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Article  •  4 August 2020


Carbon-sucking machines

In Who Cares Wins Lily Cole unpacks reasons for optimism in the face of enormous challenges.

Lily Cole’s Who Cares Wins is a radical guide to thinking differently about the world and initiating change. As we face truly global challenges – like global warming, mass extinction, exponential population growth, environmental degradation and rising inequality – it’s easy to get bogged down in negativity. But as Cole points out: optimism requires action. And when we look for constructive solutions to all the world’s greatest problems, it gives us purpose to keep on fighting.

‘Imagine if the dinosaurs or the dodo had directed their own swansongs,’ Cole writes. ‘We may become the first species to document our own extinction.

‘People make plays, songs and paintings about the crisis. Look, I’m writing this, a book about the ways in which people are trying to halt the Sixth Mass Extinction. Because another possibility exists – we could become the first species to prevent a mass extinction.

‘Dwell on that.’

Throughout the book, Cole shares the insights of visionary humans around the world who are working on solutions to our biggest challenges. In the passage below she investigates the possibilities of capturing and repurposing one of Planet Earth’s greatest pollutants.

‘The rain didn’t come that year. Later in the year, things began to die. The landscape changed. Big trees became big skeletons. It was droopy, grey and barren, lost and creepy to look at, a burnt-out house, a cinder. I gave up waiting and I mourned. One day I was standing at the back of the house and I looked up at the solar panels. I was still mad, perplexed, and I just thought: why can’t those solar panels also take in carbon dioxide or whatever is causing this problem?’

In the basement of her home-turned-studio in uptown San Francisco, Mary Fernando Conrad is pinning a thick yellow wire to an old drawer. She is getting ready for her upcoming exhibition, titled ‘What is Shakespeare in a Time of Climate Change?’ in which she plans to display a ‘gismo that removes carbon dioxide’ from the environment.

Will the gismo actually work?

Mary has been trying for a few years to engineer something functional – a domestic appliance, tile, surface or paint – that will absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, but it turns out that is a tall and expensive order.

Instead her sculpture speaks to a nascent boom of interest in machines capable of removing carbon dioxide from the environment. Can technological wizardry save the day? Will robot-run laboratories, Artificial Intelligence or carbon-dioxide-sucking machines fix the problem? Can technology play God?

In their 2018 report, the UN International Panel on Climate Change called for 100 billion to 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere this century. Researchers and entrepreneurs are vying for solutions. This fits into a broader investigation, often called ‘geo-engineering’ – large-scale, technical (but risky) ways to ‘solve’ climate change.

Whilst we were discussing Mary’s ideas, my daughter ran outside and started watering the ferns, which trembled gently in the breeze. ‘It’s a beautiful garden!’ she exclaimed. It was. Moving my attention between her and the gismo, offered an apt metaphor for the paradox techno-utopia finds itself in: whilst it is hugely invigorating (and increasingly necessary) to consider carbon-capturing machines and human-made solutions, are we overlooking the much simpler solutions on our doorsteps: ferns, plants, trees, soil – all the miraculous technology of nature itself?

We are made of carbon; we breathe it, burn it and dream of other carbon beings. As carbon dioxide boils the bath we live in, carbon-sucking machines have lit up the imaginations of environmentalists, capitalists and the fossil fuel hungry alike, and emerged as a foetal reality.

Klaus Lackner at the University of Arizona was the first person to explore the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from thin air – called ‘direct air capture’ – in the 1990s. He built an ‘Artificial Tree’ out of a resin that absorbs CO2 at one thousand times the rate of nature, and advocates building 100 million of them to match the amount of CO2 the world currently emits annually.

In Switzerland, Climeworks operate the world’s first commercial direct air-capture plants. Their machines use turbine fans, powered by waste heat, to filter thousands of tons of CO2 annually from ordinary air, turning it into a concentrated form sold for commercial use, or pumped underground.

Dan Nocera, a Harvard chemist, has developed an ‘Artificial Leaf’ which replicates photosynthesis with ten times the energy efficiency of nature; and a ‘Bionic Leaf’ which can produce carbon-neutral fuels and fertilizer. He claims his technology can create cheap, off-grid, solar-powered and carbon-neutral fuels from sunlight, water and air, whilst extracting carbon dioxide from the air in the process.

Nocera has had a hard time gaining traction for his products in the West as the ‘trillions of dollars’ that we have already invested in fossil-fuel power technology make it hard for new fuel products to compete economically. Instead he has decided to focus his efforts on the lower-income world, working in partnership with a university in India, where there are fewer ‘sunk costs’ to overcome. ‘People say, it’s nice you are helping poor people,’ Nocera explains, ‘and I say, no, poor people are trying to help me.’

Feature Title

Who Cares Wins
A radical guide to thinking differently about the world and initiating change
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