We Can Restore A Safe & Healthy Climate (Podcast Transcript)

Co-hosts Anna and Paloma speak with Dr. Erica Dodds, COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, about why we need more ambitious climate goals, and how large-scale carbon removal can help us get there. Learn more at F4CR.org. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

Anna: For people who aren’t familiar with what this term ‘climate restoration’ means, Erica, would you mind just giving us a broad overview definition to get us started?

Erica: Oh I’d love to. To start out, you know, we talk so much about reducing emissions or reaching this 1.5 degrees Celsius target. People have this assumption that if we just do these things, then everything will be fine. But the reality is that even if we stopped emitting all of the CO2 that we’re putting out today– all of the CO2, all of the methane– that doesn’t actually clean up the mess that we’ve already made.

Over the last couple hundred years, we’ve already emitted hundreds of billions of ton of excess CO2 into our atmosphere. And that CO2 will continue to heat up our planet and wreak havoc on our climate until we take it back out, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years. So the idea behind climate restoration is to say yes, we need to stop emitting, but that’s not enough.

We also need to get these excess billions of tons– in fact, excess trillion tons of CO2– out of our atmosphere by the year 2050, so that our future generations have a healthy climate that they can live in.

Paloma: Thank you for that context, I think it really sort of sets the stage for what we will be going into. And to expand a bit more on the point of all the CO2 that we’ve already emitted, there’s quite a few ways to suck some of that back in, such as through a machine or through trees.

How does F4CR determine what carbon removal methods are viable?

Erica: It’s definitely a big challenge. There are a lot of innovations that are coming out every week, every year. It’s, you know, more or less impossible to vet each one individually. But we can look at them all through sort of a high-level filter and look at, what does it really take for a solution to restore the climate? 

Ultimately, we need things that are scalable, which means collectively, all these solutions need to be able to remove 50 gigatons– that’s 50 billion tons– of CO2 per year by the year 2030. So they need to scale up really fast and then operate at that 50 gigaton per year scale from 2030 to 2050, in order to reach our target of a trillion tons of CO2 removed by 2050.

So that’s the scalability part. That means that if we’re looking at a whole slew of solutions, really, we shouldn’t expect that more than a few of them are going to reach that very large, you know, gigaton-scale by 2030. So if something isn’t going to be able to reach about a 10 gigatons-per-year scale by 2030, it’s probably not going to be one of the main players of climate restoration. 

The next piece is durability, or permanence. And that means, how long is the CO2 that’s removed from the atmosphere actually kept out of circulation? So we always think of planting trees, right, whenever we think about removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and trees are a great solution. But one of the places where they fall short is durability, particularly in a place like California where we have these massive wildfires.

When the wildfire burns the tree, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere, or when the tree, you know, just falls due to old age or disease and decomposes, again, that CO2 is released. So we really want to look for things that are going to keep CO2 out of circulation for hundreds to thousands of years. Which means that more permanent solutions, like converting CO2 into rock, are going to ultimately work better on the huge scale that we need than something that’s more sensitive to environmental impacts like planting trees. 

Third thing is financeability– someone has to pay for all of this. So solutions that are either really inexpensive, or that have commercial byproducts that can offset the cost of implementation, are going to work better than things that require massive investment or massive government subsidies. We all know governments move really slowly, particularly on long-term threats like climate change.

So something like growing kelp in the deep ocean, where some of that kelp can be sunk for long-term carbon storage, but some of it can also be harvested and sold as products to offset that cost of the kelp farming– that’s going to be a lot easier than something like direct air capture, which costs many hundreds to $1,000 per tonne of CO2 removed, even though that removed CO2 is going to be captured and stored for a very, very long time. 

And then the last thing we think about is equity. So some of these solutions have much more serious equity concerns than others. It’s important to be really cautious about which solutions we’re thinking about scaling up, because we want to ensure that we’re not creating large-scale negative unintended consequences, particularly on communities that are already suffering disproportionate damages due to climate change. So that’s sort of a high-level lens through which we look at climate solutions.

