Investing all the money in renewables gives us the most bang for the buck

Decarbonization (moving to renewable energy) is critically important, but we will need CDR as well, so we need to develop it now.

You will hear the “more bang for the buck” argument from staunch CDR opponents as well as from thoughtful people who wonder how best to spend the limited resources we have.

The bottom line

The answer to this claim comes down to the same message we have made before repeatedly: we need both rapid decarbonization and CO2 removal. Either one alone will not be enough to keep global warming below 1.5 C. Currently, most CDR solutions are still in fairly early stages of development or deployment and need support to mature and scale up.

We need CDR. It won’t just happen, so we need to invest.

The IPPC AR6 states that CDR at multi-gigaton scale will be a required part of any pathway to maintain 2 degrees or less of global warming.

This is for two reasons:

  • we have already emitted gigatons of CO2 since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The overwhelming majority of this legacy CO2 is still in the atmosphere and will likely remain there for hundreds of years–unless we remove it.

  • while we need to decarbonize as quickly as we can, hard-to-abate emissions (from aviation, cargo transport, steel production, agriculture, etc.) will be with us for decades. Decarbonizing these sectors will be very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Doing it too quickly will harm poor and disadvantaged people the most.

This makes it clear what we need to do: add as little as possible new CO2 (decarbonization) and remove as much as we can (CDR). Neither one alone is sufficient.

The milk jug analogy

If you knock over an open milk jug on your kitchen counter, you do two things: you grab it and stand it up again so no more milk spills; and you reach for a towel and start mopping up the milk that is spreading on the counter.

The milk, of course, is the CO2, and while somewhat simplistic, the analogy gets the point across that either action alone is not enough.

Just as we need a towel to mop up the milk in our analogy, we need CDR to remove CO2, and we’d better get really good at it really fast. This will only be possible if we invest in different CDR solutions (really absorbent towels and sponges) now. We can’t wait for all the milk to be spilled and then start thinking about ways to remove it.

Two more things

Opponents of CDR like to reduce the renewables vs.CDR issue to a zero-sum game where every dollar CDR gets comes out of the mouth of renewable energy, so to speak, starving it.

That absolutely does not have to be so. An example is the OpenAir-drafted CDRLA bill in New York, which proposes to fund CDR procurement by eliminating existing tax credits for commercial aviation fuel. No money gets diverted from programs that support the transition to renewable energy.

There is another curious inconsistency in this argument: renewable energy has been massively funded and supported by governments in many countries (unfortunately about three decades too late, but that’s a different story). This led to a thriving industry, where the markets are now taking over and governments’ role will eventually wane. Renewables are themselves a perfect example of how government funding and support can create an entire industry.

CDR is at the same fledgling stage renewables were a decade or two ago. The same approach can work.

Just how fledgling investments in CDR are can be seen on this graph that shows investments into climate tech start-ups and the number of deals (compiled by PwC). That thin sliver of a yellow line is carbon capture, removal and storage–CCS and CDR and storage combined. Hardly the resource hog that takes money away from renewables at scale.

(Note: this graph was made before Climeworks raised a large round and Alphabet, Meta, Shopify and McKinsey launch the almost $1B Frontier Fund. The yellow sliver of a line will be ever so slightly wider now.)

Let’s turn this argument around

Sometimes a good offense is the best defense, so let’s turn this argument around. Emission reductions have been called for since the early '90s. The result has been emission increases year after year (with the exception of 2020, but that was due to COVID, not actual progress). While we all agree (profoundly!) that ending fossil fuel emissions is critical, humanity’s track record is admittedly pretty bad.

This raises the question of why the “decarbonize-only” crowd has any level of confidence that dramatic emission reductions are achievable in the short term. We’d all like it to be so, and we will all push for it to happen as much as possible, but to pretend that the odds are good feels like wishful thinking.

The use of renewable energy is growing. The main reason for that is economic. Renewables are now cheaper than coal and many other fossil fuels and particularly nuclear energy which has a lot of vocal proponents among conservatives. Therefore, market forces are driving consumers towards those cheaper options.

We need to create the exact same thing for CDR.