What’s the difference between “carbon dioxide removal” (CDR) and “carbon capture and storage” (CCS)? And what role might each play in decarbonizing the global economy fast enough to avoid climate breakdown? CCNow held a press briefing on November 9 to get journalists up to speed on the complicated, sometimes confusing technologies of CDR and CCS, both of which are expected to be major points of contention at COP28.
- Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist of The Nature Conservancy and Distinguished Professor at Texas Tech University
- Sir David King, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and former chief science adviser to the UK government
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director, moderated the conversation.
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is the process of removing carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere or ocean and storing it away where it can no longer overheat Earth. This can happen through a variety of natural processes, including photosynthesis by trees and sequestration by soil and oceans; it is also being attempted through man-made processes, such as direct air capture.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the process of capturing carbon dioxide before it’s emitted into the atmosphere — for example, by power plants or steel mills — and then storing it underground for the long term.
“Unabated” emissions are those that end up in the air, mostly from burning fossil fuels, because no technologies are used to capture or reduce them. “Abated” emissions, by contrast, are those targeted for capture by technologies such as CCS.
Summary and Key Takeaways
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is priority number one.
Both Sir David and Dr. Hayhoe emphasized that neither CDR nor CCS can substitute for what most needs doing: rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, the main drivers of climate change. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, is essential to secure a future for humankind,” King said. Each year, the world emits about 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. King said it’s an “absurd” idea that the world can capture that amount of carbon.
Dr. Hayhoe strongly agreed. Like King, however, she said removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is also necessary. Think of Earth’s atmosphere like an overflowing swimming pool, she said. The first thing to do is turn off the hose that’s over-filling the pool — that is, stop emitting greenhouse gases. But the pool will stay overflowed until a drain is opened and excess water is released — which is where CDR is required.
Hertsgaard summarized the two scientists’ message: “You’re saying that carbon dioxide removal is a scientific imperative — because civilization can’t survive the current level of 420 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere — but carbon capture and storage is a political and economic choice. Have I got that right?” Yes, the scientists affirmed.
- There is no silver bullet. Solving the climate crisis will require a number of solutions, including CDR. Dr. Hayhoe explained three categories of solutions:
- Mitigation. Greenhouse gas emissions need to rapidly decline, particularly carbon dioxide. (About 90% of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels.) This can be achieved by phasing out fossil fuels and switching to clean energy sources, improving land use and agricultural practices, and changing behaviors like eating less meat. There can also be a limited role for carbon capture and storage technologies in difficult-to-decarbonize sectors like concrete and steel making, Hayhoe added, but CCS needs to be made more cost effective and scalable.
- Removal. Carbon dioxide needs to be drawn down and stored away from the atmosphere. A key nature-based way to do that is by stopping deforestation; trees “inhale” CO2 and store it in their leaves, trunks, and roots. Other ways include restoring wetlands and other degraded ecosystems and practicing climate-smart agriculture. Man-made CDR technologies, such as direct air capture, must be dramatically improved if they are to be part of the solution.
- Offsetting. Legitimate carbon offsets can compensate for emissions from concrete, steel, and other manufacturing processes that are particularly hard to decarbonize. Carbon credits enable individuals and organizations to invest in emissions reduction projects elsewhere, such as tree planting or renewable energy development. It’s important to verify whether such offset projects are effective and legitimate.
- Capturing carbon through technological means is costly.
Carbon capture and storage and the direct air capture approach to CDR ranked low on Hayhoe’s solutions list due to their high economic costs and the large amount of energy they require. It’s much quicker and cheaper not to emit greenhouse gases in the first place, she said. The best way to do that is to become more energy efficient — to waste less energy by, among other things, switching to super-efficient appliances and vehicles, and making buildings more energy efficient. “That’s some of the lowest hanging fruit,” Hayhoe said.
King elaborated on the challenges of CCS, emphasizing how energy intensive the technology is. “If you want to capture carbon dioxide in tons, and you calculate how much air you have to pump through your capturing device, it’s vast,” he said. “You have to have enormous pumps, rapidly pumping air through the capture devices.” For instance, capturing all carbon emissions from a coal-fired power plant is estimated to require that 13-44% of the plant’s output be used just to operate the CCS equipment. King points to a new study by researchers including former NASA scientist James Hansen that concludes carbon capture “cannot be viewed as the solution” due to its exorbitant costs, noting it could only play a role in a portfolio of solutions if costs decline.
- The fossil fuel industry loves the status quo.
The fossil fuel industry has a vested interest in pushing for carbon capture technologies, because such technologies enable fossil fuel interests to claim they can continue selling more oil, gas, and coal without wrecking the climate. The industry has “everything to gain from maintaining the status quo,” Hayhoe said. “If the fossil fuel industry really thought that a business model where the majority of their emissions could be taken up through carbon capture was possible, they would’ve started it 20, 30 years ago.”
Part of the problem is the industry’s outsized political influence, including during global climate negotiations, said King, who’s advised four separate British prime ministers. “There’s a very powerful lobby at work here,” he said, urging the journalists at the briefing, “please, can you do something to make sure that the world knows about this?” The fossil fuel industry could well derail efforts to address climate change at COP28, King added. He specifically expressed concern that the president of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, is also the head of the state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). “How can he wear these two hats pulling in such different directions?” King asked.
To underscore the influence of corporate interests, Hertsgaard highlighted a recent Agence France-Presse investigation revealing that a key COP28 advisor, the global management consultancy McKinsey & Company, is working behind the scenes to promote policies that violate the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree-C temperature target by increasing fossil fuel production — a contradiction that McKinsey, like the fossil fuel industry itself, finesses by arguing that CCS and CDR can offset the resulting emissions.
- Carbon credits could play a positive role, if implemented correctly.
