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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  1. Orion - February 14, 2007

    I keep hearing people say how the damage we have *already* done to our environment will take hundreds of years (ok, they said 1000 but I don’t believe it) to undo, even if we dramatically reduce emmissions now. If we believe that statement, and I think I do, perhaps it would be worth it to expend a lot of solar energy (or other carbon-free source) to try to undo some of that destruction?

  2. FD - February 14, 2007

    $25M is a nice start, but let’s look at existing technology for a second. If we were to invest that money in 10kW small wind turbines that were placed on midwest farms, average to above average wind resources, at an average installed cost of $30k each, you could purchase 833 turbines. That would reduce a bunch of CO2 but hardly enough to make a dent in what we produce today. I think its going to take considerably more money to come up with any real impact, which makes this a small prize.

  3. sethmad - February 14, 2007

    “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.”
    Beautifully put. I’m going to quote this to people who choose to deride any new technologies that reduces, but doesn’t completely eliminate, carbon emissions as “part of the problem.”

  4. Peter van Driel - February 14, 2007

    Trees and other plants may be the most efficient means of drawing carbon dioxide out of the air and they do this naturally. The bigger challenge is to find ways to take carbon sequestered into vegetation, wood, and other carbon-bearing materials and bury it so that it will not be released back into the atmosphere – in a way – enhancing the natural geologic processes that create oil and gas deposits.

  5. fiver - February 14, 2007

    There is some great research going on with fixing atmospheric carbon back into the soil. Not “carbon sequestration” per se, which hides it in big inert formations deep down, but rather chemically combining it into a super-fertile soil called Terra Preta or biochar. The soil, which can host more microorganisms, is supercharged for growing plants, fixing the carbon away from the atmosphere in a true net-atmospheric-carbon-negative process.
    I’m no expert – Google “terra preta” or “biochar” to read for yourself. From my reading, this seems to be a pre-Columbian technology for making nutrient-poor rainforest soils have good crop yields – one which it may be time to “rediscover” (irony intended).

  6. Keegan - February 14, 2007

    Our first and foremost duty to ourselves and the future inhabitants of earth is to reverse the process of taking what Mother Earth has given to Humankind to grow and survive back.To do that requires a cooperation/plus beyond the present countries at large.The Computer-Driven Global community that now exists needs to Start the “World Organizational Living Volunteers Era Strategies”.W.O.L.V.E.S. for earths survival.I have a written plan In My Book. Interested parties may contact me at the E’Mail address above. Thank you!”Play-2-Win”

  7. Terry - February 15, 2007

    This is Tom’s dad. Big assumption is that the lady in question will say yes.
    Once over the first hurdle the family is going from DC to the UK this summer anyway. No! Don’t make me feel guilty about going back to the mother country to see the family. It is a big carbon footprint but we will all but Terrapasses I promise.
    Given that we are going anyway then UK destination wedding is the lowest cost option especially as Tom can probably get someone else to pay. And no, don’t look at me.

  8. Aaron A. - February 15, 2007

    First, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Second, you didn’t include the e-mail address where “interested parties may contact” you.

  9. lbruncke - February 16, 2007

    Go! Mr. Gore,
    Why don’t you run for president?
    The 25 million is the prize to come up with a way to convert carbon emissions to something helpful, not put the technology into production.
    Lets get all the universities to participate!

  10. Joe P. - February 22, 2007

    Of course you people must realize any points of view which are placed on this page will be deleted. I find it humorous you libs scream for your first ammendment right to free speech yet when others do the same you are the first to censor their comments. Again, thank you for your time.
    [Ed. note — we did delete several of Joe P.’s posts, which raved on about how environmentalism is a form of communism and the hole in the ozone layer is a hoax (wtf?), blah blah.
    The denialists who crop up here are a bit of conundrum for us, because we really do generally believe in letting people have their say. We never, for example, delete posts that are critical of TerraPass (unless they’re vulgar or abusive).
    But the denialists are such a bunch of tiresome bozos that it seems more worthwhile to keep the general level of conversation here elevated. We’re happy with the quality of conversation on this site, and it seems worthwhile to take occasionally heavyhanded actions to maintain it.
    Note to Joe P. — please take your self-pity and whining about the first amendment elsewhere. This is not the public square. I support your right to set up your own blog, where you can publish your theories about ozone hole conspiracies to your heart’s content.]

