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Can Tourism Support Carbon Removal Through Direct Air Capture?

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The climate crisis is a universal issue, one that is impacting the travel industry in a very tangible way right now. As the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) notes, threats to the industry from climate change include “direct and indirect impacts such as more extreme weather events, increasing insurance costs and safety concerns, water shortages, biodiversity loss, and damage to assets and attractions at destinations, among others.” Travel industry stakeholders both large and small are mobilizing for action, banding together to lobby for carbon pricing, encourage responsible flying, and fund climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry, and conservation projects, among other initiatives.

Recognizing the urgency of the climate situation, the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s (ATTA) first Climate Action Leadership Studio, sponsored by Icelandic Mountain Guides and Visit Finland on 20 September 2019, will unite a global community of climate scientists, travel company leaders, and policymakers from some of the world’s most environmentally progressive travel destinations to explore practical climate action strategies for destinations and tour operators.

The Hellisheiði Power Plant in Iceland is one of many companies and initiatives in the country working toward reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere. © David Hone

One aspect of the event I’m most looking forward to is learning from experts about the technology behind carbon removal and the ways the international travel community can support it.

As a non-scientist I’ve come to understand a few things:

  1. Removing carbon from the atmosphere through nature-based strategies such as tree planting is valuable and important.
  2. However, the speed at which humanity needs to remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius means nature-based strategies alone won’t work fast enough.
  3. Therefore, additional approaches must be explored, especially direct air capture, a technology for carbon removal that climate scientists say is necessary for averting the worst effect of climate change.

The main problem with direct air capture, which could be “revolutionary” due to the fact that underground capacity available for storing carbon dioxide is vast, is that the cost at this time is very high. (At scale with greater usage, the price would come down dramatically). Also, there is not enough of a “commercial driving force for developing direct air capture technologies,” as noted by National Academy of Sciences report released in October 2018.

That may be changing quickly, though. As a resident of California, I was interested to learn about a new partnership between Occidental Petroleum and Carbon Engineering, one of three companies working to bring direct air capture technology to market. One of the incentives supporting the venture are the tax laws of California, the world’s fifth largest economy. The state has an ambitious 2050 net zero emissions goal; to meet it, California policymakers realized direct air capture would be necessary. In January 2019, they decided to permit any entity that captures and sequesters a ton of carbon dioxide from the air to claim a credit from California. These credits created a strong enough incentive that now Carbon Engineering and Occidental Petroleum have teamed up to “build a large-scale plant that will capture and sequester 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year,” according to a 1 July 2019 article published by Quartz.

Similarly, Global Thermostat, another direct air capture removal company, has aligned with ExxonMobil. Switzerland-based Climeworks is looking at travelers as a possible market for carbon removal, with a banner on the company’s website proclaiming, “Turn your travel emissions into stone.”

According to estimates, negative emissions need to reach 1 billion tons by the middle of this century, so while 500,000 tons sounds like a lot, it is really just a start. That’s why more initiatives are needed to support companies trying to scale up direct air capture technology.

Critics of partnerships between direct air capture and oil companies observe that, while technically Exxon and Occidental Petroleum will be putting more carbon dioxide into the ground than burning oil will put in the air, they are not accounting for the carbon dioxide generated in the process of refining the oil to fuel or distributing it. And perhaps even more significantly, they say the use of direct air capture in this way reinforces consumers’ current usage pattern when it comes to fossil fuels and what we really need to be doing is consuming less.

A direct air capture device in use in Iceland. © Casey Hanisko

The travel industry also owns a good share of the burden for carbon dioxide pollution. Travel is thought to make up 8% of global emissions. Although there is encouragement for people to travel less and rely less on fossil fuel-powered transport, reducing carbon dioxide emissions fast enough through these approaches will not be possible. Late last year, for example, the World Resources Institute noted that emissions, which appeared to be stabilizing between 2014 and 2016, were up once again: “While renewables are surging, energy use from fossil fuels is still outpacing low-carbon sources.”

In any case, even if we could significantly reduce new emissions, we still have the very serious problem of all the carbon dioxide emissions already stored in the atmosphere. We need to make progress on all fronts simultaneously: We need to stimulate consumer awareness and adapt our consumption patterns, we need to reduce new emissions, and we need to reduce the carbon already stored in the atmosphere.