Anna: Do you have a personal favorite climate solution, Erica?

Erica: I do! I know you’re not supposed to pick favorites, but I do have a favorite. So I mentioned in terms of durability [that] converting CO2 into rock is a very stable way to get it out of the atmosphere and store it away. Well, there’s a company that’s doing this, and the rock that they’re producing is used in concrete. Concrete is partly sand and partly cement, which is the glue that holds it together. But most of it is aggregate. And that’s the rock that you’ll see in concrete.

This company that’s based in the Bay Area, called Blue Planet Systems, they use CO2 as an input into that process that creates limestone. And limestone is 44% CO2 by weight. So the amount of CO2 that can get put away into this, you know, very widely-used building material is pretty massive. Concrete is actually the second most used material on Earth, after water. It’s pretty incredible when you think about the amount of CO2 that could go into this type of product. 

If we were to replace all traditional concrete with this synthetic limestone concrete, you could practically take care of all of the excess CO2 just with this solution. The other thing that I like about it is it’s relatively easy to explain; everyone has seen concrete before. It’s very tangible– concrete, as they say.

And so it’s a lot easier for people to grasp that type of solution than, say, something like BECS, which is bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration.  One, it’s a complicated name. And two, most people don’t know anything about pyrolysis, or about, you know, pumping CO2 into geologic formations for long-term sequestration. So there are just a lot of concepts that people need to wrap their heads around, versus something like a synthetic limestone, which is very simple and very scalable.

Anna: I’m also pretty enamored with the concrete. You know, you hear a lot that climate change is somewhat of an infrastructure problem. Roads and bridges and buildings need to be taken into the 21st, 22nd century even, and withstand the impacts of climate change and really be resilient to them. So I think concrete is awesome. Have you heard of Brimstone? They’re also working on climate-positive, carbon-negative cement.

Erica: I’ve heard of them. I don’t remember exactly what their solution was. But I remember being very excited by it.

Anna: I’m pretty excited that there are more players; that can only mean good things for this particular solution and its scalability.

Erica: Yeah, and another benefit of it is, if you think about scaling up any one solution to the tens of billions of tons scale, there are a lot of things that are required to make that happen. Probably the most significant one right now is providing incentives to use these innovative materials in place of traditional ones. And it’s relatively easy to legislate the use of low-carbon or carbon-negative building materials, particularly given that they’re not that different in cost from traditional products. You know, if you think about manufacturing rock, that saves you needing to transport it from overseas, or certainly from farther away, and saves you having to, you know, open a quarry and all of the emissions associated with that. So it’s implementable compared to a lot of other things.

Paloma: Yeah, I mean, now you’ve got me thinking about the recent construction projects that are happening right next door to me. It’s one of those things that is sort of unseen, but has such a large impact.A material as simple as concrete can make such a big difference. And one of the reasons for that is because of so much progress that’s been happening in developing these technologies.

Could you provide your perspective of the progress you’ve seen during your time in this space?

Erica: Definitely. I started out in the space in about 2017. And at that point, whenever I talked to someone about climate restoration, I had to start way back at the beginning with, you know, we’ve been creating all of these CO2 emissions; eventually, we need to stop the emissions, but we also need to clean up the old ones, and we actually have ways to do this. It’s called carbon dioxide removal. And all of that was always new to everyone I spoke with.

Now, a short five and a half years later, most people are familiar with the idea that there is some carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere, and there are ways to do it. Most people don’t know much beyond that, but it’s at least not an alien concept that carbon removal needs to happen. And that really has a ripple effects. 

One is that carbon tech and carbon removal innovations are a rapidly growing field. And there are a lot of groups out there that are working to accelerate development of new solutions and the launch of new carbon removal companies. So the rate at which new players are entering the space is incredible. And it’s been increasing steadily year over year. You know, you mentioned a solution that I’m only vaguely familiar with, and there are hundreds more of those, which is so exciting to see. When I started in the space, they were really only a few and no one had heard of any of them. So that’s been big. And that has implications for policy.

