Carbon offsets are often touted as a solution to humanity’s bad habit of emitting an awful lot of CO2. But how many of us actually know what things like carbon offsets and carbon dioxide removal are all about? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with David Ho, a professor in the oceanography department at the University of Hawaii at Manōa and a co-founder of the nonprofit, [C]Worthy. We discuss his recent piece in Nature journal explaining the shortcomings of carbon offsets, learn more about the mission of [C]Worthy, and take a look at how some corporations greenwash the admirable goal of producing net zero goods.
Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
David Ho (DH) | 00:21 – Everybody wants things to be simple. And you know, we, we want to change nothing about our lifestyles. You know, just replace one thing with another plug in an electric vehicle for an internal combustion engine and change nothing about our lifestyles. You know, nothing about driving less. You know nothing about consuming less and for everything to be okay. And I think that’s just not the case.
Narrator | 00:50 – Carbon offsets are often touted as a solution to humanity’s bad habit of emitting an awful lot of CO2. But how many of us actually know what things like carbon offsets and carbon dioxide removal are all about? This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with David Ho, a professor in the oceanography department at the University of Hawaii at Manōa and a co-founder of the nonprofit, [C]Worthy. We discuss his recent piece in Nature magazine explaining the shortcomings of carbon offsets, learn more about the mission of [C]Worthy, and take a look at how some corporations greenwash the admirable goal of producing net zero goods.
Alex Wise (AW) | 01:46 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by David Ho. David is a professor at the University of Hawaii and its oceanography department, and he’s also a co-founder and the director of science at the nonprofit [C]Worthy. David, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
David Ho (DH) | 02:01 – Thanks for having me.
Alex Wise (AW) | 02:03 – So first, why don’t you tell us briefly what [C]Worthy’s mission is all about?
David Ho (DH) | 02:08 – Yeah, so we’re a nonprofit research organization that’s focused on building free open source tools for verifying ocean-based carbon dioxide removal.
AW | 02:22 – And give us an example of some of these tools in action.
DH | 02:26 – Well, so there’re mostly going to be modeling tools because it’s, it’s a hard problem to observe in the ocean, and we need observations to calibrate and evaluate and validate the models. But, eventually they will be numerical models. So we’re just building fit for purpose models that will allow people to make sure that they are taking up atmospheric CO2 in the amount that they claim they are, and to make sure that there aren’t adverse side effects.
AW | 03:04 – Yeah, I was trying to verify the effects that some of these carbon dioxide removal tools or programs have seems to be a challenge. Why don’t we create a little glossary for listeners before we dive into some of the, the details of what carbon dioxide removal is all about. Why don’t you first kind of define CDR and then maybe also explain net zero and direct air captured.
DH | 03:31 – OK, so carbon dioxide removal just means that we use some sort of method to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it permanently, or at least for, for a long term in, in some reservoir, either geologically or in the ocean or in products and direct air capture, DAC is one method that people have proposed and, and it’s sort of a straightforward sounding thing. You have a machine that sucks the CO2 out of the atmosphere, and then you, you have all this CO2 that you have to do something with and, and one of the most obvious things to do is to sequester it in a geologic reservoir somewhere or make it into rocks. And net zero is just this concept that, you know, your removal equals your emissions. So it’s not real zero because you’re still emitting something, but you’re taking it out of the atmosphere at the same proportion.
AW | 04:46 – We’ve set up a scenario where global emissions are almost a balance sheet and companies can make deposits and then make withdrawals. And we’ve kind of made it all very clean on paper, but obviously it doesn’t really work like that. So I, I wanted to turn to your piece in Nature recent piece entitled “Carbon Dioxide Removal is an Ineffective Time Machine.” I thought it was a really good analogy for explaining some of the shortfalls of how we view carbon dioxide removal. Why don’t you kind of summarize your thesis first if you can?
