5 Ways To Turn CO₂ From Pollution To A Valuable Product

5 Ways To Turn CO₂ From Pollution To A Valuable Product 1599686sv/Shutterstock

It’s far easier to avoid burning fossil fuels than it is to clean up CO₂ emissions once they’re in the Earth’s atmosphere. But the world no longer has the luxury of choice – drastic emission reductions and rapid CO₂ removal and storage will both be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global heating.

What if, instead of wasting all that CO₂, it could be turned into something useful? There’s currently little economic incentive for industries that emit CO₂ to capture it, let alone to draw it directly down from the atmosphere. Identifying valuable products and how to make them might kickstart CO₂ removal on an industrial scale, and help bring down emissions in the process. In our recent paper, we set out to clarify what these processes and products might be.

We considered processes that use CO₂ captured from industrial emissions, and also biological processes that can directly draw down CO₂ from the air. We projected that between one and ten gigatonnes of CO₂ could be utilised per year by 2050, at costs of under USD$100 (£77) per tonne of CO₂. Humans currently emit 37 gigatonnes of CO₂ a year, and we need to reduce our impact to net zero by around 2050. Some estimates suggest this might mean removing around ten gigatonnes of CO₂ a year from 2050 onward. Some of these ideas for using CO₂, if implemented properly, could play a role in making that more economically viable.

Some ideas for using CO₂ might not get off the drawing board. But with the right investment and incentives, others may move from niche research projects into credible plans, and from the work of small businesses to the goal of entire industries. Here is a selection of the ways that one person’s pollution could become another’s product.

5 Ways To Turn CO₂ From Pollution To A Valuable Product Creating a commodity out of carbon could help kickstart its removal from the atmosphere. Elevate on Unsplash/Shutterstock

1. Make buildings

There are several ways in which buildings can be constructed with materials made from CO₂. The first is obvious: use wood. Growing and sustainably harvesting trees for building means that CO₂ is taken from the atmosphere, converted into a valuable commercial product, and stored as carbon in long-lived buildings.

It also reduces demand for cement, which is responsible for 10-15% of global greenhouse gas emissions through its production. New technologies, such as cross-laminated timber or acetylated wood, are making this substitution ever easier.

The second way is to use and then store CO₂ in concrete-making processes, by curing cement or in the manufacture of other ingredients like aggregate.

2. Create plastic products

CO₂ can be used in polymers to make durable plastics for cars and buildings. Around 60% of plastics have applications in sectors other than packaging. Plastics made from CO₂ could displace plastic products made from fossil fuels for these sectors, particularly as they don’t require toxic or dirty ingredients such as phosgenes or epoxides, and can be cheaper to make than fossil-fuel based materials. Because the CO₂ molecule is a stable part of the backbone of the polymer, it can be stored in these materials for as long as they last.

3. Make fuel or fertilisers

CO₂ can be used as a feedstock for many chemical processes, with hundreds of potential end products, including hydrocarbon fuels and urea fertilisers.

Fuels made from CO₂ can exist in the form of methanol as well as more complex products like so-called synfuels. These fuels can often be blended or moved around using existing infrastructure like pipes and tankers. And although CO₂ fuels are currently very costly to manufacture, in the future they might be valuable in niches like aviation or long-distance shipping, which are more difficult to decarbonise than trains and cars because they need fuels with higher energy densities.

5 Ways To Turn CO₂ From Pollution To A Valuable Product While it will be comparatively easy for cars and trains to undergo electrification, aeroplanes will still need liquid fuels with high energy densities for a while. Milosz Maslanka/Shutterstock

If the CO₂ product is a fuel or a fertiliser, the CO₂ ends up back in the atmosphere once used. While two uses of the carbon is better than one, if the carbon atom originally came from a fossil fuel, it’s not a long-term solution. To be climate neutral, the CO₂ feedstock will have to be sourced from the air – so the CO₂ is taken from the atmosphere, made into fuel, and then emitted back to the atmosphere. This is currently expensive and technically challenging. Crucially, the energy required for this process also needs to be renewable.

4. Increase crop yields

There’s emerging evidence that increasing the amount of carbon in soils can also increase crop yields. This is a natural form of CO₂ utilisation that already happens – scientists and farmers can just give it a helping hand. One particularly promising way is by using biochar – plant material that has been converted into a stable form of organic carbon via a process known as pyrolysis. Biochar buried in soils could store carbon for the long term and increase crop yields.

