More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.
The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.
“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.
Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.
One set of symptoms is the global prevalence of pollutants, including a class of synthetic chemicals called PFAS. Nearly every American has been exposed to PFAS, which is used in nonstick cookware as well as water-repellant and stain-resistant products. An infamous case of PFAS water contamination and its health effects in West Virginia became the focus of a story that Rich wrote for The New York Times, and that story inspired a 2019 movie titled “Dark Waters.”
“It’s not that intervention in the natural world is new,” Rich said. “We’ve been doing that from the get-go. What’s new is that we are, I think, finally coming to terms as a society and individually with the incredible depth and scope of the intervention, to the point that … there’s really nothing natural that can be found in the natural world, by any conventional definition of the term.”
Two and a half years after the death of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, his legacy in science and philanthropy is still being reshaped — and this time, the reshaping involves two of his deepest passions: conservation and computation.
Some aspects of that reorganization have stirred controversy, but Hilf said the transition to an expanded AI2 should be straightforward.
“All of the AI products and the teams that are currently managed by Vulcan will transfer in to that new entity and expand the mission of AI2,” he said. “It’s really bringing together Paul’s vision for AI, improving life on Earth, human lives, and leveraging AI2’s mission of ‘AI for the Common Good.’”
The projects include EarthRanger, which uses sensors and software to track endangered species and fight illegal poaching; Skylight, which monitors maritime traffic to head off illegal fishing; Vulcan’s climate modeling group, which is developing more accurate climate projections; and the Center for Machine Learning, which applies AI to a wide range of environmental challenges.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.
Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.
Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.
Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.
“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”
Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.
Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.
Mann has chronicled the conflicts over climate science in a series of books published over the course of the past decade. But in “The New Climate War,” he argues that the terms of engagement have shifted.
Amid waves of wildfires and extreme weather, it’s getting harder to deny that Earth’s climate is becoming more challenging. Instead, the focus of the debate is shifting to whether the climate challenge can be met — and if so, how best to meet it.
One of Gates’ big energy technology ventures is Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, which is working on small-scale nuclear power plants. But Mann doesn’t think nuclear power will play a significant role going forward — due to high costs as well as broader concerns. “It comes with obvious potential liabilities, whether it’s proliferation issues, weapons issues or environmental threats,” he said.
Mann thinks even less of Gates’ support for solar geoengineering strategies. “That’s going down a very dangerous road,” Mann told me. “When we start interfering with this system [that] we don’t understand perfectly, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.”
As for Bezos, Mann said he’s already had some conversations with the Amazon CEO’s team about climate initiatives such as the $10 billion Earth Fund.
“It’s a start,” Mann said. “Would I like to see him spend less on some of these wackier [ideas like] establishing space colonies, and more on saving the one planet in the universe that we know does support life? Yeah.” (For what it’s worth, Bezos argues that his space vision is aimed at moving energy-intensive, pollution-producing heavy industries off the planet and thereby preserving Earth for residential and light industrial use.)
Although he begs to differ on the details, Mann is nevertheless grateful that Gates and Bezos are on the right side in the new climate war. “I’ll gently criticize these folks where I feel it’s appropriate, but I do welcome these voices at the table, because we need everyone on board,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Denialism and doomism
In his book, Mann argues that the “inactivists” who resist efforts to address the climate challenge have turned to a subtler form of denialism, as well as a phenomenon that Mann calls “doomism.”
Mann argues that the climate-denial crowd has picked up the game plan that’s been followed by the gun lobby, Big Tobacco and the bottling and packaging industry.
“There are things that we can do in our everyday lives that decrease our environmental footprint — and they make us healthier, they save us money and they make us feel better,” Mann acknowledged. “What we can’t allow is for the forces of inaction, the ‘inactivists,’ to convince us that that’s the entire solution.”
Others insist it’s already too late to avoid the climate catastrophe, and say the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the hellscape to come.
“If we really were doomed, if the science said that, then we’d have to be upfront about that,” Mann said. “But the science says the opposite. The science says there’s still time to avert catastrophic warming.”