  11. Jeff Gordon - February 22, 2007

    “The science is unproven”
    This argument assumes that scientific theories are provable; the assumption belies a complete misunderstanding of science. No scientific theory ever has been or ever will be proven, for proof is a concept from logic and mathematics and is confined to that ethereal realm.
    Consider, for example, Newton’s Second Law, one of the most elementary concepts from physics. Surely this law (expressed in mathematical form as F=ma) is the most solidly established concept in the entire realm of science. It underlies all of modern dynamics; were the Star Trek character “Q” to suddenly invalidate it, we would have no choice but to throw away the entirety of physics and start all over.
    Newton’s Second Law has been confirmed in thousands — nay, millions — of tests. From the operation of automobiles to hydraulics, power plants, aircraft, and space travel, Newton’s Second Law has yielded perfect results.
    But these millions of confirmations do not constitute proof of the Second Law. Proof requires that we demonstrate that, in every single application of the Law, it yields correct results. We have not done so. We have not measured the motions of unseen planets orbiting unseen stars in distant galaxies and shown them to obey Newton’s Second Law. We have not tracked the trajectory of every falling leaf, every buzzing bee, every splashing drop of water and shown them to obey Newton’s Second Law. We have instead taken a very large statistical sample of dynamical behavior and demonstrated that all these phenomena obey Newton’s Second Law. That does not constitute proof — merely statistical likelihood.
    If even Newton’s Second Law cannot be proven, then surely no other scientific theory is provable, and such is the case with global warming. Even if, a century from now, we find ourselves roasting to death in a sun-blasted desert that once was Alaska, we would not be able to assert that the theory of global warming had been proven. The concept of proof is beyond the reach of science.
    I shall now indulge in a digression on a fine point. Often scientists will prove mathematical theorems associated with scientific theories. For example, consider Kepler’s Laws. These laws actually preceded Newton’s Laws, but were nothing more than mathematical relationships that Kepler had induced from Tycho Brahe’s observations. Kepler offered no explanation of why these laws might be correct. Newton, however, was able to mathematically prove Kepler’s Laws by assuming his own Laws. In other words, he proved that, if Newton’s Laws were correct, then Kepler’s Laws must also be correct. This “proof” of Kepler’s Laws was not absolute proof — merely proof of conformity with other laws. All mathematical proofs of scientific laws are similarly limited.
    Thus, rejecting global warming because it is unproven lacks logical merit. We simply do not attempt to prove any theory in the first place; instead, we attempt to demonstrate its credibility. This requires scientific judgement: the careful assessment of all the arguments, pro and con, leading to an overall (and necessarily tentative) conclusion as to the likelihood of the theory’s correctness. Every citizen is welcome to apply their own judgement to the issue, but of course the most reliable judgements will come from those who are most familiar with the issues: the scientists themselves.

  12. Anonymous - February 23, 2007

    Note to Ed. – I am impressed with your note to Joe P. Cheers!

  13. Juci - February 25, 2007

    Scientific theories are just that…theories but a dying planet have been proven fact not theory. It’s dying because it’s fuels are being used up, whether they maybe reusable (like trees and plants, one can just plant seeds and wait to grow) all the way to non-reusable (like fossil fuels such as petroleum).
    Reusable resources are better than non-reusable but reusable resources still take time to grow and harvest. It may not take millions of years to get but still we live in a world that is all about NOW! NOW! NOW! Not about “Oh its done in a few months.”
    Life isn’t forever. Even Earth will eventually die off, but why should it die in just a few hundred thousand years when it can live for billions more. It’s also about the quality of life not just about the quantity. Most people do want to taste clean water not the fluoride and especially not taste the deadly microbes that can kill them or make them sick.
    BTW great post Jeff Gordon. Right on the money about only the scientists can really know. :)
    To lbruncke,
    Gore did ran for president, but he lost to Bush. Now the US is on a war to get more fossil fuels, even though it’s easier to grow ethanol.

  14. MB from FL - February 28, 2007

    Wow! Does Al Gore or anyone else here realize that sucking all or most of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere would be a very bad thing? All of the vegetation on the earth would then die and by extension all human life as well. Don’t mess with Mother Nature!

    Our planet is very capable of cleaning itself and the notion that we can control it is absurd.

  15. Adam Stein - February 28, 2007

    Everyone here, Al Gore included, understands that sucking all the CO2 out of the atmosphere would be a bad idea. No one has proposed any such thing.
    The notion that we can’t affect the climate is absurd. We are affecting the climate presently, and the choices we make today will continue to affect it for many centuries to come.

  16. Gerard Oudhoff. - March 10, 2007

    Next to a substantial reduction of the emission of CO2 into earth’s atmosphere, high investments could make the surplus of CO2 usefull to turn around the melting process of polar ice on the northern hemisphere.
    Relating both problems will lead to the inversion of the negative development where the entropy of our planet is concerned.

    I will be glad to give a modest lecture in front of a group of scientists and journalists any place in the world about this strategy.

    Gerard Oudhoff, Netherlands.

  17. Ally Hing - April 9, 2007

    How do I submit my project for the Virgin Earth Challenge contest ??

  18. SteveA - June 9, 2007

    I’d like to second post #5 about terra preta. It seems like it could be a win-win idea to controllably remove excess CO2 and Nitrous oxide from the atmosphere and improve farming productivity while reducing agricultural pollution all at once.

  19. William Malley, III - July 7, 2007

    I believe, you might be interested in reading my solution to the carbon dioxide problem. It’s an online version of my entry into a certain challenge. The name of the challenge must remain unspoken at this point due to clauses in the participation agreement I signed. This is not some kind of humorous foolishness. I believe I have come up with a realistic commonsense approach that will actually work.
    By using my, patent pending, method we get an economically advantageous side benefit, that might make this solution profitable for most everyone. I respectfully recommend that you add a link to my page from your pages. Though you don’t really need it, I give you my permission to do this. You may if you wish, quote up to 300 words of my entry document on your pages.
    Sincerely; William Eugene Malley

  20. Gerard Oudhoff - June 22, 2008

    Global transport of liquid CO2 (minus 77 degrees centigrate) to the northen hemisphere and emmiting it under the polar ice will result in cooling the nort pole and the arctic sea. The CO2 will be gas after cooling down the north pole but it will be in storage for the next 30 or 40 years under the ice. That will give us the time to develope nuclear fusion and change our energy economy. I can give more information about this idea on request.
    Gerard Oudhoff. Netherlands.

  21. Gerard Oudhoff - December 27, 2008

    Global warming is related to CO2 in the atmosphere. It will still be possible to reduce the CO2. That is the first – order effect. What we should do now (2009) is start working on solving the second order effect, which is the extra warmth that our planet will absorb when the arctic ice does melt and the planet will start to accumulate the solar – light that was reflected before.
    That can be done ! Just lets invest in the cooling of the planet, using the same CO2 that is warming it up now.
    Please, let us start discussing this solution. Yes, we can !
    Gerard Oudhoff. Netherlands.