Talk of carbon dioxide in U.S. politics usually revolves around how to reduce its emission into the atmosphere. However, this narrative was rebuked by entrepreneur Bernard David, founder of the Global CO2 Initiative, who spoke about how to turn carbon dioxide from an environmental liability into an asset at an event Wednesday afternoon sponsored by the Graham Sustainability Institute.
“It’s transforming CO2 into an asset, and CO2 is usually a negative,” said Engineering freshman Loren Mata, who attended the seminar as an elective requirement for one of her engineering classes.
David’s organization, the Global CO2 Initiative, hopes to make products out of carbon dioxide, which he estimates could be a $1 trillion business by 2030 if “all the stars align.”
“Climate change is one of the most complex challenges of our time. Left unaddressed, it will continue to cross geographic, social, and financial barriers — altering ecosystems and fundamentally changing life as we know it,” the initiative’s website reads.
David believes taking a business approach to tackling climate change with long-term solutions, like those advocated by the Global CO2 Initiative, will help mitigate environmental problems.
“In a free market economy, unless you can make a business case about something, it’s not going to work. People only care about doing the right thing for a certain amount of time,” David said.
Despite his current line of work, David’s path to the sustainability business was not intuitive. He did not have a science background and had worked as a businessman for years until he retired 17 years ago in his early 40s.
About that time, 9/11 happened. The attacks motivated his father-in-law, an artist, to draw a timeline depicting the evolution of man. This led David to reflect on the vulnerability of humans in today’s world.
“I realized that we as a species want to be here for a while,” David said.
He realized humans embraced a short-term mindset, and he sought to find a long-term solution to climate change. While talking to research scientists at the California Institute of Technology, he realized that carbon dioxide, which composed 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2015, could be turned into an asset.
His organization seeks to do just that by harnessing carbon dioxide emissions and use them to create products in industries such as construction, fuel, industrial gas and fluids, plastics, agriculture, and chemicals. David believes this approach could have long-term benefits.
His organization is currently in the process of looking for funding for more research and development, but long-term, he imagines it will have two platforms: One, a nonprofit named CO2 Sciences, which funds research and development in carbon capture and utilization, would focus on the early stages of the project and is currently funded by the governments of Japan, Canada and China. The other, “Investment Vehicles,” would deal with late-stage commercial investments and take a more long-term approach.
The Trump administration is making attempts to cut off funding for climate science research and development and deployment to Mission Innovation, a coalition comprising 22 countries and the European Union that aims to accelerate clean energy programs.
Despite these obstacles, David has turned to other places for funding, even some from international sources. He still believes in an ideal world, political philosophy should not influence the success of his organization, because it caters to both the right-wing and the left-wing.
“If you’re on the political right and you say the free market economy is all that matters, you’ve got CO2, because we’ve got so much of it it’s a free good, so if you make stuff out of it, we can innovate and create products and then create companies and markets,” David said. “I didn’t say a word about climate there. The political left, you just add, ‘Oh and there’s a climate benefit.’ The political left loves the idea that you can use 15 to 20 percent of the annual (carbon dioxide) emissions. In an ideal world, governments of the world would fund this.”
Despite the logic of the solution — taking a disadvantage and turning it into an advantage — David admits creating a market for carbon dioxide products could incentivize more creation of carbon dioxide to keep up with an increasing demand or at least encourage society to maintain the status quo.
“I don’t know. The intended consequences is to just use what is there, what’s being released today, but it could increase the demand of certain products, and depending on the source of that CO2, it could increase the use of that source,” David said. “But the good news is that if you’re capturing the CO2 from that source, it can still be OK. It may not be OK if it’s coming from an extractive technology, meaning you’re taking some resource out of the earth, but if it’s from a chemical processing plant, it may be OK. Yes, it may have an unintended consequence, but I hope it doesn’t. But we have to do this for other reasons in the short-term, as a transition.”