Carbon removal: An opportunity for American innovation

A cutting-edge, clean energy innovation is at our fingertips. And it presents an economic opportunity that could give the United States an upper hand in environmental technologies for decades to come: technologies that remove carbon directly from the atmosphere.

Carbon removal is not a futuristic endeavor. We’ve been doing it for centuries by simply planting trees or adopting good farming practices. But it’s not enough.

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Fortunately, we can now build machines to literally pull carbon pollution from the air. For decades, small carbon removal systems have been installed in submarines, space shuttles and other closed environments to prevent the buildup of carbon produced by exhalation. But the use of “direct air capture” technologies to remove carbon pollution on a global scale is a relatively new concept.

Direct air capture plants have recently begun operating in Canada, Iceland and Switzerland and there’s now one being built in Alabama. These plants can store the carbon or recycle it into fuel, fertilizer, concrete and other products.

All of this is a promising start – but it is a small fraction of what is needed.

In recent decades, new thinking and smart solutions have sparked transformations in the energy we use and the cars we drive. Now we need to unleash that same innovative and entrepreneurial American spirit to strengthen and scale up carbon removal.

Just last week, the top U.S. scientific body urged the federal government to launch a research program to boost the development of carbon removal technologies that could play a critical role in slowing climate change, if combined with other strategies.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s 369-page report might look daunting, but it carries a simple message: the United States needs to take the lead in advancing technological innovations that restore the natural balance of carbon in our atmosphere. We have great universities, national labs, companies and entrepreneurs across the country that could drive this innovation. The benefits will be abundant: safely and prudently reducing carbon pollution, building new markets, creating good jobs and making us a global leader in this emerging field.

The United States is already a world leader in the broader environmental technologies industry, of which carbon pollution control is an emerging segment. In 2015, U.S. companies generated nearly $330 billion in revenue from the sales of environmental technologies and services. And environmental technologies contribute to a trade surplus, yielding net exports of nearly $27 billion annually.

Investing now in carbon removal technologies would harness U.S. leadership in the environmental industry and give U.S. companies a head start in the emerging carbon pollution control market. These technologies will one day be worth many billions of dollars. If we don’t take the lead and innovate in this sector, others will. And Americans should not pay Europe or China for technologies we can develop ourselves.

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Beyond the economic motivation, there is scientific reality. Removing carbon from the atmosphere is no longer an option; it is a necessity. Most scientists say we are already experiencing serious climate impacts as a result of decades of unchecked carbon emissions. As the world looks for solutions, we must consider every option. That means both transitioning to clean energy and removing carbon pollution from the air.

This is not a partisan issue. In fact, bipartisan legislation has already been passed and more has been introduced in Congress. But this legislation does not address the need for a major research and development program like that proposed by the National Academies. By leveraging public-private commitments, government R&D could move new technologies from invention to commercialization, lower the risk to private investors and unleash America’s talented innovators on a promising and profitable opportunity.

Robert D. Atkinson is a former advisor to Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and the founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a science and technology policy think tank.