The recognition that preventing deforestation, restoring ecosystems, and planting trees could effectively remove carbon from the atmosphere led to a market for carbon credits. Some individuals and organizations embraced the potential of nature-based solutions. Others exploited the concept for financial gain, engaging in “cold calculated greenwashing,” as Hayhoe put it, and promoting cheap carbon credits that failed to address the issue. This mixed response tarnished the reputation of nature-based solutions.
Amidst all this, Hayhoe emphasized the importance of responsible journalism. While exposing bad actors and their deceptive practices is crucial to protect the integrity of nature-based solutions, she said, it’s also important to highlight the positive impact that these solutions can have when implemented effectively. “What I don’t see being written, except by scientists, are the more nuanced pieces saying, ‘Look, this is an important climate solution. It has to be done right,’” Hayhoe said.
CCNow’s COP28 hub. See the COP28 Resource Hub, which includes a COP28 Reporting Guide, related webinars, Climate Beat newsletters, partner stories, and other resources to help journalists report on the UN climate summit.
Carbon capture. The World Resources Institute digs into carbon capture technology and how it will feature in the conversation at COP28, and offers explainers about carbon dioxide removal and direct air capture.
“Unabated” fossil fuels. Reuters takes a close look at the terms “unabated” and “abated” in this explainer, “COP28 Dispute: What are “unabated” fossil fuels?”
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello and welcome to another press briefing with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the executive director of Covering Climate Now, and also the Environment correspondent for the Nation Magazine. Today, our subject is Carbon Dioxide Removal and COP 28. But first, for those of you who don’t know, covering Climate Now is a global media collaboration of more than 600 news outlets that reach a total audience of billions of people. We’re journalists. We’re organized by journalists for journalists to help one another do better coverage of the defining story of our time. It costs nothing to join the Covering Climate Now collaboration, and there’s no editorial line except respect for climate science. You can go to our website coveringclimatenow.org, where you’ll find a list of our partners and all of our background resources. You can sign up for our weekly newsletter, The Climate Beat, which comes out today, every Thursday. Check out our Slack channel where you can talk to other climate journalists about stories you’re working on, get advice, job leads, et cetera. And of course, you can apply to join Covering Climate Now, either as an independent journalist or your news organization.
So Covering Climate Now organized today’s press briefing because we’ve noticed, as we follow our colleagues work around the world, that many of us journalists are unclear about what carbon dioxide removal is and is not, and how carbon dioxide removal differs from carbon capture and storage, and the different roles that these various technologies might play in the future going forward and limiting temperature rise on this planet to an amount that is compatible with civilization as we know it. These questions are going to be central to the COP 28 International climate negotiations that begin three weeks from today in the United Arab Emirates, and they’re going to remain central to climate, politics, economics, and other aspects of the climate story for the foreseeable future.
Now, it’s not surprising that many of us journalists are unclear about all this. It’s pretty complicated stuff at one level in terms of the technologies and the science involved. But at another level, it’s fairly straightforward, especially when it’s properly explained. And that, of course, is our role as journalists, to educate ourselves about sometimes complicated subjects and to understand them so well that we can then in turn explain them in a way that’s clear to the general public. So we’re very fortunate at today’s press briefing to be joined by two experts who are not only extremely accomplished climate scientists, but also two of the best communicators of climate science that I’ve come across in my 30 years on the climate beat. I’ll introduce them in a moment, but first, some brief housekeeping items. This press briefing is intended for working journalists. That means that we will only take questions from journalists, and the chat function as well is reserved for journalists.
I will pose questions to our two guests during the first half hour, and then moderate questions from my fellow journalists during the second half hour. Everyone is welcome to tweet throughout the briefing. You can use @coveringclimate and the hashtag #CCNow. And Covering Climate Now will post a full recording and transcript of the briefing on our website as soon as possible after we conclude.
Now to our guests. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Dr. Katherine Hayhoe. She is the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy and distinguished professor at Texas Tech University. She appears frequently on radio and television and is the author of numerous books, including Saving Us: A Climate Scientist Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.
And also Sir David King. He’s the emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge in the UK, and he’s the former Chief Science Advisor to the UK government and crown. He currently heads the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. They’re an independent group of scientists who advise governments and others on climate change and biodiversity around the world. Now, I invite you to please join me in giving a warm virtual welcome to both of our panelists.
So thank you both for being here, Sir David and Dr. Hayhoe. Full disclosure, you’ve both been sources of mind for years, and I can assure my fellow journalists that, without fail, your information and insights have been both reliable and really invaluable for, as I said earlier, taking very complicated subjects and breaking them down in a way so that we, journalists, most of whom are not trained in science, can understand them well enough that we can then share them with our listeners and our viewers and our readers. And also, you always make yourselves available to talk to journalists, so I really thank you for understanding the importance of communications and making yourselves available that way.
So we’re going to devote most of today’s briefing to carbon dioxide removal. You may hear me refer to that sometimes as CDR, carbon dioxide removal, and the different ways that it can work. But I think we should start with basic level of definitions. Many of us journalists just aren’t clear on exactly what carbon dioxide removal is, and crucially, how it is different from carbon capture and storage. So I’m going to ask each of you to explain that in the simplest possible terms. Dr. Hayhoe, can you start please, with carbon dioxide removal and how it is different from carbon capture and storage?
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Yes. So to do that, you’re going to have to forgive me because I’m going to show you a picture. I just feel like a picture’s worth a thousand words. And that really helps because it can get really confusing. So let me just share my screen here. Here we go. And I want to start with something really important. I see headlines all the time that literally say, is this the silver bullet? And I want to start off by saying there is no silver bullet there. There is no one solution that can fix this whole problem. But the good thing is we have a lot of silver buckshot, which I realize that’s a very North American perspective. By that, I mean we have a lot of little pieces that together can add up to the full solution we need. So resist the temptation to pitch anything as a silver bullet because it isn’t. And in fact, it creates a false hope and a false sense of, oh, well, if there’s just one thing we have to do, then it’s not that hard.