DH | 05:22 – Well, so in, in that piece, I use this time machine analogy to help people understand scales. because I, I think we as humans, e even I have a, have a real issue and, and I say I, because, you know, I work with these numbers all the time, but it’s hard for me to relate to the difference between thousand million and billion, right? And, and oftentimes we’re talking about emitting CO2 in billions of tons. Like right, right now we annually we emit about 40 billion tons of CO2 every year. And then you have these, these sort of projects that are taking up thousands of tons of CO2 and, and that sounds impressive, or even some of them have a goal of removing a million tons, which, you know, really sounds impressive, but what does it really mean? So humans experience time, all of us, and we can sort of tell the difference between seconds, hours, days, years, right? But those also differ by orders of magnitude. And so, you know, I thought that to put it in the context of time makes it more relatable. So right now, if you remove 4,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, that’s three seconds. That’s going back in time by three seconds compared to current emissions. And so, you know, while 4,000 sounds really impressive, when you put into that context, you know, it, it’s not as impressive. So it, it just, it helps us contextualize what these big numbers mean, but it also gives you a sense of the challenge that we face.
AW | 07:19 – Yes. Why don’t I quote you from the piece where you explain this 40 billion tons of CO2, you say, “in 2022, the world emitted 40.5 billion tons of CO2 at that rate for every year of operation at its full potential. Each hub would take the atmosphere back in time by almost 13 minutes. But in the time it took to remove those 13 minutes of CO2, the world would’ve spewed another full year of CO2 into the atmosphere.” So we’re, we’re, we’re kind of chasing our tail there is your point, right?
DH | 07:52 – Yeah. So the main point in, in the, in the piece is that as long as we’re emitting so much CO2, it doesn’t make any sense to deploy carbon dioxide removal or CDR because it’s, it’s futile.
AW | 08:08 – You mentioned direct air capture, but planting trees has generally been kind of the, the standard for carbon dioxide removal is are, are there others that are being touted by the science community?
DH | 08:22 – Well, I, I hesitate to say the science community because I think scientists research these things that, that lead to people proposing them as solutions and, and some of the people proposing them aren’t necessarily scientists. And so I, I would say maybe just groups that are pushing it, I, I wouldn’t necessarily say the scientists are the ones that are pushing it. There are different techniques. I I think the direct air capture has sort of captured everybody’s imagination at this point. But in terms of the methods that have actually removed carbon right now, uh, trees are certainly one of those. Um, and then the other ones also have to do with biology. Um, there’s something called biochar, which has to do with turning carbon into a form that it won’t go back into the atmosphere. And then there are proposals where you will burn biomass to create energy, but you capture the CO2 from it. Um, so that’s bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration. And then there are a lot of nascent methods that haven’t removed now that, that should include direct air capture as well that haven’t actually removed any CO2 or, or very little has removed very little CO2. And that has potential that then, you know, people are, are researching, you know, the efficacy. And when I say efficacy, that that includes the efficiency but also the, the side effects.
(Music Break) | 10:16
AW | 11:14 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Professor David Ho. He is a professor in the oceanography department at the University of Hawaii. So David, looking at carbon dioxide removal through a, a lens like this time machine analogy that you set forth can sound kind of depressing in a lot of ways, saying, well, this is all useless because we need to decarbonize before we can even get there. But you end on a very hopeful message in the piece, which is that we really need to prepare for when carbon dioxide removal will be necessary. You, you’re saying it’s not really necessary now, but we need to have the technology in place for when we’re ready to kind of flick the on switch. Is, is that a fair characterization of your piece? Uh, am I summarizing this correctly?
DH | 12:07 – Well, I do think that we can be hopeful because there are methods that can help us decarbonize pretty rapidly. You know, the technology exists, right? And, and we, we have a lot of the knowledge, we, we know what’s causing a lot of the, you know, extreme weather events that we are experiencing and, and we know the solutions. So what keeps these things from being deployed a lot of the times is either state captured by fossil fuel companies or, or some other political barrier. But the, the barrier right now isn’t technological. And, and so I I think that that should give us hope because, you know, we, we understand what’s going on. It’s, it’s not this thing that we, we can’t fix at the moment, like curing cancer, right? Like, we want to do this and we don’t know how. And that’s frustrating, but it’s not the same with climate. And related to your question about, about CDR, I think we definitely need to research it and test it because there will come a point where our emissions are low enough, but they’re not zero. Right? And, and to get to, to zero emissions, like you were, like we were talking about earlier or, or net zero or even to go to negative because we might overshoot a bit, we need to have CDR in place because there, there will be these residual things that are, you know, sort of hard to abate, like maybe some of the manufacturing that we do with steel and cement or, or with global shipping or, or aviation, you know, those things are more difficult than getting everybody to, to drive an electric car, for instance.
