Three images left to right: a forest, a rock, and a carbon capture machine
Right image courtesy of Climeworks.

Getting to Carbon Negative

Rausser College faculty are helping scale markets for carbon capture, storage, and management

A simple illustration showing the concept of carbon being locked up
Illustration by Giulio Basera

When it comes to the challenge of addressing worldwide carbon emissions, Van Butsic says, we should think of an overflowing bathtub. He likens the steps citizens and corporations are taking to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere to the first thing you might do if your tub starts to overflow: stop the water going in. “But turning off the faucet only solves one part of the problem,” he says. “You’ve also got to pull the plug.”

In this claw-footed, porcelain analogy for climate change, pulling the plug equals removing existing carbon from the atmosphere. Researchers across the globe have demonstrated their ability to combine practices from environmental science, chemistry, biology, engineering, and other fields to do this. They’ve developed specialized equipment that can capture carbon directly from the air or bind it with rocks for long-term storage. Others are using biomass—like trees and plants that would otherwise burn in wildfires or decompose—to produce electricity, heat, fuels, and bioproducts while capturing and storing the emissions associated with their production.

Improving carbon removal technologies and processes is key to ensuring a sustainable future for society, and it plays a part in the long-term success of the bioeconomy: an emerging sector focused on developing alternatives to products derived from fossil fuels. Researchers like Butsic, an associate professor of Cooperative Extension in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) and two of his Rausser College colleagues—Matthew Potts and Daniel Sanchez—hope to use their expertise to reduce how embedded carbon is in our everyday lives. Their work at Carbon Direct, Inc., a firm that offers end-to-end carbon management through scientific and advisory services, enables organizations around the world to reduce, remove, and monitor emissions for real climate impact.

Optimizing current efforts

While the idea is not new, offsetting our carbon emissions—that is, reducing or removing the amount of carbon dioxide in one place to compensate for emissions elsewhere—has become an integral part of our efforts to reach net zero by 2050. Many major emitters in energy, manufacturing, and other industries have already taken important steps to enhance nature’s ability to store carbon. They adopt business practices that promote environmental conservation, direct funds to advance reforestation and restoration efforts, and advocate for improved ecosystem management practices that reduce the risk of stored carbon being released.

Matthew Potts, S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics in ESPM and a leading expert in nature-based solutions to climate change, says we need to go beyond these current carbon storage efforts given how embedded emissions are within the global economy and supply chain. “If we’re going to get within the realm of the emissions reduction goals set by the Paris Agreement then we need to build a carbon removal sector that is twice the size of the current carbon footprint of the oil and gas industries,” he says.

Potts, who is also Chief Science Officer at Carbon Direct, stresses that “clients need to realize that high-quality, nature-based solutions aren’t forever solutions.” Though these are acceptable for the short term, he says, companies need to tap quantitative and qualitative research to properly evaluate and transition to hybrid or engineered forms of carbon removal—which can store carbon for centuries to millennia rather than years to decades—while optimizing their present-day effort to store carbon in trees and forests.

Sanchez, an assistant professor of Cooperative Extension in ESPM, says Carbon Direct’s interdisciplinary team of scientists and economists are well-suited to guide clients toward high-quality projects that will remove large amounts of carbon with little risk of it seeping back out. “The Earth has its own ledger,” he says. “You can only say you’re offsetting your emissions so much with low-quality solutions before you realize that the math isn’t adding up.”

Carbon Direct takes a holistic approach to carbon management by evaluating new and promising technologies while working to optimize natural and working lands to store as much carbon as possible. Forests are a central part of present-day carbon management efforts because they are one of the most readily available carbon sinks. “Trees can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it for meaningful amounts of time,” explains Butsic, “which ideally limits global warming and associated climatic effects.”

Much of Butsic’s academic research combines forest science, geospatial analysis, and statistical modeling to understand how climate-driven changes in land use affect the durability and stability of forest carbon. Even though advances in research and modeling—paired with better satellite imagery and analytical tools—make it easier to manage large-scale forestlands, Butsic says that growing wildfires and worsening ecosystem disruption increase the risk that carbon stored in forests will be released.

Advancing new technologies

Engineered carbon removal projects are still in their infancy. They’re generally expensive and low volume, with little present capacity for the type of commercial scale needed to notably reduce global emissions. As an expert on carbon-negative systems that can use biomass to generate heat and electricity and produce biofuel and other products, Sanchez guides Carbon Direct toward projects with the greatest promise and potential for growth.

At Berkeley, Sanchez directs the Carbon Removal Lab, which works to commercialize a range of technologies and products that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Much of his research focuses on transforming low-value and waste biomass from forests and lumber production into new structural wood products like plywood sheets strong enough for construction, transportation fuels, or other high-value chemicals. He also supports outreach efforts geared toward policymakers and technologists to help encourage adoption of these new approaches.

Jared Stapp, PhD ’22 presenting geospatial data on a TV.

Jared Stapp, PhD ’22 Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, works on geospatial analysis and forest management at Carbon Direct.

Image courtesy of Carbon Direct.

Sanchez says private investment from major emitters will help build carbon removal facilities and support the development of new technologies that he says, “are a lot more durable—and a lot higher quality—than what nature has to offer.”

Carbon Direct is setting the bar for quality in carbon management with their Criteria for High-Quality Carbon Dioxide Removal. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, the criteria serve as a blueprint for both project developers and buyers to ensure that projects deliver real climate impact. The company also worked with Shopify, Alaska Airlines, and Mitsubishi Corporation, and recently secured $60 million in Series A funding.

In addition, Carbon Direct has developed a software platform for organizations looking to automate carbon removal across their operations. Now, organizations can analyze their carbon footprint with the company’s proprietary measurement tool, purchase high-quality carbon management portfolios, and embed carbon purchasing directly into their platforms with the Carbon Direct API.

Beyond helping clients reduce emissions and procure carbon credits, Carbon Direct’s efforts to grow quality carbon removal supply have also extended to improving protocols and standards. The company partnered with EcoEngineers and Charm Industrial to launch a prototype protocol that establishes a standard of measurement for bio-oil sequestration: a new carbon removal practice that transforms waste biomass into bio-oil and injects it into geological formations deep underground for permanent storage.

Sanchez notes that stronger regulatory policy and government action are also needed to grow the carbon credit market. The federal government is committing $369 billion in new spending on clean energy and climate mitigation over the next decade as part of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. On top of offering consumers incentives to purchase electric cars and make their homes more energy efficient, the bill increases the tax credit for capturing carbon—a change that may help bring some projects over the finish line.

“Costs are coming down rapidly, and we expect many technologies to have wide commercial application in the next decade,” adds Butsic, who is optimistic about the development trajectory for direct air capture, mineralization, and other carbon removal technologies. Each advancement will improve our ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere, allowing us to tug—and hopefully remove—the drain plug and solve the problem of our overflowing tub.