So what do we have to do? This is my picture. Think of the atmosphere like a swimming pool, above ground pool and I grew up with […]. We had just the right amount of water in our swimming pool that when I was young, my toes could just touch the ground. That’s similar to how before the industrial revolution, we had just the right amount of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere so our toes could just touch the ground, so to speak. But at the beginning of the industrial revolution, we stuck a giant hose into the pool and we’ve been turning the hose up every year. The first year of the pandemic, we turned it down 7%, and then we turned it right back up again. So the level of water in the pool has been rising faster and faster every year. That’s the level of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
So what’s the first type of solution that we need? There’s three types of solutions I’m going to talk about. The first type of solution we need is we need to turn off the hose, right? Now, what does turning off the hose look like? Here’s where carbon capture and storage comes in, because carbon capture and storage is part of turning off the hose. The easiest and most affordable, lowest hanging fruit though, is not high tech carbon capture and storage. It’s efficiency. We are so wasteful with our energy and our food, energy waste, electricity waste, food waste. It’s a tremendous way to save money, save resources, and help turn off the hose. Clean energy is also a way to turn off the hose. Reducing our emissions from land use and agriculture is also a way, through agricultural practices, everything from feeding cows seaweed to reduce their methane emissions to encouraging plant-based diets. That’s behavioral change as well.
At the very bottom of the list, we have carbon capture and storage, which consists of cutting a slit in the hose before it gets into the pool and diverting a few drops out of that hose and putting it underground. That’s carbon capture and storage.
Mark Hertsgaard: And how do you accomplish carbon capture and storage?
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Oh, go ahead.
Mark Hertsgaard: I say, how do you-
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: How you accomplish that is-
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah, go ahead.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: So in other words, imagine you had a coal-fired power plant, and the carbon from that coal-fired power plant would normally go right out the smokestack into the atmosphere. With carbon capture and storage, you pipe those gases into something that captures the carbon before it goes into the atmosphere, so before it comes out the hose, so to speak. And you take that carbon, you put it somewhere where it will not interact with the atmosphere for thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, typically underground. So that’s where carbon caps and storage comes in. It takes a few drops out of the hose, puts it underground. But the pool also has a drain, and we need to make the drain bigger. This is where carbon dioxide removal comes in. Carbon dioxide removal is making the drain bigger to take carbon out of the atmosphere that’s already there.
That’s the difference. So what does that look like here? The number one top thing we can do is stop deforestation. Let’s actually stop cutting down and burning the trees. Yes, tree planting comes in there. It’s number three on the list. But number one is stopping deforestation. Number two is restoring ecosystems, including forests, grasslands, coastal wetlands that store carbon. Carbon in the atmosphere, we have too much. Carbon in ecosystems, we want more. Regenerating ecosystems, that’s where tree planting comes in. Climate smart agriculture offers a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. And then at the bottom of the list here, we have direct air capture. Direct air capture is like the Climeworks technology that passes air through a filter, that filter captures the carbon, and that carbon is taken and turned into a permanent product like stone or it’s pumped underground.
Direct air capture is possible, but it takes a lot of energy and it’s very expensive. Climeworks estimates that if we deploy direct air capture at scale, it could take up 5% of what’s coming out of the hose by 2050. So it is not the silver bullet. And there is in fact something called a mitigation hierarchy. I wanted to introduce to you very [inaudible 00:12:43] no babble words, but what this simply means is you have to turn off the hose first. Turn off the hose as much as you can every year. So say year one, I can turn off my hose. If I’m a city, a company, a government, or even me, myself as an individual, say I can turn off my hose 10% first. So then that’s where carbon credits come in. Say, I can turn off my hose 10%. I can cover the rest of my emissions 90% with making the drain bigger. But next year, I have to do more.
Next year, I have to be at 15%, so I only need 85% coverage. Then I need to be up to say 35, 40% of reducing my own emissions. So then I only need to make the drain bigger by 60%. We can’t make the drain big enough to take up the whole hose. In fact, we’ve calculated that at the Nature conservancy, the hose, or sorry, the drain can only take up about 30% of the hose. But that’s where the role of carbon dioxide comes in. It helps us make up the difference in our Paris targets while we’re still turning off the hose as fast as we can. Does that make sense, Mark?
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes. Thank you. Katherine, I’m going to ask you… I’m going to turn to you, Sir David, in a second. Katherine, we’re getting a little bit of crackle and delay in both your audio and your video. Can you maybe turn off some of the other programs perhaps on your computer? We got, I’d say 95% of what you said, but something is delaying a little bit of the transmission. So while you work on that, I’m going to turn to Sir David. And just Sir David, I know having interviewed you for many years, that you were one of the great fighters in international negotiations going back 20 years, that we have to turn off the hose, we have to stop the emissions. So why don’t you start with that. As we talk about carbon capturing storage and carbon dioxide removal, there is no substitute to the first, second, and third order business, which is to stop the emissions. Have I got that right?
Sir David King: Absolutely right. Absolutely right. I think, Mark, that we need to just put some figures into this. Today, if we count as we should, carbon dioxide emissions and methane rising levels of methane, rising levels of other gases, nitrogen oxides, we come to the fact that we are emitting into the atmosphere every year about 50 billion tons every year of carbon dioxide equivalent. Now, if we continue doing that, and I think that Catherine has given us a wonderful little example with her filled up tub, then of course there is no future for humanity. There is no way we can manage to remove 50 billion tons a year. In other words, this is just an absurd concept that we could remove anything like that amount per year. And so we do have to go beyond this. But in the first instance, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, et cetera, is essential to provide a future for humanity. Of course, the other aspects of the problem, and I love the way Katharine’s gone through all of these processes. You’ve set the scene beautifully. We need everything. But I’m going to say we needed more than that. So let me just try to understand as clearly as we can.
