D.C. workshop explores dimensions of new carbon economy

Creating a new carbon economy, in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere and used to produce new green products, would require widespread adoption of alternative technologies and techniques – and modifying social behavior.

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future hosted a workshop Feb. 13 in Washington, D.C., to outline a research agenda that integrates Cornell’s strengths in the social sciences, humanities, business, planning, architecture and arts to support a carbon-sequestering economy and better grasp its human dimensions.

“We’re trying to get a whole set of fields up to the point where they’re thinking about carbon dioxide removal, and engaging with natural scientists and engineers,” said Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor in Cornell Engineering and the Atkinson Center faculty director, who helped organize the event. “This is just the first step. I think the ball is starting to roll now.”

The workshop drew 50 participants from academia, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and government. It built off a previous workshop on Cornell’s Ithaca campus in May 2018 that brainstormed ways to marshal the university’s research capacity and work with partner organizations to develop interdisciplinary solutions for carbon sequestration. This latest workshop expanded that scope to the nation’s capital, with an emphasis on exploring the human and societal dimensions of carbon dioxide removal and engaging policymakers.

The group was joined by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. Earlier that morning, Mahowald testified about the state of climate science and why it matters before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, of which Tonko is also a member.

“I am hopeful that your work today and your research roadmap can help guide policymakers, because we really do need to advance the conversation,” Tonko said at the workshop. “We need to make it clear that carbon removal is not a substitute for cutting pollution; it is a complement, and it should be considered part of our climate plan, just like efficiency, clean energy and electrification.”

Due to current political constraints, Tonko said it was important to develop meaningful, comprehensive climate legislation while also passing smaller bills that support clean energy or emissions reduction that can be enacted immediately with bipartisan support.

“I want to help make the United States the global leader in environmental protection through clean energy innovation and smart policy design,” said Tonko, who favors adopting an emissions trade system to reduce greenhouse gasses, in addition to negative emissions policies and investment in research and development.

Tonko voiced his support for the potential of carbon removal technology, but stressed the need for additional research advancements in direct air capture and carbon utilization in order to move forward.

“We’re excited to have Congressman Tonko join us today because he has prioritized advancing energy and environmental policies throughout his career,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Atkinson Center. “He continues to urge his colleagues in Congress to adopt national energy policies that address climate change, promote energy efficiency and work to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Congressman Tonko has also worked to introduce bills that support science and ensure government-directed research is not influenced by political pressure or special interests.”

By linking socio-economic research with natural sciences and engineering developments, the workshop participants were able to start thinking of cross-disciplinary projects that could be used to collaborate with national and global institutions, emphasizing: systems and environmental justice; consumer behavior; policy and government social science; finance; and communications.

“One of the motivations for this workshop was to help people think about what they could do in the way of fundable interdisciplinary research,” said Kieran Donaghy, professor of city and regional planning and an Atkinson fellow. “There are all kinds of new technologies that have the potential to enable carbon dioxide removal at scale, but we have to think about how to implement them in real-world activities. 

“How do we do it from the ground up?” Donaghy said. “How do we get more inclusive about it – bringing firms, NGOs, and government agencies along? How do we build in thinking about the reuse of materials at the end of their service lives as we’re incorporating new technologies that aren’t yet mature, and anticipating other technologies coming online in years to come?”

The event was co-hosted by Carbon180 and the New Carbon Economy Consortium.

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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