The general benefits of replenishing and maintaining carbon in the soil are well established, but using soil as a store of carbon is challenging because it is easily disturbed.

5. Extract more oil

Counter-intuitively, it’s possible to both produce oil and store CO₂. That’s because injecting CO₂ into an oil well increases the amount of oil that can be recovered – so-called “CO₂ enhanced oil recovery”.

It is actually possible to operate the well so that more CO₂ is put into it than is emitted in the process of producing the oil and burning it. But policy changes would be needed to incentivise this – oil companies would not do it otherwise. And it’s a temporary fix. In a world that has fully decarbonised, demand for fossil oil should be close to zero.

Nonetheless, this could be a short-term way to stimulate much needed demand for CO₂ capture, as emitters could sell their waste CO₂ to oil producers.

All these options for using CO₂ have potential, but making them a reality will need a clear understanding of the possible unintended consequences. Many could be failures, so it’d be unwise to rely solely on any one of them, but instead, spread bets widely.The Conversation

About The Authors

Ella Adlen, Research and Programmes Manager, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford and Cameron Hepburn, Professor of Environmental Economics, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.



follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email



How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
by Mangulina Jan Fichtner, et al
A silent revolution is happening in investing. It is a paradigm shift that will have a profound impact on corporations,…
PBS Nova's Polar Extremes
PBS Nova's Polar Extremes
by PBS
In this two-hour special, renowned paleontologist Kirk Johnson takes us on an epic adventure through time at the polar…
A huge iceberg just broke off West Antarctica’s most endangered glacier
A Huge Iceberg Just Broke Off West Antarctica’s Most Endangered Glacier
by Madeleine Stone
Huge blocks of ice regularly shear away from Antarctica’s ice shelves, but the losses are speeding up.
The Rise Of Solar Power
Solar power is on the rise. You can see the evidence on rooftops and in the desert, where utility-scale solar plants…
World's Largest Batteries: Pumped Storage
by Practical Engineering
The vast majority of our grid-scale storage of electricity uses this clever method.
Hydrogen Fuels Rockets, But What About Power For Daily Life?
Hydrogen Fuels Rockets, But What About Power For Daily Life?
by Zhenguo Huang
Have you ever watched a space shuttle launch? The fuel used to thrust these enormous structures away from Earth’s…
Fossil Fuel Production Plans Could Push Earth off a Climate Cliff
by The Real News Network
The United Nations is beginning its climate summit in Madrid.
Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
by The Real News Network
A new study concludes that rail is the industry that's injected the most money into climate change denial propaganda…


Why Australian Labor’s Climate Policy Is Too Little, Too Late
Why Australian Labor’s Climate Policy Is Too Little, Too Late
by Will Steffen
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s announcement on Friday that a Labor government would adopt a target of net-zero…
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
by Mangulina Jan Fichtner, et al
A silent revolution is happening in investing. It is a paradigm shift that will have a profound impact on corporations,…
Green Ammonia Could Slash Emissions From Farming And Power Ships Of The Future
Green Ammonia Could Slash Emissions From Farming And Power Ships Of The Future
by Bill David
For the past 100 years, a simple molecule has had an immensely positive impact on our world. Ammonia, which comprises…
Ideal US Cities To Survive Climate Change
Ideal US Cities To Survive Climate Change
by Johnna Crider
Climate scientists have shared where they think would be an ideal place to live in the United States in order to avoid…
Stories Of When Your Kids Make You Feel Old! | The Curls
Old Conservative White Men: Pass The Football To Someone Who Will Try To Score
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
We have had important US elections but this one in November 2020 is undoubtedly the most important. Why? America and…
How Tiny Microbes Are Revolutionizing Big Agriculture
How Tiny Microbes Are Revolutionizing Big Agriculture
by Mathew Wallenstein, Colorado State University
Walk into your typical U.S. or U.K. grocery store and feast your eyes on an amazing bounty of fresh and processed…
Uk’s Nuclear Future Hangs On Electricity Tax
Uk’s Nuclear Future Hangs On Electricity Tax
by Paul Brown
The new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, must soon decide whether to save the UK’s nuclear future with an…
Extreme Weather Could Push The U.S. Into Recession
Extreme Weather Could Push The U.S. Into Recession
by Karen Nikos
Physical climate risk from extreme weather events remains unaccounted for in financial markets, a new paper warns.