What do we mean by getting to net-zero emissions? Really a big challenge just to understand the meaning of that term, which was introduced by my then prime minister. I’ve worked with four British Prime ministers now. And this was Theresa May who introduced the idea of net-zero emissions by 2050 as an objective. Now for me, I had originally been pushing within government 80% reduction by 2050, if not before. We are very clear about the percentage reduction needed under those terms. I’m now going to say 20% emission continuing is going to be extremely difficult to manage. We must be in excess of 90% reduction if we’re going to actually manage the problem we’ve got.
So that just puts into context the importance of reducing emissions, that has to be our major global objective. And I can get into the politics of this, but not right now because we are just trying to explain concepts. Let me just stay with this because there’s this big question you’re asking, and that is to distinguish between carbon dioxide removal and carbon capture and storage. And carbon dioxide removal, and I’m repeating part of what Katharine said, but in different words, carbon dioxide removal could be achieved. For example, by growing more forests. We can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing forests because we know the forests take up carbon dioxide, give out oxygen, we need the oxygen to breathe. The symbiosis between green matter and us living matter is a critical part of our ecosystem, and we need to understand that. So forests, very good. Let’s stop deforesting and then actually reforest and even create new forests, that’s a good way to go. That captures more carbon dioxide in the form of the wood and in the form of what goes under the ground.
Now let’s move on from that form of carbon dioxide removal to what happens in the oceans. The oceans are very efficient at removing carbon dioxide. A very high percentage of what we emit doesn’t stay in the atmosphere, a good percentage of it goes into the oceans. And this process of going into the oceans is unfortunately acidifying the oceans. But nevertheless, there are several things that can be done to improve the way the oceans take up carbon dioxide. So let me just give you two of those as examples. And my first example is ocean alkalinity enhancement. Now ocean alkalinity enhancement is underway in Cambridge, it’s underway in Cornwall here in the UK. It’s very much these techniques in experimental stages.
And this depends on using byproducts from industrial processes. And these byproducts are principally calcium and magnesium, and these can then be converted into hydroxides very easily, this doesn’t use much energy at all. And if you put those hydroxides into the ocean, you reduce the acidity. But in particular, this then takes up more calcium, sorry, more carbon dioxide, and it sequesters it at the bottom of the ocean in the form of carbonates, calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, essentially insoluble drop to the bottom of the ocean, and the ocean floor rises. It’s taken billions of years for the ocean floor to rise to create the continents, but that’s really how it happened. We need to understand the history of how our planet emerged, and this was part of the process. We also can work on using the oceans which are more than 70% of the surface of the earth. So we mustn’t neglect the oceans. And a project we’re looking at is to see if we can recapture the biodiversity of the oceans by imitating the function of the whales.
Now I’ve got a little story to tell here, and I think it’s quite a nice story. And it’s a story we’ve only learned over the last 10 years. The blue whales are the biggest mammals ever. And we know that these whales, these enormous animals, spend an awful lot of time under the water, deep down 300 meters to 500 meters down. They have very big lungs enabling them to stay down there for a long time. And of course we know they come up, as mammals like us, they need to breathe oxygen from the air. And so they splutter out the carbon dioxide that they’ve built up in their bodies, and take up air and meat, all sitting above the water have been aware of this. Films taken from under the water, when a pod of whales comes up to the surface, they disappear in a great cloud that they’ve created. And that cloud is the second reason they come up, they need to poo, right?
So the whales coming up to the surface. When you are a mammal and you’re down 300 meters below the sea level, the pressure of the water keeps all your orifices jammed shut. These whales have to get rid, they have to excrete. And so what are they doing? They’re bringing fertile material up into the sunlit area of the surface of the ocean. And what this means is, that surface of the ocean is very quickly covered in green matter, taking up vast amounts of carbon dioxide. But perhaps more importantly, this green matter phytoplankton is the food stuff of every kind of fish larvae. Fish larvae hatch from fish eggs, and when they hatch they need phytoplankton. So in this forest in the ocean, we get a full biodiverse system very quickly, we get maybe a quarter of a billion fish from a pot of whales coming up in this way. So that’s what we are trying to repeat. Can we operate as if we were whales?
And I say this because unfortunately whales were the first form of oil that we discovered, and we removed 99% of the world’s blue whales in that process. And in that process we reduced the amount of biomass in the oceans massively, fish, crustaceans, all benefited from these green forests. So what I’m saying here is, we can tackle two things at once, mainly biodiversity in the oceans, but secondly, we can take up carbon dioxide and permanently sequester it again at the bottom of the ocean in this way. So I’m just giving you a couple of examples because I tend to talk in examples in the real world, and therefore I match up to what Katharine is doing in her explanation. The carbon capture and storage process. Let me just very quickly say, direct air capture the total amount of carbon dioxide in the air today is about 420 parts per million. It’s a very small amount, but it operates very effectively as a greenhouse gas keeping us warm.
If you want to capture carbon dioxide in tons, and you calculate how much air you have to pump through your capturing device, it’s vast. So you have to have enormous pumps, rapidly pumping air through the capture devices, you’re burning an awful lot of energy. There’s no use telling me, well, we can use renewable energy. You’re going to take renewable energy from other functions if you do that. The energy consumption means this is not a justifiable process. So we have to be very careful with how we proceed to capture carbon dioxide. We need to capture it at scale. That means billions of tons per annum to create a manageable future for humanity. That is a necessity. But at the same time, we have to be very careful how we spend our money going forward so that we don’t simply waste it.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much. I think all of my colleagues here are seeing why I say that you two are such great communicators because you use examples that are very tangible. Let me turn to Dr. Hayhoe now and ask, let me just make sure I’ve got this correct now, because we’ve heard both of you. It sounds, and I’ve heard this said before, that carbon dioxide removal is a scientific imperative, unless you think that we as a civilization can survive at 420 parts per million, which look at what it’s already doing around the planet and over the long-term that will lead to at least six meters or 20 feet of sea level rise. Unless you think we can survive that, we have got to figure out a way to draw down, right? To remove carbon from the atmosphere through the various methods that y’all have been discussing.