AW | 14:04 – In that scenario where we’ve gotten down to either negative or net zero emissions and we have CDR techniques in place, maybe relate that back to a time machine and how that might actually make much more sense to wrap our heads around. Like we won’t get tripped up on things like thousands versus billions.
DH | 14:26 – Yeah. So, so if our, you know, to give a really extreme example, you know, if our emissions were only a million tons of CO2 every year and our, you know, CDR methods are capable of removing a million tons, then it’s a time machine that takes you back a complete year, right? Which is sort of the baseline of what we want, or, or maybe we need to have 2 million tons of removal, so we go back two years in case we overshoot. So yeah, it’s, it’s the balance between emissions and removal.
AW | 15:06 – And when we look at net zero from a corporate standpoint, when, when companies set forth goals of carbon neutral products, where do they get tripped up or where can they start fudging the truth? I just read a piece that you had reposted from inside Climate news about Apple and it’s Apple watch being a carbon neutral product, which seemed to be, um, playing fast and loose with the truth.
DH | 15:33 – Yeah. So I, I think some of that just comes from accounting and not rigorous verification of whatever they’re claiming, either the renewable energy or the carbon removal, right? And, and if they’re using forestry offsets to, to claim, you know, net zero emissions, we know that forests are not durable. You know, we see with all these forest fires of, uh, you know, some of these forests are actually, have been used for carbon offsets and, and it’s easy for them to go up in flames, especially as the climate changes. So some of it comes from that. And I think just in general, claiming products especially, you know, something that takes so much manufacturing takes so much resources to make for a company to claim that it’s carbon neutral sort of glosses over the sort of issue that there’s no world in which, you know, we will achieve our, our climate targets without some increase in efficiency or decrease in consumption. And everybody wants things to be simple and, you know, we, we want to change nothing about our lifestyles, you know, just replace one thing with another plug in an electric vehicle for an internal combustion engine and change nothing about our lifestyles. You know, nothing about driving less, you know, nothing about consuming less and for everything to be okay. And I think that’s just not the case. It doesn’t mean that we can’t ever consume anything, but you know, as long as we are, we’re doing that, we’re still flying, you know, we’re still buying new clothes, you know, every month it’s gonna be really hard to solve the climate issues that we have.
(Music Break) | 17:46
AW | 18:39 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to David Ho, he’s a professor at the University of Hawaii in the oceanography department and the co-founder of [C]Worthy. So David, we’re talking about the Apple Watch and its claims for being a carbon neutral product. I couldn’t help but also think that as you were explaining how a company can buy carbon offsets that really deep pocketed organizations like Apple have a lot more advantages in being able to claim a product being carbon neutral than a smaller, less wealthy company that might make a similar product. The carbon offset system seems designed to benefit wealthier companies, doesn’t it?
DH | 19:28 – Uh, perhaps, um, yeah, you know, I hadn’t actually thought about that because for greenwashing, these companies can just buy really cheap offsets that do absolutely nothing, right? So, so there’s a difference between maybe Apple is spending more money on, on offsets that don’t work, but you know, they’re at least, you know, certified by somebody and, and they think they’re doing something good. And then a, uh, smaller company can just buy these $5 carbon offsets like the airlines try to sell to you. And if you’re talking about sort of durable CDR, that might be the case. You know, where right now durable CDR costs over a thousand dollars and a small company definitely doesn’t have the kind of money to, to offset their, their entire emissions that way.
AW | 20:31 – I’m sorry, can you explain what durable CDR carbon dioxide removal means?
DH | 20:36 – Yeah, so, so these are techniques that would store carbon dioxide away for tens of thousands of years. Um, that includes, you know, geologically or in the ocean. I mean these, these basically, the supply just doesn’t exist right now, but it’s what people are hoping to develop in in the next decade or two. I, I have to admit, I I haven’t thought about this sort of inequality between small and large companies in terms of their ability to greenwash, but I, I guess what I would say is that small companies, they will, they will, um, by definition have a smaller carbon footprint and there’s probably less of a need to greenwash.