I mentioned how important it is to have policy to incentivize the use of low-carbon materials. It has really spurred companies like Microsoft, Stripe, Shopify, and now there’s a whole collection of companies under the banner Frontier that’s procuring carbon removal. Right now, there aren’t a whole lot of people that can actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere at any significant scale– but there are a lot of people that are developing the means to do so. So getting these early investments into those companies allows them to scale up a lot faster. So that’s all been really positive. 

I think one of the things that’s still missing a little bit is that folks are understanding carbon removal, but not necessarily within the context of climate restoration. So we talked earlier about climate restoration as sort of cleaning up our mess, right? We have all of these excess emissions that are in the atmosphere, and it’s not enough to stop adding to them, we also need to subtract what’s already there.

There’s a concept called “net zero” that most people are very familiar with at this point. And that means that we’re only adding to the atmosphere the same amount of CO2 that we’re removing. So if I create a direct air capture facility that can take one ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere per year, I am basically permitting someone to emit that one ton that I’m going to take away, so there’s a net zero tons being added to the atmosphere. 

So the challenge that I see as remaining is really committing to a goal of not just “net zero”, not just one and a half degrees, but climate restoration– really getting us back to a safe, healthy pre-industrial level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. The scale of that challenge is a lot bigger. But when you think about the implications of, you know, the modeling of what our climate is going to look like in 2100, or in 2050, there’s a certain space where they say this is catastrophic, and that’s above two degrees Celsius of warming, but the one and a half degrees is also horrible. It’s what I would call catastrophic, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean that our civilizations will collapse.

So why are we targeting just shy of catastrophe, rather than targeting a safe and healthy climate? It’s possible that we’ll fall short targeting a safe and healthy climate, but almost certainly where we fall short will still be far better than if we target just shy of catastrophe.

Anna: Amen. That is so well said. So looking back on last year, what would you say some of F4CR’s accomplishments were in 2022, and what made you the proudest?

Erica: Yeah, ’22 was a big year for us. We launched a few programs under our organization in 2021, and so this last year, 2022, was when they all started to really take off. Our local chapter program, which launched with five little pilot chapters in 2021, has grown to over 500 members with 43 chapters in 19 countries. That made me really proud, and you know, just the sheer number of people involved is incredible.

But then you can look at their accomplishments, like they got over 40 items of media– letters to the editor, op-eds, etc.– published last year. And each one of those people is having conversations with a lot of people in their communities as well as their elected officials. So in terms of just amplifying the message, and momentum behind the goal of climate restoration, they’ve been doing fantastic work. 

We also have a youth leadership program, and we’ve had youth from over 50 countries get involved in the program. This program was youth-developed and is youth-led, and it’s 90% participants from the Global South. So we’ve been learning a lot from our participants about what climate change looks like in their backyards, how much or how little people in their communities are actually talking about or seeking to address climate change, and what needs they have to drive things forward in their own communities. 

And we also launched our Solutions Series in 2022, and got through the first half of the series, so the last four solutions will be released this year. The Solution Series is looking at one type of carbon dioxide removal solution at a time. For the deep diver, we have a white paper. For the folks who are really short on time, we have like a one-minute animated explainer video. And for people who want to hear from the experts, we have an expert panel for each solution. So we’ve been able to learn a lot and produce some really top-tier educational resources for our audience through that program. 

Coming up in 2023, we’re partnering with an organization called Gorilla, which is a United Nations Foundation initiative, to create and release our high school curriculum. We actually just released the first course out of a six-course curriculum that looks at climate change through the lens of climate restoration, and addressing key educational standards that high school teachers need to cover anyways.

So we’re really excited about having materials that go a little bit deeper into climate change than most environmental science curricula, but also looks at it all from a very action-oriented, solution-oriented climate restoration lens. We’re looking forward to having students come out not only with a deeper understanding of what climate change is, but also what we as a global community and what they as young people can do to fix it.