Mann said the current political climate (so to speak) is favorable for making progress, thanks in part to a youth movement led by the likes of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.
The next phase of the war
“The New Climate War” had to be turned in for publication months before November’s presidential election, but Mann said the results bore out his assumption that Joe Biden would win out. The results in the Senate — a 50-50 tie with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker — couldn’t be any closer.
Because of that narrow mandate, “we probably can’t expect to see something like a Green New Deal,” at least for the next two years or so, Mann said. But he doesn’t rule out moving ahead with the first stages of a carbon-pricing system similar to the tax scheme that Canada currently has in place.
Climate campaigners in Washington state tried twice to set up a carbon-pricing systems, in 2016 and 2018, but both initiatives failed at the polls. Mann noted that fossil-fuel interests weren’t the only opponents.
“Ironically, some of the opposition in recent years to market mechanisms has actually come from the environmental left — because it’s been framed as inconsistent with social justice, that the cost will somehow fall on disadvantaged front-line communities, those with the least resources,” he said. “That definitely does not have to be the case.”
Mann said the key is to tweak market-based pricing systems so that the revenue goes to support the communities that need help, and support the spread of renewable energy technologies.
How would Mann spend the revenue? I put an extra spin on that question by asking him what he’d invest in if he were given a few million dollars to start up a climate-related venture. His answer was true to form.
“I would put it into science communication, focusing on what I see as the remaining obstacles when it comes to scientists informing the public discourse, because we do play a role,” Mann replied.
“We shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what the policies should be. There’s a worthy political debate to be had about that,” he said. “But we need to define the scientific ground rules to find what the objective evidence has to say about the risks that we face, so that we have an honest political debate about solutions.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
So what does Mann read for a change of pace? His latest literary diversion actually isn’t that much of a diversion: It’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate-themed sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Mann says Robinson’s book is “a good companion from the fictional side to the nonfiction of ‘The New Climate War.'”
Robinson was the focus of a previous Fiction Science podcast co-hosted by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself. If you’re at all interested in future perils and possibilities relating to the climate crisis, you owe it to yourself to check out the interview.
“He really inspired me as a youth, inspired my fascination with science, and continues today to inspire me,” Mann said. “And I’ve had the wonderful benefit of getting to know his daughter, Sasha Sagan, who has entered into this science communication sphere. You can hear some of Carl’s voice in her. It’s a gift.”
This is just the latest Sagan family selection for the CLUB Club: Carl Sagan’s “Contact” made the list in July 2003, and Nick Sagan joined his father as a CLUB Club laureate with “Idlewild” in August 2004.
Spoiler alert: Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science-fiction novel about a coming climate catastrophe, “The Ministry for the Future,” doesn’t end with the collapse of civilization.
Millions of people die. Millions more become climate refugees. And the crisis sparks terrorist acts, against those who are working for change as well as against those who are defending the status quo.
But by the end of the book, there’s hope that humanity will actually be able to keep things from spinning out of control. And that’s in line with what Robinson has come to believe in the process of writing “The Ministry for the Future.”
“We could either crash the biosphere, and thus civilization, or we could actually create a really high-functioning and prosperous permaculture, a sustainable and just civilization on the planet in the biosphere,” he says. “Both the utter disaster and the quite great, semi-utopian historical moment are available to us.”
Robinson talks about “The Ministry for the Future,” and the real-world technological initiatives on which his tale is based, in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.
Robinson writes meticulously researched “hard” science fiction — that is, stories that rely on plausible physics and engineering rather than flights of fancy such as magic, mind-reading or faster-than-light travel. He’s best known for his Mars Trilogy, a sweeping saga about the settlement of the Red Planet, but the same approach applies to novels such as “Aurora” (about multigenerational interstellar exploration) and “Red Moon” (a murder mystery set in China and on the moon) and “2312” (a thriller that spans the solar system).
The book that’s most like “The Ministry for the Future” is Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which is set in a future version of the Big Apple that’s been inundated due to rising sea levels. “Ministry” follows a different timeline that’s closer to the present day.
