Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Atmospheric X-Prize

I am a big fan of the X-Prize approach to stimulating new technology. A relatively modest sum can bring forth remarkable achievements, without the offerers of the prize needing to specify the pathways or methods, only the desired outcome. Two readers sent me links to reports of this announcement by Sir Richard Branson, establishing a $25 million prize for the first person or group to remove a billion tons of carbon from the air annually. I must have been distracted when I read it (twice!) to have missed the full significance of its wording. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which focuses on reducing emissions, Sir Richard's prize is reserved for a new technique for removing carbon that's already in the atmosphere, after having been emitted. This is a truly paradigm-breaking notion, and a very healthy sign of how far we've come on the subject of climate change.

As I've pointed out periodically, if climate change is as serious as all present indications suggest, then it's not going to be sufficient to reduce our emissions by a few percent--or merely to reduce their rate of growth, which seems about the most that our current approach might achieve. Averting the risks of the most serious consequences of climate change will require dramatic steps, and going beyond our focus on emissions to address the actual inventory of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere represents a significant new strategy. If successful, it would multiply the effectiveness of our efforts to reduce emissions, and put the goal of stabilizing or even reducing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back into the realm of the possible.

Now, I'm not quite sure where the figure of a billion tons comes from. I've perused the Virgin Earth Challenge website and cannot find any reference to it. Instead, the goal is stated as "the net removal of significant volumes of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years without countervailing harmful effects (the “Removal Target”). " A billion tons of carbon per year would certainly fit that description, representing as it does about 0.13% of the total level of carbon in the atmosphere, or 14% of our current global greenhouse gas emissions. If neither of those figures sounds very impressive, consider that the net annual accumulation of carbon is on the order of about 5 billion tons. Cutting that by a fifth would be quite dramatic and meaningful, but by itself insufficient to solve the entire problem.

Kudos to Sir Richard for this great idea, and for putting his own money behind it. However, it doesn't let governments off the hook for figuring out how to reverse the current trends on greenhouse gas emissions, nor does it absolve us as individuals of the ultimate responsibility for the emissions associated with our lifestyles. And as Fareed Zakaria points out in Newsweek's current issue, we still need to tackle the unglamorous and controversial work of adaptation, because all of our efforts to reduce global warming could still fall short. Cracking this problem is going to require innovative work on may fronts, and we might need a few more clever X-Prize-type efforts along the way.

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