It may be true that making direct air capture widely available simply gives offending industries (obviously oil and gas, but this could apply to tourism as well) a kind of carte blanche to continue polluting. However, given our timeline to decrease the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, it seems like we might just have to accept this possibility and push forward anyway. As Princeton University’s Stephen Pacala, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences report, observed in a recent article in Wired, “By itself the climate problem creates a mass extinction. By itself the climate problem creates a food crisis that could be existential for humanity. We need to solve this and solve it right now.” Pascala recommends we “hold our noses” and realize we can’t let great get in the way of good.

We know increasing international travel is a piece of this story. As promoters and developers of adventure travel, the ATTA wants to be part of the change that helps tourism clean up.

What do you think about direct air capture? As a stakeholder in the travel industry, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section below and at our Climate Action Leadership Studio on 20 September in Gothenburg, Sweden. Reserve your spot at this one-day event.

7 Comments to Can Tourism Support Carbon Removal Through Direct Air Capture?

  1. Ted Martens

    Hats off to ATTA for tackling this topic head on – climate mitigation is one of the most important conundrums our industry is facing.

    There is no doubt that direct air capture needs to be part of a holistic approach to combating climate change. Hopefully it will prove to be one of the most effective tools in this battle, but the high price point is a big challenge for many of us who want to support it. Of course, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem – without investment from early believers, the technology won’t mature to bring the price down.

    Direct air capture also suffers from some very inexpensive “competitors” – seemingly one can achieve the same emissions reductions through very low cost (yet high quality) forestry carbon offset projects. When businesses are looking to mitigate their carbon footprint, it’s pretty difficult to convince them that investing in direct air capture is the best thing to do, given that it is up to 100x more expensive.

    My take on this is that we’ll need to quit using the 1:1 carbon footprint/offset model when looking to fund direct air capture projects – the costs are simply too high. Rather, we’ll need to find investors who are looking to fund the technology for returns other than carbon neutrality.

    Lots of exciting discussion to be had on this exciting topic – thanks for convening the industry post-Summit at the Climate Action Leadership Studio to dive deeper in!

  2. Great Article Christina! Thank you for taking charge and leading this very important initiative for the Adventure Travel Community!

    Adventure Travel has the power to lead the world in the reduction of C02 Emissions. You clearly state the issue and a number of real solutions. As an industry, we need to first ensure that all of our global experiences are have a carbon neutral component. Tour operators must do our part but we need to encourage adventurers do participate as well. This could mean offsetting their flights or even going further a participating in a carbon reduction platform.

    As you know, we have vowed to clean up 1.25x of all C02 Emissions for our ClimateForce Polar Expeditions and have launched a global initiative to call on other operators to do the same.

    I look forward to seeing you in Sweden so we can continue to make progress to a more environmentally friendly planet.


  3. Thanks Christina, and the ATTA, for keeping the conversation about tactics for tackling the massive global carbon problem at the forefront of our industry’s media.

    I’m really intrigued by the question of how we can break the mindset of 1:1 responsibility for offsetting emissions. You raise the problem of carbon already hanging out in the atmosphere, and each of us bears responsibility for some portion of that burden. While there’s something gratifying about calculating the impact of our current actions and taking responsibility to offset their footprint, there is also an economic cost to the effort of those calculations. If we could instead convince concerned travelers – and others – to invest generously in their future opportunities to travel by overestimating their current AND past impact with contributions to a carbon reduction project, I imagine more efficient results.

    Is it naive to believe we might also persuade investment in carbon recapture with similar logic? Paying for the infrastructure is a basic necessity to create viable conditions for any longterm economic opportunity (not to mention a moral obligation to offset cumulative past behavior). To some extent, offsetting incremental current actions is irrelevant on the scale of those other imperatives.

  4. I think this is going to be very important, and am actively looking at how to do this for my business. Firstly it must be seen as part of a holistic strategy and sustainability policy. We (our customers) need to travel less, but when we do travel we need to ensure it makes a positive, social and environmental, impact on the places we visit (whether that’s contributions to conservation, local community and economy etc). Depending on our product or destination we can try to sell to closer markets, reducing long haul flights. I also generally run non-vehicle supported trips (pack horses, camels, yak carts etc, so once at the destination we reduce emissions). We urgently need carbon neutral fuels (biofuels) for the airline industry. But all this (and whatever other sustainability policies) will not be enough.