Carbon capture and storage on the other hand, I have heard described as more of a political and economic choice that in some places, in some technologies may enable continued fossil fuel burning. Now of course, that is why it is controversial. Many scientists and activists say, hey, this is the equivalent of a get out of jail free card carbon capture and storage that is, because it’s basically becomes an excuse for power plants and factories to keep burning oil and gas and coal because we’re going to capture it. And by the way, my fellow journalist, this is going to be a big issue at COP 28, where the term that you’ll hear is abated or unabated. They’re talking about abated emissions, meaning that we can… Emissions that are abated. And again, Dr. Hayhoe, correct me on this if I’m wrong. But that basically we can use carbon capture and storage, we can keep burning a lot of fossil fuel, but we’ll just capture it.
And what I’m hearing from both of you is that, there’s a role for both of these technologies, but maybe not as big a role as some of their backers in fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel states are suggesting. So, have I got it right about the difference between CDR as a scientific imperative, and CCS as an economic and political choice? Dr. Hayhoe, you first.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: All right, and I apologize. As I said in the chat, when it rains in Texas, the internet slows down every form of internet. So, if you’re missing anything, just let me know. So as I said, there’s a hierarchy to mitigation. We need to turn off the hose as much as possible. We need to turn it off more every year, and then make up the difference by making the drain bigger. But humans being humans, that’s not happening. Many people are using abatement to say, oh, I don’t have to turn the hose off at all, or I could even keep turning the hose up. I’ll just invest in making the drain bigger. We live on a round finite planet, you cannot make the drain big enough to take up all the hose. There is no way to do that. And so when someone says we need to phase out unabated fossil fuels, what they’re talking about is accurate. Because if fossil fuels are fully abated, that means that what’s coming out the hose equals what’s going down the drain.
But, I tend to see unabated fossil fuels as a bit of a weasel word. It is allowing people to weasel out of turning the hose off, and there’s no way we can do that. The role of carbon capture and storage, making that slit in the hose and taking a few drops out, and the role of making the drain bigger, carbon dioxide removal is to take care of the last bits of the hose that we can’t get rid of otherwise. It’s not to take care of the emissions from the electricity sector, that’s some of the lowest hanging fruit. It’s to take care of the emissions maybe from a few of the industries where we don’t have the technology or it’s too expensive. Some of the transportation sectors like long haul flights, we’re still working on trying to get not only the carbon out of the fuel but the climate impact out, which is a different issue too. So that’s what abatement is for.
It’s for the last few drops of the hose. It’s not to just keep the hose going at full blast and keep turning it up. And that’s a really important distinction that we don’t often get.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you, Dr. Hayhoe. Sir David, you’ve been in, you mentioned you’ve advised four British Prime ministers. You’ve been in these conversations, you can imagine what’s going on in the negotiations leading up to COP and at COP. And everybody, please look, we’ll put this into the chat and probably at the bottom here. There’s been great reporting by our colleagues at The Guardian who did the, I think the definitive interview with the president of COP 28, who is Sultan Al Jaber. He is also, you can’t make this stuff up folks, he’s also the chief executive of the country’s oil company, of UAE’s oil company. And in her interview with him, he talks repeatedly about abatement and carbon capture and storage, and we’re going to keep producing oil and gas going forward because we’re going to be able to abate it.
Sir David, you’ve been in these arguments. What is the best role for journalists to play in explicating this to the public? Because it sounds to me as somebody on the beat a long time that, these are, as Dr. Hayhoe says, weasel words, or as we would say in the United States, a get out of jail free card that basically is going to let them off the hook from doing the emissions reductions we need. So what can journalists do constructively about that?
Sir David King: I think we need to understand that if we were to produce electricity from a coal-fired power plant, and then capture all of the carbon dioxide that is emitted in its production of however many watts of energy. If we were to capture all of the carbon dioxide in that process, I don’t believe we’d have enough energy from the power station to do that. Right? So in other words, the abatement process through direct air capture is a loser. We need to be looking at the process producing the carbon dioxide. Burning fossil fuels is yesterday’s means of producing energy. If you look around the world today and the IEA, the International Energy Agency report that was published last month, and it is really worth every journalist picking that up. That report shows that amazingly over the last two years, 2021, 2022, the uptake of renewable energy around the world was remarkable. 20 to 30% increase in renewable energy around the whole world. Now, why is that? The answer is very simple. Because of the big new market for renewable energy, we have watched over the last 20 years, Britain introduced a policy where every utility had to put a certain percentage of its electricity on the grid from renewables, and that percentage was kept increasing. The prices come down a factor of 50 as the market increased in volume.
That’s how the market works. And that increase is massive. So it’s still going down the cost of producing electricity from renewables. And I can give you again, my little story is about offshore wind. I nearly cried when the government said the people of Britain don’t want any more wind turbines on the land mass of Britain. So we had to go offshore. That sounds like a much more expensive way to do it. Offshore wind in Britain is now producing the cheapest electricity per kilowatt-hour of any other form of new electricity generation. Now, why is that? When you go offshore, you bring in marine engineers. And by the way, the marine engineers, I love this irony, that were brought in, came over from the oil and gas recovery industry in the North Sea, the same sea where we’re building these. They know how to figure out how to put these on the floor of the ocean.
