  Meanwhile, we would also have to be doing whatever it takes to design and deploy technologies and financing arrangements for getting as many billions of tonnes of carbon as possible out of the air quickly and into safe storage. Start-up capital would be needed, to design and build the computer systems needed to manage fund-raising and pledges, for staff, for legal costs, and for advertising.  Good ideas on how to do all this in time to avoid catastrophe would be among the most useful thoughts that people have ever had.

© Julian Caldecott