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Fix global warming, win a cigar

virginchallenge.jpgFrom the news-of-the-unexpected file: Richard Branson and Al Gore recently announced the creation of a $25 million prize to anyone who can come up with a credible technology that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Similar schemes have proved successful in the past. Some have pointed to similarities with the Ansari X prize, created to stimulate private investment in space travel, but that feels like the wrong analogy to me. Private space travel is mostly about commercializing already existing technology by making it cheap and reliable. Climate change solutions will involve R&D at a much more fundamental level.

The British Government’s longitude prize, established in 1714 to spur innovations that would allow ships to navigate better at sea, might be a more apt comparison. Happily, that contest yielded a successful result.

Some have criticized the “Virgin Earth Challenge” on the grounds that a carbon vacuum technology would remove the moral imperative to reduce our use of fossil fuel. But such a criticism confuses means and ends. We have a moral imperative not to harm our planet via global warming. If a carbon vacuum were actually a viable technology, it would be immoral for us not to pursue it.

But more fundamentally, any proposed solutions to the earth challenge will be up against some hard laws of physics. When fossil fuel is burned to create CO2, a lot of energy is released. That’s why we like to burn it. It follows, then, that a lot of energy will have to be put back in to turn CO2 into something more solid.

Where will that energy come from? It can’t come from fossil fuels — that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. So it has to come from renewable sources (or nuclear). And once we’ve discovered a source of carbon-free energy that can be tapped at the necessary scale to subvert climate change, one might well wonder whether carbon vacuums will be the best use for that energy.

None of this is to say such a carbon vacuum is impossible. It just seems unlikely. Of course, I’d love to be proved wrong, and it’s hard to see any harm from the contest. Branson hopes that governments will match his donation. $25 million here, $25 million there. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

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