They also know how their ships can carry vast, lengthy blades for turbines out to fix them at the positions in the ocean. And what this means is these are the longest turbine blades in the world. These are the most efficient wind turbines in the world. So what we have is a downturn, dammit, we’ve got to use offshore wind. And then turning it into an upturn with the experience from the oil industries. Now, I did ask the CEO of one of the biggest oil companies involved in the North Sea, “Why didn’t you guys get busy on offshore wind?” And he said to me, “Because it’s not our core business,” I’m quoting him precisely. And I said, “But you have all the expertise that’s being used.” He said, “I wasn’t aware of that.” Okay, you’ve got me there. Now, isn’t that interesting? You are blinkered if you think your business is only oil, look at the expertise you have in the company. Now-
Mark Hertsgaard: You have just given all of us journalists such a wonderful story idea. Folks, that is a killer story idea to take to your editors, that the same expertise and the engineers, we always see it covering climate now. The best climate coverage does three things, you humanize, you localize, and you solutionize. You make it a story about people, you make it about a place that readers and viewers can relate to, and you talk about solutions. Here is an incredible solution, the very same engineers who are working for oil and gas, now using the very same skills to go out and do offshore wind, which by the way is all about what a just transition away from fossil fuels is about.
Dr. Hayhoe, can you address something that has come up in the chat here? So we’re going to somewhat segue out to some questions from my fellow journalists. A colleague of ours at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany mentions that a lot of carbon capture and storage currently is being used to basically drill for more oil. They capture the CO2 and pump it down to force more oil to the surface. A, is that correct? And how should reporters be covering that aspect of the story?
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Oh yes, I know all about that, Michael, the Petra Nova carbon capture plant in Texas was built to put carbon capture on it. So they built a new natural gas fired power plant. They put carbon capture, and I believe, don’t quote me on this, but I believe one of the nine turbines, it didn’t run all the time because it was just a pilot project. And the carbon they did capture was used to enhance oil and gas recovery leading to higher carbon emissions. One of our biggest oil and gas companies here in Texas, I think Occidental Petroleum, they just canned a planned carbon capture program. And if the fossil fuel industry really thought that a business model where the majority of their emissions could be taken up through carbon capture was possible, they would’ve started it 20, 30 years ago. It is too late. There is no way we can get to anywhere near our Paris goals without turning the hose off and making the drain bigger as much as we can.
So this is really the tension is that people are seizing on the drain, they’re seizing on carbon removal as an excuse to keep ongoing business as usual because a lot of people who control the balance of power and wealth in this world, not a lot of people, period, just the people who have the ability to make the decisions, they have everything to gain from maintaining the status quo. And we already know that. And this is to relate to some of the other comments in the chat, the 1% richest in the world produce more than double the carbon emissions of the poorest 50%. If you look at a list of the countries that are bearing the brunt of the climate fueled weather extremes, the way that climate change is causing cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes to intensify faster, the way that floods are becoming more dangerous and more frequent, how droughts are being enhanced.
A brand new study just came out from the World Weather Attribution Program yesterday showing that the current drought in Syria and Iran, which is not a place that has a lot of resilience to drought, is many times worse than it would’ve been without climate change. So the countries that are bearing the brunt of the impacts are not the countries who’ve actually caused the problem to begin with. And so when we talk about these solutions, we have to turn off the hose. We have to make the drain bigger. But there’s one more solution I didn’t talk about. We have to learn how to swim because our toes don’t touch the bottom of the pool anymore. That’s adaptation and resilience. And the people who are being forced to do that at warp speed are not the people who have the control over the hose. And that’s not fair.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much for that. I’m going to differ with you only slightly when you say that the 1% have the power to make the decisions. We in journalism think that our role is actually to empower the 99% so that they can also make decisions, for example, by how you vote, for example, by what products you buy and don’t buy. But in order for citizens to do that, they of course need proper information. That’s our role as journalists. We are paid by our employers, but we work for the public. And what you’re hearing today from Dr. Katharine Hayhoe and Sir David King is real ammunition for you to be able to do your jobs.
I want to get into another question now from the chat that I think is sort of cuts through all of this stuff, which is what about cost? What about economics? We know that economics is always the top concern in most opinion polls, not just in the United States, but most countries around the world, understandably. So what does all this mean in terms of cost for the consumer? Because as one questioner says in the chat, don’t all these costs just get passed down to the consumer? And so how do you expect people to support this kind of thing? So David, [inaudible 00:40:50] please?
Sir David King: Well, my first answer to that is exactly what I was saying about the International Energy Agency shock. That the world is turning to renewable energy systems driven by the market. And in other words, it’s cheaper today for most parts of the world to build new renewable energy sources than to build new coal-fired or gas-fired sources to make electricity. It’s cheaper today. So it’s not all a question of cost. However, in discussions… And I’m sure Katherine has the same sort of discussions I have. In discussions with private sector companies that are keen to come with us on this journey, it is very clear that they find it very difficult beyond the low hanging fruit to get themselves to net-zero going forward in time. Now, my answer to them is, and I could name these companies, it’s not unfortunately too many, but these companies are big international groupings.
It is very clear that those are the companies that will survive because their plan is to be fit for purpose into the future. And the difficulties they think they face, I think will evaporate as they find the market pulling them into the most amenable direction of travel for their company to keep their profits going. I don’t believe that there’s an argument here because the alternative, and let me say, I’m afraid that many of the oil and gas companies that are still rather blinkered in their approach, many of those companies will not be survivors into the future as the fossil fuel demand falls. And it must fall as we go forward into a manageable future.
