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Saving the world from thin air

March 27, 2019

Envisioning a new approach to an old problem — removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere

In the 1990s, theoretical physicist Klaus Lackner had an idea. Was it possible to build a contraption that physically sucked greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere?

At the time, the idea was radical. Some people thought it was nuts.

Two decades later, many of the experts have come around to Lackner’s view. Pulling carbon from the air is now seen as crucial, and Lackner has created such a machine. ASU has supported the vision, naming Lackner director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at the university’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, where he’s honing the technology. But so far, there are only a handful of other efforts to build carbon-sucking machines.

Which gave a group of ASU grads another idea. Instead of building the new technology, how about creating a marketplace that would incentivize carbon removal, whether by Lacknerian machines or some other method? Sure, it’s still pretty radical, considering no one has done this before. But nuts? Hardly.

In 2018, the grads — Paul Gambill, Jaycen Horton and Ross Kenyon, along with Christophe Jospe, who worked for Lackner at CNCE — founded Nori. The Seattle-based company is flipping some basic ideas about climate change mitigation on their head. Instead of aiming at lowering CO2 emissions, Nori focuses instead on Lackner’s notion of pulling out the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. Instead of, say, taxing those who put CO2 into the air, they want to pay those who remove it.

“It’s a way of using markets to drive change,” Jospe explained. “We’re able to monetize what hasn’t previously been monetized.”

They like to call themselves “used-carbon salesmen” and they’re finding ways to do what seems unthinkable: making CO2 a valuable commodity.

Two men stand in a farm field

ASU alumnus Paul Gambill (left) and Christophe Jospe are part of the founders at Nori, which is working with farmers on removing CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it back into the earth. The no-till process — regenerative agriculture or "carbon farming" — requires the planting of cover crops. "The potential," said Jospe, "is vast." Photo by Inti St. Clair

Carbon farming

Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas that’s a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, among other things. Humans put more than 36 billion metric tons (MO2) of the stuff into the atmosphere each year, trapping heat and causing Earth’s temperature to rise.

“Even if we turned off all emissions worldwide tomorrow, we’d still have far too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and we’d still get some of the catastrophic effects,” Gambill said. “We have to take action as soon as possible.”

In fact, the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology to absorb remaining fossil fuel emissions was one recommendation last year by scientists convened by the United Nations to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change by 2050.

The way the team at Nori views it, CO2 is a waste product, and it should be treated like other waste products. We don’t throw our trash out the window, and we shouldn’t simply fling our greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, either. We need a system to pick it up, just like our system of trash collection, and a market so that those who do the removal get paid for it. That’s where Nori comes in.

“We’re building a marketplace that makes it as simple as possible,” Gambill said. He wants to create a kind of commodity market for carbon, where the price is driven by market demand. Lackner liked the concept so much, he signed on as an adviser.

“In a way, it democratizes the problem,” Lackner said, by allowing everyone to take responsibility for greenhouse gases.

Through the Nori interface, people who are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere can easily connect with people who are willing to pay for it.

“Nori is trying to create a new model for exchange,” said Michael Dalrymple, ASU’s director of University Sustainability Practices.

In traditional carbon markets, companies and organizations indirectly purchase offsets. ASU does this with a community impact twist. For example, Dalrymple explained ASU collects an $8 carbon fee on every round trip of air travel by faculty and staff. ASU then buys “community bundle” offsets from Urban Offsets, consisting partly of carbon offsets purchased from projects listed on offset registries. Urban Offsets directs some funds to the cities of Phoenix and Tempe to help defray the costs of planting urban trees — increasing shade, reducing heat islands and cleaning the air. In return, ASU gets additional offsets over time for carbon sequestered by those trees.

The Nori team decided to take a direct approach with some unlikely allies: farmers.

The excess CO2 in the atmosphere was originally in the ground, bound up in oil, coal or natural gas. Also, plants — whether they’re grass or vegetables or trees — pull CO2 out of the air through photosynthesis. To Gambill, all this makes the problem straightforward: “We should just take (the greenhouse gases) out of the atmosphere and put them back into the earth.”

In recent years, farmers and scientists have learned that certain farming methods can help ensure that CO2 pulled in by plants goes back into the ground and stays there. It requires forgoing tilling, planting cover crops, liberal use of compost and more. The soil gets healthier through this process, which means over time, the plants get healthier, too, and that means more money for the farmer.

It’s called regenerative agriculture, or even “carbon farming,” and some farmers have already made the transition. The problem is, the soil improvements take time, and upfront costs can be significant. Which brings us back to Nori. Through its marketplace, farmers using these methods can get credit for each ton of carbon they sequester in the soil. They then place those credits for sale in the Nori marketplace.

When the marketplace opens for business later this year, they aim to have enrolled enough farmers to sequester a million metric tons of carbon per year, Gambill says. That’s equivalent to more than 112 million gallons of consumed gasoline.

“The potential,” Jospe believes, “is vast.”

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Klaus Lackner pioneered direct air capture, using artificial trees to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Made from a plastic resin, Lackner's artificial trees are 1,000 times more efficient than natural trees in reducing carbon emissions. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Carbon gold rush

There are bound to be skeptics. They say it’s hard to measure carbon that has been isolated in the ground. True. Besides, there’s only so much farmers can put there. And there are hurdles to making it stay there.

But Gambill, Jospe, Horton and Kenyon are pulling every thread, working with the experts to ensure public acceptance of the marketplace. Also, they’re envisioning something much bigger than farmers.  It requires the kind of thinking he developed at ASU.