The ministry in the title is a sub-agency that’s set up in 2025 as an outgrowth of U.N. climate accords. Soon after the founding of the Zurich-based ministry, a heat wave in South Asia kills millions of people. The ensuing story focuses on Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of the ministry, as well as Frank May, an American aid worker who survives the heat wave.
“Mary and Frank have a bad meeting,” Robinson said. “This is absolutely not the Hollywood ‘cute meet.’ ”
Although Mary and Frank are the central characters of the narrative, the tale is also driven forward by eyewitness accounts from those caught up in the crisis.
It could be argued that the main drivers of the overarching plot are the technologies employed to adapt to Earth’s changing climate.
Robinson said he picked up one idea for the book from a glaciologist.
“The glaciers are sliding in Antarctica, 10 times as fast as they used to,” he explained. “It’s not that the Antarctic is melting, it’s that it’s sliding into the ocean, where it then melts. … And that sliding issue has to do with water lubricating the bottom of the glaciers. It’s not that much water. You can pump it out from there. The ice would bottom out on the rock again, slow back down again just through friction.”
If such a scheme worked, it could eliminate one of the worst effects of climate change. “I think my book is the first introduction of that idea to the world,” Robinson said.
The most decisive twists in “Ministry” have more to do with public policy and finance than with physics.
That part of the technological arsenal includes Modern Monetary Theory, which would basically loosen up the world banking system’s purse strings for more investment in green technologies; a carbon-coin currency tied to emissions reduction; and a data-trust platform known as YourLock that ends up breaking a social-media stranglehold. (In an earlier Fiction Science podcast, “Cyber Republic” author George Zarkadakis touched upon blockchain-enabled data trusts as well.)
Then there’s the darker side of climate action: In “Ministry,” one of the big drivers for change is a campaign of sabotage and assassination mounted by an eco-terrorist group called Children of Kali. Airplanes, coal-fired power plants and oil tankers fall victim to shadowy “pebble-mob” attacks. (That high-tech guerrilla strategy also makes an appearance in “2312”).
Does Robinson think eco-terrorism will be necessary to bring about a sustainable post-carbon civilization?
“I hope that doesn’t happen. … Partly I write those things to say we should try to avoid these by doing better things right now, and making a future even better than the Ministry for the Future’s future,” he said.
But Robinson said there’s a chance that “we may come into a situation where other people on the planet are so angry that we will see violent things being done, essentially against us.”
“This was the pain of writing the novel … the extreme fear that when you write about political violence, it sounds like you’re approving it, or saying, ‘This is the only way things will happen,’ ” he said. “That’s not the case, but in this novel, I’m saying that it very well could happen if we don’t do even better than this.”
How closely will reality match Robinson’s science-fiction view of the future. Will the true-life tale have a brighter or darker outcome? “The Ministry of the Future” stands out as a case where we won’t have to wait very long to find out.
Kim Stanley Robinson is due to discuss “Ministry for the Future” during an online talk at 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT) today, presented by the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, Maine, and co-sponsored by A Climate to Thrive and Sherman’s Books. Registration is free. Check the Jesup Library website for more information.
A satellite mission that bounces laser light off the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland has found that hundreds of billions of tons’ worth of ice are being lost every year due to Earth’s changing climate.
Scientists involved in NASA’s ICESat-2 project report in the journal Science that the net loss of ice from those regions has been responsible for 0.55 inches of sea level rise since 2003. That’s slightly less than a third of the total amount of sea level rise observed in the world’s oceans over that time.
To track how the ice sheets are changing, the ICESat-2 team compared the satellite’s laser scans with similar measurements that were taken by the original ICESat spacecraft from 2003 to 2009. (ICESat stands for “Ice, Cloud and Elevation Satellite.”)
“If you watch a glacier or ice sheet for a month, or a year, you’re not going to learn much about what the climate is doing to it,” Ben Smith, a glaciologist at the University of Washington and lead author of the Science paper, said in a NASA news release. “We now have a 16-year span between ICESat and ICESat-2 and can be much more confident that the changes we’re seeing in the ice have to do with the long-term changes in the climate.”