As the demand falls, those companies will fall by the wayside. Now, if you want your company to survive, stop putting money into what will become assets that are not yielding any further profit for you. Stop making new oil discoveries, new gas discoveries because by the time those… It normally takes 10 years for those to produce gas and oil into the marketplace, by the time they’re doing that, the market will have dropped dramatically. So it is really important that every company and its directors and CEOs, every company needs to see that in order to have a future, a future that is future-proof, you need to be looking at the problems we are talking about now.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much, Sir. David. Dr. Hayhoe, here’s a real practical question from one of our colleagues. As a reporter, let’s say you hear about a… And we get these press releases all the time. We’re company X and we… Sorry, that’s a bad choice. Company Y. We’re company Y and we are planning to do a carbon capture project or a carbon dioxide removal project in the region near us that the reporter is covering. How can that reporter vet the claims that that company is making in a very practical way? I mean, can they call you or should they call somebody else? Or are there data sources that you can point us towards?
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: So this is the biggest challenge because there have been studies looking at what companies claim on their websites compared to what they’re actually doing. And in some cases there’s honest mistakes because companies are playing catch up. They’re trying to do the best they can, they just aren’t aware of everything at the time. But in other cases, there’s companies who are certainly going out of their way to say, “We’re doing all these wonderful things,” and either they’re not or they don’t have an impact. So what do we need? We need independent verification. We need to have standards that are not up to each country self-reporting or each company’s self-reporting, but that are independently verified. And let me give you an example of how this is happening with countries. So until recently, and Sir David has seen this for years, countries self-report their greenhouse gas emissions. And self-reporting means they can say whatever they think.
Well, now finally, just this past year, we have satellites that are monitoring carbon and methane emissions discovering all kinds of sources of these emissions that were not in the national inventories. So that shows the absolute importance of external verification and external monitoring. And as Dan just said in the chat, “We need a green watch of independently verified actions.” But let me tell you what I look for. So if I am speaking with a company or if I’m looking at a company, I want to see concrete plans for them to be advancing how they turn off the hose every year. I don’t want a 2050 plan like, oh, we’re going to do basically nothing until 2049, then we’ll wave a magic wand and somehow achieve our targets. I want to see targets that happen every year and I want to see a report on whether it was met the year before or not, and if so, why not? And what they’re doing to make up on it.
I also want to see adherence to external targets like the science-based targets. I want to see connections with external organizations that think about this very thoughtfully and set limits. And what I really, really want to see, and I’m saying this as the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, is I want to see independent third party verification of carbon credits because as we’ve just discussed, we can make the drain bigger. We are already making the drain bigger. We can’t achieve our Paris targets without making the drain bigger. But what happened when people realized that by preventing deforestation, restoring ecosystems and planting trees, you could take carbon out of the atmosphere?
A lot of people jumped in very enthusiastically with plans that weren’t fully baked. Some people jumped in with cold calculated greenwashing, this is just an opportunity to make more money. Some companies said, “Oh, we don’t have to turn off the hose at all. We’ll just buy these cheap credits. The cheaper the better.” Which means the less chance they’re actually taking the carbon out of the atmosphere is more likely. And because of that, the whole idea of making the drain bigger through investing in nature has gotten a very bad reputation because of the bad actors. But studies have shown that most companies that invest in making the drain bigger through the voluntary carbon market are actually turning off their hose more aggressively than companies who aren’t. So this is where journalism is so important. It’s easy to write the hit piece and the hit pieces should be written exposing the bad actors. But what I don’t see being written except by scientists, are the more nuanced pieces saying, “Look, this is an important climate solution. It has to be done right.” It’s easy to write about how it’s being done wrong, and we need to know that, but let’s write about the way it’s being done right and how investing in nature.
Often the resources come from the carbon credits, the funding comes from the carbon credits and the voluntary carbon market. But guess what? They also invest in biodiversity. They also can, if done properly in conjunction with local communities, allowing those local communities to take the lead, they can also… Those funds can be used for education, for water, for addressing poverty and hunger and development issues. They’re tremendous resources for many parts of the world that have no other resource other than their carbon and their biodiversity if they’re done right. And we need to hear about the success stories as well as about how they’re being done wrong and how they shouldn’t ever be done that way.
Mark Hertsgaard: So that is so helpful, Dr. Hayhoe. And we will, at Covering Climate Now, spread this around. Those studies that show that there are positive ways to do carbon credits and so forth. That’s like gold for us. If you can put us onto those studies, then that’s how we can write those stories. But most of us don’t know about those studies, and I’m not going to ask you to produce them right here in real time, but we will add those to the transcript and the recording that we do of this session. They’ll be on our website with all of our other work here at Covering Climate Now. You mentioned by the way, that sometimes these companies just do greenwashing. There, I want to commend to everyone, and you’ll see this in today’s Climate Beat, which releases in about an hour or two, our colleagues at AFP AFP Agence France-Presse just did a landmark climate expose yesterday, showing that the McKinsey Group, probably the biggest consulting company in the world, is working behind the scenes with the aforementioned Sultan Al-Jaber, the head of the oil company in the UAE, who is also the president of COP28.
McKinsey is working with them behind the scenes to help shape a message that allows for much more fossil fuel production going forward than the 1.5 degree target allows. And the best part from a journalistic standpoint is that at the same time, McKinsey signed the statement that came out earlier this week from the World Economic Forum, the Davos people, a bunch of CEOs saying, we’re in favor of climate action. So a clear case of hypocrisy. This is the kind of stuff that journalists like to write about all the time. So there’s a lot of that stuff, but we really do need to talk about solutions. So if you can turn us onto those scientific studies, Dr. Hayhoe, that will seed a lot of different story ideas for others. Sir David, I’d like to ask you to… Again, we’re going to turn back to COP28. We’ve only got a couple of minutes left here.
These concepts of net-zero and offsets and abatement, these are the weasel words that the fossil fuel status quo is going to use at COP28 to try and basically perpetuate business as usual. Is that too harsh of a judgment? And assuming that it’s not, can you talk about… Again, practically, what can journalists do, whether they’re on the ground there at COP28 directly and can walk up to government ministers and question them, or if they’re covering it remotely, what is the constructive role that journalists can play in basically taking out the fog of all this so that the average person who’s trying to follow the news around the world can be empowered as a citizen?
