Carbon is Like COVID: Innovation Beats Limits

As the saying goes, “An ounce of cure is worth a pound of prevention.” Wrong, I know… unless I’m sick. Then I’ll take the 1 oz cure. But then again if the “prevention” includes vaccines, my preference swings again. Maybe the saying should be “An ounce of innovation is worth a pound of hard work with current technology.” Yes, very catchy. sells carbon removal for $17/ton. They’ll take your money and pay farmers to change their practices in such a way that physically pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere and stores it permanently in the soil. This is cold hard carbon removal–better than temporary carbon storage or supposed “carbon offsets,” which can be greenwashing.

At $17/ton, it seems like a bargain. Many of my structural designs have a footprint under 50 lb CO2 / SF, which makes it possible to remove the entire footprint for 40 cents / SF. Even if you double this to remove the architectural footprint too, it’s a fraction of 1% of total project cost–to remove the entire footprint. When does this make more sense than today’s gymnastics that achieve…20% reduction?

Why not have specifications that require contractors to “emit less, remove the rest” (a la Nori)? If contractors find removal cheaper, so what? Would anyone make the case that prevention holds moral high ground over cure? A cure whose cost makes scaling feasible?

In fact, carbon removal is better than a cure since it pre-empts negative impact, like a vaccine. Limits to carbon emissions are analogous to social distancing and wearing mask: both are current-tech solutions that rely on self-imposed limits. Carbon removal is like a vaccine: a new-tech solution that negates the need for excessive constraint.

Nori’s soil-based method can only scale to cover so many buildings. But can we invent better, cheaper vaccines? Does the pandemic teach us something about the fundamental need for “techno-fixes” (strangely maligned) that have the potential to get around the impracticalities of today’s attempted solutions? Does it teach us about the social and economic costs of a limit-heavy approach?

I move to define sustainable design as “more value, less impact,” and reject the link between the two. As designers, we should aim for the high bar of replacing today’s problems with better ones. By all means, limit emissions where we can, but I think the real game is investing in innovation to negate the problem. Tell me how I’m wrong. Does this create a license to emit more. Well… is it bad to for athletes to allow themselves a larger calorie intake? They’re health compares favorably with keto binges.

Our combined action now now holds more sway than natural climate cycles. Environmental hero Stewart Brand has described this age as the Anthropocene, where we “shift from unintentional (and often harmful) to intentional (and purposely beneficial)” interventions. “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” Hubris, or responsibility? A humanity that denies this power is by definition incapable of solving the problem.

And to adapt an idea from David Deutsch: Limits are not sustainable, only continued progress is.

I know these thoughts are unpopular. Opinions?

I think there is an initial case to be made here, but it is limited in scope. For some companies, that don’t have a directly tangible way to affect sequestration, buying Nori credits can make sense - and before more bio-based, and biogenic carbon storing materials are on the market, then builders could use this method.
But, in our opinion, we need to do everything we can to remove carbon from the atmosphere right now. Soil carbon is a big part of the picture for sure, but using the resultant crop carbon storage is another big way of doubling up on this effort. Using bio-based materials in buildings that last for generations, if not centuries, is going to be just as important to reverse the damage done, and not pile on more emissions. And, in fact, it is being realized that these materials can be better for comfort, energy efficiency and health for building occupants, so why wouldn’t we do this? So, yes, there is more value with less impact, and we should be striving for this higher level of performance in building, and leave the offset purchases to those that really have no other way. This would be real progress, not just some “bandage” covering up the real problems. The limits by Deutsch are imagined, and we are much more creative than what we are lead to believe by the current material supplier incumbents (for an example look how much Interface has changed through their efforts of lessening their impact!) Real progress lies in a circular, low-carbon economy on all fronts.