This Is CDR is an ongoing series of online events to explore the range of carbon dioxide removal solutions that are currently in development. This week, we talk with Dr. Gregory Nemet of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Nemet studies technological change and how public policy can affect it. He’s also something of an OpenAir celebrity; his book How Solar Became Cheap has been a formative influence on how we think about scaling carbon removal.
Drawing a connection to solar, Dr. Nemet notes that the first commercial solar project was in 1957, and the tech took until 2017 to reach price parity with fossil fuels without subsidies. It’s now 3% of global energy supply but growing at 30% each year; by 2040 it could provide half of the world’s energy. Since that first project in 1957, the price has come down by a factor of 10000.
But as dramatic as that is, we’ll have to improve CDR technology even faster to be where we need to be by the middle of this century. Removing five gigatons of carbon dioxide a year by 2050 would mitigate about 10% of what we currently put into the atmosphere. We’ll be starting from almost nothing. CDR will need to grow by 40% per year–for 30 years.
It’s a major challenge. How do we tackle it? In the case of solar, there was no big breakthrough, no lone genius delivering a 10000x improvement. Instead, international collaboration and gradual iteration brought incremental improvements over time. When solar innovation and solar markets in one country slowed down, other countries moved in to pick up the slack.
Another major factor Dr. Nemet identifies is scale. Smaller tech may be easier to improve than larger tech; light bulbs might get better faster than power plants, because experimentation and iteration come at a lower cost in both money and time. Dr. Nemet observes that we’ve made fewer than 1000 nuclear reactors in the history of nuclear power, while in around the same amount of time or less, we’ve made 3 billion solar panels. More units means more chances to experiment and improve. We can apply the same logic to CDR and pursue small-scale distributed solutions over monolithic ones.
Dr. Nemet is currently one year into work on a six-year project called GENIE, a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin and the European Research Council to assess geoengineering and negative emissions pathways in Europe. In other words, it’s all about how we can make CDR go faster, and it embodies the internationalism that Dr. Nemet talks about. You can find out more about that project here. In the meantime, big thanks to Dr. Nemet for his fascinating talk; you can watch that above, and check our resources page to watch more This Is CDR.