AW | 21:29 – And when you talk about these carbon offsets doing absolutely nothing, are there any carbon offsets that do anything? Or is the whole, from your perspective – are they all useless?
DH | 21:42 – I think the idea of offsets is, is a bit funny. It hasn’t been shown to work. I think right now. Um, what there, there’s one thing that’s good about offsets, which is that it helps fund other things, other benefits, like even forestry offsets or, or, or the offsets in involving mangroves, it might not increase your carbon dioxide removal, but mangroves, let’s take that as an example, has other benefits, right? Coastal protection it’s nurseries from, for, you know, juvenile fish and it’s, yeah. So, so if even though the money is, is going into it for the CO2 removal, you know, maybe the, the actual benefit is that, you know, you have a healthy mangrove ecosystem, um, that, that protects humans from, from storms and other things. And, but in terms of yeah, CO2 removal, it’s like right now I think what all the news stories and all the studies have shown is that offsets lead to more bad things than good things.
AW | 23:13 – And that leads to my next question. Uh, when you mentioned the mangroves, I’d like to circle back to the work you do at [C]Worthy. Your organization [C]Worthy focuses on ocean-based solutions. Why don’t you explain some of the, the ones that exist and, and ones that make you optimistic and if they play a, a role in the carbon offset space at all.
DH | 23:40 – So there are basically two categories of solutions in the ocean. There, there are the ones that involve biology, and there are the ones that involve, um, chemistry. And, and so usually we say biotic and a abiotic methods. So the, the ones that involve biology are like ocean fertilization, like maybe you’ve heard of ocean iron fertilization or growing kelp, you know, macro algae, you know, somehow increasing the production of the ocean so that, you know, the photosynthesis will, will take up the CO2. And the, the sort of abiotic methods are things like, uh, ocean alkalinity enhancement or there’s something called direct ocean removal. And I can explain more about those. So both of those involve, you know, also reducing the, the, uh, CO2 in the surface ocean. And then what happens is, so, so the, the atmosphere and the ocean are in equilibrium or, or tries to be, right? So if there’s less CO2 in the ocean, then the atmosphere will send CO2 into the ocean. And, and that’s in fact what’s happening now when we burn 40 billion tons of CO2 every year, is that about 10 billion tons of it goes into the ocean, you know, because of this equilibrium. So the idea behind these ocean-based methods is to, to increase that capacity of the ocean to do that. Um, the, the reason [C]Worthy exists is because the, the ocean removal techniques, it’s not as, as straightforward as direct air capture where okay, you just suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere and you’re done right in the ocean. When you create this deficit, you have to wait for the atmosphere to equate with the ocean. And that can happen over months to, to years. And in that time the ocean has spread out and, and some of the water has abducted. So it’s, it’s really hard to figure out how much has act has actually been removed. And that’s, that’s where we come in. That’s, that’s where, that’s what we’re building tools to, to try to figure out. because otherwise, you know, companies can claim anything they want
AW | 26:24 – Doubling back on some of the more radical proposals for carbon dioxide removal that give you hope. David, maybe you can kind of go over some of those for us.
DH | 26:33 -Yeah, actually, you know, I I would say they are decidedly not radical. Um, because there are things that we hear about every day, uh, like wind and solar, right? And energy efficiency. Like, you know, a a simple example, you know, even though it’s a small example, is, is everybody switching from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs? I mean, it’s, it is sort of an amazing thing. Or, you know, now there’s a lot of talk about, about heat pumps and, and sort of the efficiency gain there. So energy efficiency, I even though, you know, it’s not that radical, you know, stopping deforestation, you know, really important. Um, cutting, cutting methane emissions. You know, there, there are methane leaks everywhere and if we just do a better job of, you know, capping those leaky wells or, or you know, whatever other methane sources we have, it, it already helps a lot. And so there, there’s a long list of things that are already available to us that, that I think we need to do before we start implementing CDR on a large scale.
AW | 27:49 – He’s a professor at the university. He’s a professor at the University of Hawaii in the oceanography division in the oceanography department, David Ho. David, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
DH | 28:01 – Yeah, thanks for having me.
Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Meters, Shaky Graves and Nina Simone. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.