    Ted nails it in his comment, the 1:1 (or even 1+x:1) offsetting model isn’t working. We need to remove CO2 now, not offset it at some point in the future, there’s no time left. I think we are at the stage where the least we should be doing is immediately removing our travel generated emissions through direct capture, or very rapid impact offsets. Plus contributing to long term offsets or emission reductions, such as through ecological restoration, renewables, and energy efficiency. So 1:1 on immediate removal, and overall at least 2:1 removal+offset? But really we should be looking at removals or offsets that have a multiplier effect or multiple benefits.

    I was recently reading some articles on algal carbon removal. I am not sure it is ready to scale yet, or suitable for direct air capture (rather than say concentrated CO2 sources such as power stations). However such investments have the potential to become economically sustainable through sale of food / feed and other algal products. My point being that we need to look for offsetting or removal investments that potentially have a much greater impact than 1:1 offsetting. Using offset funds for the initial investment that then becomes economically sustainable and keeps on removing CO2.

    What can we achieve, what’s is viable (technologically and economically) at this time? I don’t know, but let’s start the conversation.

  5. Thanks Christina and everyone else at ATTA behind the complicated process of owning and taking responsibility for our work’s contributions to a problem that is disproportionately affecting many of the communities and landscapes we live and work in every day. If the world’s major economies would invest less in war and lobbying for lower mileage standards and more in negative, no and low emissions technologies (both old and new), we could put all the different methods you mention to work, have no doubt. Let’s capture it in trees, let’s suck it out of the air, let’s fly less, let’s keep it in and add it to soils, let’s reduce the amount of animal protein we eat, let’s do it all because we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.

  6. Christina Beckmann

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Ted, Jeff, Robin and Andy. It seems to me as well that offsetting should now be supported by additional measures, such as removal through direct air capture. I have thought about a collective of sorts that could help fund removal, but of course this formula is at the heart of making it work. We can agree that 1:1 isn’t enough. I wonder if it’s possible that would we come up with a new formula to frame industry investment?

    I also think there’s an opportunity to engage travel industry participants beyond the borders of the adventure travel community. And alongside of all this is education. To even have these discussions, to mobilize travelers and industry, we need a fresh approach to education on this topic. There is so much to learn and so fast! We’re looking at mechanisms to support all this, and are grateful for your comments here. I look forward to keeping the conversation going in person at our Climate Studio and over channels like these.

  7. Christina Beckmann

    Hey Andy and Stephen,
    Great to have your feedback here, your posts landed after I posted my reply to the others. I’m delighted to see your comments. Andy, to your point that we need to be looking for removal investments that have a much greater than 1:1 impact is how I feel as well. I love how you have captured this so crisply. I have been reading about other tragedies of the commons problems and how they have been solved, and recognizing that the main solutions are to privatize the common resource, or tax people who use it. So in the case of the atmosphere we’re looking at carbon taxes. This was a helpful article for me as someone totally new to carbon tax discussions:

    Reading things like that makes me feel like while we want this to progress, we don’t have time to wait for it.

    And, I liked this article for how it lays out the management of the atmosphere from local, national, global perspectives:

    Although it goes at the end into a discussion of knowledge maps, which are valuable, but also… time. I want the work of these authors to go on as well, but I don’t want to sit on my hands waiting while they sort it out.

    My overriding feeling is one of urgency and wanting to start in on something now.

    We’re adding into the discussion the idea of a global trade and consumer movement, how this combination from a strong sector such as tourism might be helpful, not only in cleaning up carbon through removal, but also in stimulating and provoking political action. The notion of transcending our 1:1 relationship with clean up – cleaning up one’s own mess and expecting others to do the same – represents such a massive shift in how society (well, most of it anyway) currently operates, though. We’d have to really all get on the same page with our talking points wouldn’t we?

    Stephen, your comment sums up our next steps: “Let’s capture it in trees, let’s suck it out of the air, let’s fly less, let’s keep it in and add it to soils, let’s reduce the amount of animal protein we eat, let’s do it all” – thanks for chiming in and sharing how you’re seeing things.

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