Climate debt and multiplier effects
I was recently asked for my opinion on the do-gooder startup Nori: is it a reasonable way to erase a person’s contribution to climate change? The company lets you pay them to directly offset all of your personal carbon dioxide emissions. After you estimate your emissions debt, they suck up that quantity of CO2 from the atmosphere through what are called land use changes. Mostly they do this by paying farmers to make certain modifications to their land, having the effect of storing more carbon in the soil or in vegetation. I have no reason to doubt that your money results in the CO2 capture advertised. But I still would probably not choose this strategy for eliminating your greenhouse gas guilt.
It’s a reasonable way to help with the climate crisis. But it probably has less of a multiplier effect than other solutions.
The basic idea is that you calculate your emissions for the year and then pay Nori to “cancel” these emissions. Not a bad idea. From the atmosphere’s perspective, it’s as though you never rode in that plane. But once you’ve cancelled out the emissions, that’s it. Your payment hasn’t had a long-term net positive effect that continues for years. It only cancels out the negative effect of your airplane ride or beef consumption.
Numbers are useful here. Project Drawdown has concluded that land use changes could potentially draw as much as 150 Gigatons through the year 2050. That’s excellent and must be pursued, especially since it’s cheaper per ton than most options. But current global emissions are about one-quarter of that, at 37 Gigatons/year. This means that land use changes can’t fully solve the problem. In fact they solve only about four years of the problem. Once we run out of land to “change” we need to have virtually stopped emitting altogether, from any source. Hence we need to be focusing most of our effort on energy-related emissions regardless! (I also wonder how politically difficult it would be to transform so much land across so many communities and bureaucratic systems). Clean energy technologies (solar, wind, nuclear) simply don’t have this ceiling problem. In principle one could remove all of civiliation’s energy-related CO2 emissions with a tiny fraction of the available solar/wind/nuclear. Not having a ceiling is a big deal.
Instead of paying to cancel your emissions, you could take the same amount of money--the money you were going to give to Nori--and probably get more emissions per dollar, in the long run, if you use an indirect strategy. There are two main options that give you a multiplier effect: investing in clean energy or investing in political initiatives.
First: investing in clean energy. Nori says it takes $15+fees for them to recapture one ton of CO2. You could instead invest that money directly in clean energy, if you can find such an option. For example, you could put that money toward a loan on a home solar or find a way to invest in a utility-scale clean energy project. The multiplier effect here is that, by increasing the quantity of clean tech produced, you’re in principle lowering the costs for everyone because you’re moving further down the “cost curve.”
I must point out that, in the immediate present, spending money directly on clean energy is more expensive than Nori. So what I’m arguing is counter-intuitive. I just did a rudimentary calculation suggesting that, at current installation prices, investing in big solar projects reduces CO2 emissions at a cost of more than $50/ton. I’ve already mentioned the two reasons that clean energy purchases might still be a better option: it theoretically brings down costs for everyone by moving down the cost curve, and it’s fully scalable (no serous ceiling to speak of).
Another problem is that investing directly in clean energy is not very easy, as far as I can tell. The stuff that has the most impact isn’t solar panels on your roof, but large solar farms, wind farms, and battery installations. I actually thought I had a champion in a company called Wunder Capital. Wunder used to accept investments as low as a couple thousand dollars, from regular people. But starting just a few months ago they now accept money only from large investors. Energy funds like solar ETFs do exist, but my (limited) understanding is that purchasing those wouldn’t directly inject money into new projects. I need more expertise from an economist or financier to understand the nuances here.
The second alternative is to give the money to a political organization. Political changes are the most necessary kind of change for fighting climate change, simply because they affect the most people. Putting fees on CO2 pollution, increasing the mandated number of EV charging stations, increasing research funding, regulating some types of industrial emission, and many more legislative initiatives are needed.
Think about it like this. If I focus on the emissions of my friends and I, then I can reduce the emissions of just a few people. Alternatively, if I can tweak a law through influencing my city council, the emissions of literally tens of thousands of people have been reduced. And how do I get city/state/federal laws changed? One recent example I’ve seen involves an organization in the city of Menlo Park (cleverness overload: it’s named Menlo Spark) that runs on what I assume is a tiny budget, but that has successfully pushed for many cities to ban natural gas in new buildings. They met with mayors and attended city council meetings to convince those in power. The result? Tens of thousands of people’s emissions will be reduced by these new local laws.
Consider donating to organizations like 350.org or Climate Hawks Vote or Sunrise, or to specific local and national politicians for whom climate change is their top priority. (I also humbly suggest 350SiliconValley, where I volunteer!) Let’s say a small local group’s budget is a few thousand dollars per year. A budget that small is enough to “earn” news media that reaches literally hundreds of thousands of people, or to lobby state and city lawmakers to change their votes, or to swing an election towards a climate-friendly candidate. I’ve seen it done in more places than Menlo Park. Politics can have an enormous multiplier effect for your resources.
This is what I did to partially address my climate debt of last year. I calculated my airplane emissions for the year, and then assumed a value $50/ton as the damage that those emissions do to society. There are experts who estimate what this dollar amount should be--I just took what appears to be a typical value. I then donated all of this to Climate Hawks Vote, which is an organization I already donate to regularly. I wanted to invest this money in something like Wunder Capital, as mentioned above, but that doesn’t seem to be an option at the moment and I couldn’t find an alternative.
I should say that there is, theoretically, some multiplier effect or positive feedback effect from Nori. First, it will get more popular the more people use it. Second, as Nori gets better at what they’re doing, this leads in principle to the same technology feedback effect I mentioned above. But it seems to me that this will be much smaller than the other multiplier effects I write about above. And as mentioned, it doesn’t scale indefinitely--eventually you run out of land on which it’s politically/technologically easy to make these land use changes, and then you simply can’t continue this as a strategy. Once civilization has run out of land with which to cancel its emissions, it has no choice but to stop emitting--i.e. no choice but to already have technology that does not emit CO2 to begin with.
Nori and other companies are providing an important extra battlefront by commercializing carbon capture for the masses. But when compared to the options of investing directly in energy solutions or in massive political action, I’d predict that the latter two give you more carbon for your buck in the long term.