Material Insights

Carbon Negative – When Being Carbon Neutral Is No Longer Enough

dave-herring-1499638-unsplash-1210x423Every few years, a new term makes its way into sustainability jargon. But making its way into people’s lifestyles is a whole other ballgame. Today, we’re talking about being “carbon negative”, and whether it has the potential to be more than a buzzword.

The term pretty much explains itself. If being carbon neutral means achieving net zero carbon emissions, then being carbon negative is to go a step further. The step to remove existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Why Do We Need to be Carbon Negative?

For the same reason that we’ve been trying to get carbon neutral.  CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been shooting up ever since humans started burning fossil fuels. This CO2 has been trapping heat in the atmosphere instead of letting it escape into space. And unless we do something about it, rising temperatures will soon trigger disastrous environmental changes.

So far, our best bet has been to try and reduce the amount of CO2 we produce. But here’s the thing – to be able to maintain global temperatures at no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, we’re going to have to do more. To be precise, we’re going to have to remove more CO2 than we produce.

Which brings us to the big question, how on earth are we going to manage that? With most nations still struggling to become carbon neutral, becoming carbon negative may sound like a distant dream. But taking a closer look,  it may in fact be our most realistic sustainability goal yet!


Carbon Negative = Dollar Positive?

The Global CO2 Initiative by the University of Michigan aims to remove 10% of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere per year. The U-M projects then wants to convert the CO2 into usable products. This equates to about 40 billion tons of CO2 per year. Which can then give shape to construction materials, alternative fuels and carbon fiber components, among others.

The ambitious project has already raised $4.5 million in funding. And it has the support of other groups committed to CO2 utilization. The reason it’s drawing attention is that it deals with an exciting possibility.  The possibility of improving the environment and making money don’t have to be two different things.

Carbon neutrality still hasn’t become a global reality because it can get complicated, indirect and confusing. Determining the exact carbon footprint of a product or process isn’t easy. Everything, from the energy needed to get raw materials to the emissions related to production and distribution, plays a role. Figuring out where you stand in terms of your emissions can spiral into lengthy calculations that don’t lead anywhere.

Converting existing carbon dioxide into new products, on the other hand, is a more straightforward process. It’s something that even small businesses can get behind. Either by developing such products and technologies or by using them in their day-to-day operations.

According to Volker Sick, the Global CO2 Initiative lead, technologies that remove and utilize CO2 can create opportunities worth billions. Already, competitions like the XPRIZE are providing innovators with incentives to develop their carbon negative ideas into commercial technologies.

Iceland's Carbon Negative Power Plant


Exactly How Carbon Negative are You?

To evaluate the entries that it receives, XPRIZE judges are using a special toolkit that assesses the environmental and economic impacts of both carbon conversion technologies and products made from converted CO2. Preparing this toolkit and making it available for free download is one of the first steps taken by U-M’s Global CO2 Initiative.

And it’s exactly what we need in order to move towards a carbon negative future.

With universally accepted standards in place, everyone involved in making or using carbon negative products and technologies can know exactly where they stand in terms of their carbon conversion efforts. If used by designers, manufacturers, analysts and end users all over the world, this can eliminate all ambiguity from the process and encourage the development of more carbon negative solutions.


The Perfect Time to get Carbon Negative

Capturing CO2 and turning it into something saleable isn’t a totally new concept. Innovative startups have been trying to create materials out of atmospheric CO2. But there hasn’t been a better time than now to scale up these efforts to a global level.

We’re at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is placing cutting edge technologies within reach of every individual. 3D printing, robotics and AI are more accessible than ever before. These innovations are prompting some truly spectacular innovations in every industry. Access to these capabilities, together with the worldwide interest in reversing climate change, creates the perfect environment within which to develop speedy and on-point solutions to our atmospheric CO2 problem.

There’s a strong belief among environmentalists that the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be leveraged to save the planet. Channeling our efforts into getting carbon negative would certainly be a good start.