Anna: That’s so key. We talked about the year 2030 earlier, and it seems to be a big deadline for lots of environmental goals, pledges, and commitments. The date seems far off, but we’re actually less than seven years away now.

What does F4CR hope to accomplish by 2030?

Erica: We’ve got some big plans. And you know, when you have a huge ambition like climate restoration, all of the milestones to get there always seem inconceivably huge. We intend to have climate restoration solutions scaled up to what we call a restoration scale– that’s that 50 gigaton per year scale– by 2030. And so they can operate at that scale from 2030 to 2050, and restore the climate.

So, in order to get to solutions operating at restoration scale, we see our role at the Foundation for Climate Restoration not as developing those solutions, since we are not climate scientists, we’re not engineers. Our role is to develop the enabling conditions for that scale-up to take place.

Even when we have the perfect solutions, if we don’t have public acceptance, political will, financing, all of these things coming through to support the solutions, then they can’t get scaled up as quickly as they need. So that’s why we have programs focused on education and advocacy– so people can really get behind the climate restoration goal and create the levers in our economy and our policy to really move these things in the right direction.

Paloma: I love all of that, and that work is absolutely needed, especially with everything that’s been happening recently. We’re seeing more and more natural disasters. There has been debate about even that term, because a lot of these disasters aren’t exactly natural.

I’m wondering if you’ve been experiencing the mental health toll of the climate crisis, and how it can lead to burnout, especially working with it directly.

Erica: You know, one of my mentors sent me a video recently talking about the sixth mass extinction. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s basically, we’re seeing extinction rates exponentially higher than, you know, decades or centuries ago. And it’s clear that humans have caused this, and we’re heading into, just this biodiversity crisis, this environmental crisis. And it’s all very alarming.

And I realized as I watched this video, and felt my heart sink, that a lot of times I shield myself from media about the reality of our climate crisis– you know, the daily impacts, not just on humans, but on our natural world. And the reason I do that is because it’s a lot easier to keep going with this work when I can keep my head in what we’re doing to fix things.

The work that I do is very optimistic and solution-oriented. But at the same time, if I don’t take a moment here and there to ground myself in the scope of the challenge, it can be easy to think of this as just another job– you know, I work my nine-to-five day and I go home and hang out with my one year old. But ultimately, you know, my one year old’s future is at stake, and if I don’t really put everything I have into climate restoration, then what am I doing? Right? 

So I think [there are] two sides of the coin here. One is, there is hope; there’s a lot that we are doing and can do to fix the problem and restore the climate. But the other piece is, there’s never been anything like this before in human history (and hopefully there never will be again). So it’s important to both keep sight of the mountain that we’re climbing, but also realize that human innovation really knows no bounds. Keeping both those things at the forefront of your mind really helps with not hiding your head in the sand, but also not feeling so, so overwhelmed and in despair that you can’t do anything about it.

Anna: Absolutely. We have to move from awareness to action. And that can be really hard when, as you were saying earlier, the IPCC reports are literally terrifying. You know, one really powerful way to transform that sense of overwhelm or anxiety, or grief even, is to do something about it. And that’s something I really love about F4CR. I just really appreciate you, Erica, for all your work.

And we have a little fun bonus question to kind of lighten things up for the end of the episode. So at SpaceshipOne, we have a bookshelf of books we’ve read or want to read about climate. I was wondering if you have a favorite book from maybe 2022? Or just in general, like, what comes to mind that you’d recommend people read?

Erica: I do have a favorite from 2022. No one will be surprised to hear this, but it’s called Climate Restoration. It’s by Peter Fiekowsky and Carole Douglis, and it presents the goal of climate restoration and a few solutions that can put us on the path to get there. And one thing that I love about it is that it really opens up with two scenarios.

One is, if we as a global community succeed at achieving the Paris goals, what does the world look like? And second is the climate restoration world. You know, what a huge accomplishment it would be to achieve the Paris Accords, but also how short that still falls from leaving a safe and healthy world for our children. It’s pretty sobering, but also really exciting to see that there’s another option out there, and I think it just does a brilliant job of illustrating that.