Gambill studied computer systems engineering. It taught him to think in terms of solving problems, to “look at large, complex systems, trying to understand the boundaries, the potential inputs and outputs.”

Climate change is an environmental problem, but it’s also an economic problem, a social problem and an engineering problem. Gambill and Horton both worked at ASU’s Decision Theater, which let them watch how societal questions play out in real life. Jospe got quite the education working for Lackner.

“It’s not a coincidence this idea came from people who consider themselves Sun Devils,” said Jospe.

The team is confident it will go beyond farming. Gambill likens it to Apple, when it opened the first app store. There wasn’t much for sale then, but Apple was certain that people would start dreaming up apps to fill the shelves. We all know how that turned out. Similarly, the Nori team believes if there’s money to be made, people will be motivated to making more carbon-sucking solutions.

“We’re creating a space where creativity can flourish,” Gambill said. “It’s going to be a gold rush to monetize carbon removal. We think people are going to do some really cool things.”

Written by Maureen O’Hagan, an award-winning journalist who has covered an array of subjects for The Washington Post and Seattle Times and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

Top photo: Klaus Lackner, a pioneer in carbon capture, views a greenhouse that will be fed carbon dioxide from prototype materials at his lab in ASU's Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. Companies are building on his ideas to achieve climate goals. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

 
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Forget balance

March 27, 2019

Instead, try these 5 ways to live in sync with your well-being

Editor's note: This piece was written by May Busch, senior adviser and executive in residence in ASU’s Office of the President. She is also a professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and chairs the Idea Enterprise. Find her at maybusch.com/asuthrive

I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I don’t believe in work-life balance. I agree that it’s important to have a life, and that it’s hard, because most of us have too many competing priorities and too little time.

May Busch

But I don’t believe in work-life balance because it’s an outdated and overrated concept that’s impossible to achieve for most of us. Instead, I focus on a feeling of well-being and of being “in sync” with yourself. This involves five aspects:

1. Being conscious

This is about knowing what you want, exercising your free will and making conscious decisions about how to spend your time and energy.

When we make conscious choices, we have an excellent chance for our actions to be in alignment with what truly matters to us.

For example, my family is hugely important to me, yet I used to keep my head down and work until the task was done, no matter how late I had to stay. Without realizing it, I got myself in a situation where I hadn’t had dinner with my family for months. And I only noticed when my husband got angry with me about it.

Then my boss sat me down and told me he was concerned about my working too much. He pretty much ordered me to leave the office in time to be home for dinner twice a week, and to come in late after taking the kids to school twice a month. I’m lucky to have had a great boss to help me become more conscious about my choices. If you don’t have a boss like I did, you must learn to do this for yourself.

You’ll be in alignment, which leaves no room for debilitating and draining emotions like worry and regret.

2. Oscillating through time

Recognize that you’re going to be going through different wave patterns during your day, your week, your year. In fact, that’s optimal rather than targeting a static level of balance and staying at that.

The former allows you to have the whole range of highs and lows, where the latter focuses on staying at a moderate level. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

For me, that meant being able to go all out on my business during a big three-week project, but then being able to take a break or a few days off to be with my family later in the month.

It’s about achieving your optimal mix of activities over a longer time horizon, rather than insisting on “balancing the books” every day or every week, which can drive you crazy.

3. Getting a dose of joy every day

When I was getting stressed out at work, my mother used to tell me to take a minivacation every day; just closing my eyes for two to five minutes and imagining myself in my favorite vacation spot. It really did make me feel better!

This is the same idea, only it’s about joy rather than peace.

Start by identifying those small simple things that make your heart sing and make sure you get some of it each day.

For me, it can be as simple as playing a favorite song at full blast, or dancing. These days, you can plug in your iPod equivalent and rock out for the length of a song pretty much anywhere. I was usually able to duck into a conference room, but if you can’t, then worst case, there’s always the facilities!

4. Reframing

This is about shifting your mindset to a more positive way of looking at whatever situation you’re in.

This is a variation on being conscious. You want to be in charge of the way you frame things so that issues become opportunities, and problems can have solutions.

This “inner game” can either drag us down or pull us up, depending on how well we can reframe things in an energizing way.

As an example, one thing that used to bother me was not being able to be at a performance or sports event for my three children, and not being home to send them to school or welcome them home after school.

Then my mother (who is a pediatrician) told me that this made our children independent. Not only was she right about that, it also made me feel more positive about my choices.

5. Stop over-optimizing

Sometimes we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves by setting up too many constraints. Then it becomes stressful to try to optimize it all, and you end up feeling drained.

I remember trying to keep everyone happy simultaneously — my boss, team, husband, three kids and even the dog. Plus, living up to standards of home decoration, housekeeping and other social pressures. My own well-being wasn’t even on the list.

Some of the things I did in the name of satisfying people didn’t even matter to them, like folding the kids’ laundry or personally sewing their Halloween costumes when I had million-dollar deals going on at work. Or feeling like I had to attend every client meeting, even if it meant taking two red-eye flights back to back.

Over the years, my husband and I have been reducing the number of constraints by getting clear on what really matters to each of us, and culling the rest.

For example, we’ve called a “truce” on celebrating Valentine’s Day since neither of us cared that much about what is essentially a fabricated holiday. And we live with a messier house than either of us was brought up in.

So stop torturing yourself about work-life balance, and start focusing on having a feeling of well-being and living your life “in sync” with who you are and what really matters to you.

If that involves a big commitment in one area and less in another for now, go with it. You will keep oscillating and adjusting, because life isn’t static. It’s progressive.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. Also visit Busch's blog at maybusch.com/blog for more ideas and inspiration.