Sir David King: What I would like to see is an investigation into the power of the fossil fuel lobby. And I’m afraid with the UAE holding COP there and putting this person in as the president… I’ve met him. Al-Jaber is a very nice man to have a chat within a pub. He’s really a lovely guy, but how can he wear these two hats pulling in such different directions? And the next meeting is going to be in Saudi Arabia. So are we seeing an ultimate capture by the fossil fuel lobby of the COP process? Now, I have a feeling that this is too blatant. I think it’s going to bite back at them if the media can pick up on this and understand the fossil fuel lobby has been extraordinarily strong. Back in 1992 when we had the first meeting, it was in Rio, in this whole series of COP meetings, the fossil fuel lobby was spending up to billions of dollars.
And that lobby had all of the major five oil companies involved. Now, several of them withdrew from that lobby. But what we still have is a vast sum of money going into that lobby system. It begins in the United States where lobbies are very, very powerful guns, et cetera. We all know about the lobbies, but we need to expose what appears to me to be happening. I don’t think that the power of these lobbies can be underestimated. For example, when I was working with Tony Blair, we had a meeting in Scotland of the G8 group. It was then G8 and not G7. And Tony Blair agreed with me that we should focus on climate change. So we just had one item on the agenda, climate change. And we invited to that meeting… Because we could, as we were in the presidency, we invited China and India and Brazil and Mexico.
We invited heads of other governments to join in a proper discussion about climate change and how action should be proceeded with. And Blair at this time, was taking a global leadership role, and he was also working very closely with the American president. Post 9/11, Blair had been working very, very closely with him in the Middle East and in other issues. What happened was that the Sherpas or the people who write the program and even write the final document before the heads of governments even meet. Of course, it can be changed, but it helps the heads of governments to have the Sherpa’s document ahead of them, and the Sherpas have to negotiate with each other. And the American Sherpa effectively said, “I want the seven of you to produce a document together, and then we’ll go through it and produce a final document.”
That final document had literally red lines through anything that meant real action. And I’m not joking, red lines through everything that meant real action. And of course, we were more than disappointed, but there was nothing we could do about it. Now, I’m going to suggest that the American president was favoring the oil lobby group back in the United States. Many of us are fully aware of the fact that Saudi Arabia, UAE, these are oil-based countries. But we need also to recognize that the United States has always been a fossil fuel-based economy. Now, so was Britain, but we are not burning coal any longer to produce electricity. We all started the industrial revolution here and we started it off the back of coal. But as we move forward now, we’re not using it. We have reduced our emissions by 48% compared with 1990. We can do these things without our economy suffering.
Our economy suffers for other reasons today. But I think the important message to get across is, there’s a very powerful lobby at work here. Please, can you do something to make sure that the world knows about this? I do not believe the idea that we can continue to burn fossil fuels and because we’re going to capture it has any sense in it whatsoever. The recent report published by Jim Hanson, the climate scientist from the United States with 17 co-authors drawn from China, from India, drawn from around the world, it’s a remarkable report. He puts a number on what it would cost, and that number is up in the many trillions of dollars. We’re heading towards the whole GDP of the world. It’s not possible to do this. So let’s see. Can I just put in a-
Mark Hertsgaard: We need to stop you because we have to close the session in two minutes. So we have often said at the Covering Climate Now, that the story about climate change is not a science… It’s fundamentally a science story, but we have to talk about the politics and the economics. And that means looking at the very powerful institutions who do not want to make this change. I’m going to give a final word to Dr. Katharine Hayhoe on this who has been sending the same message. And again, if you can just offer anything other… Any further thoughts of how journalists can do the best possible job at COP28 and beyond.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe: Yes. I want to touch very briefly on something we haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the fact that most people are already worried about this. But only a small fraction are activated because they don’t know what to do. The majority of our journalism over the past 30 years about climate change has focused on the very real risks, but that’s only half the story. The other half of the story is what every single one of us has the ability to do, which is using our voice, where we live, where we work, whatever organizations we’re part of to help catalyze change.
So when you tell stories, like Mark said, and I loved it so much, I wrote it down, “Humanize, localize, and solutionize.” Yes, telling the story about the risks, telling the story about the solutions that didn’t do what they were promised to do, telling the story about all the climate laggards or the people who are putting their foot on the gas when they should be stepping on the brake, those stories need to be told their important stories. And frankly, at this point, they are easier stories to tell. The harder stories to tell are the other side, which is where are things working? Where are they going well? Where are those glimmers of hope? They exist, they’re out there. And that’s what we need to get ourselves rolling faster at this point in time.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you so much, Dr. Hayhoe, and I’m going to return the favor. You quoted me. I’m going to quote you to my fellow journalists as you gave a video for Covering Climate Now last year, and you said… I’m paraphrasing, “The most important thing that any of us can do about climate change is to talk about it, talk about it with others, because talk is what leads to action. And nobody talks to more people around the world every day than the news media.” So that’s our charge folks. That’s our responsibility. As I said earlier, we’re paid by our employers if we’re lucky, but we work for the people. And that’s what we have to bear in mind as we try to explain these complicated subjects that eventually do come down to pretty straightforward issues.
So I think everybody has really enjoyed today’s briefing. I’m going to say thank you once again to my esteemed colleagues, longtime sources, and real heroes in the climate issue. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, she is the Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, don’t miss her book, which is called Saving Us. And also Sir David King, longtime advisor to many British prime ministers and now at the University of Cambridge as a Professor Emeritus. They are both very accessible to journalists, and so don’t hesitate to reach out to them. We will have this whole seminar… Webinar rather, on our website as soon as we can with a transcript as well. So in the meantime, this is Mark Hertsgaard with Covering Climate Now, wishing you all a very pleasant day.