The Circular Carbon Economy as a Global Undertaking

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The earth’s survival must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero on or before 2050 and maintain them at that level.  Leaders around the world agree. According to scientists, global warming will continue, and its devastating effects will worsen if this is not achieved.

The paper, Beyond Energy: Incentivizing Decarbonization through the Circular Economy, published by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in April 2021, delves further into this issue. The authors acknowledge that in the past 20 years, governments have adopted decarbonization policies, mainly by scaling up renewable energy in electricity production through solar and wind power and implementing measures to improve efficiency in energy usage. These efforts contributed about 60 percent to the total reduction in emissions so far and have caused a 10 percent decrease in the average carbon intensity of electricity generation worldwide.

These efforts are not enough to achieve the net-zero goal, though. To achieve that, emissions from economic activity must be further reduced to as close to zero as possible. Any remaining emissions must be offset by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Hindrances to a Shift to Renewable Electrical Power Sources

Many implications need consideration. The largest single source of CO2 emissions is electricity production. While there were gains achieved by replacing fossil fuels with renewables, evidence shows that some essential sectors in the industry continue to need electricity from fossil fuel sources.

This includes cement, steel, ethylene, and ammonia. They require high-temperature heat that only fossil fuels can provide and also produce emissions through feedstocks. These cannot be reduced without process changes and expensive rebuilds or retrofits that are not economically feasible because they will make the prices of the resulting products uncompetitive.

Also, because trade and supply chains are global, with different locations of extraction, production, and consumption, mere reduction of emissions from energy production cannot offset the expansion in economic output that will also produce emissions. The authors, therefore, look to other solutions to meet net-zero carbon targets beyond the current focus on decarbonization on energy production.

The Circular Carbon Economy

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Carbon Clean describes the circular carbon economy (CCE) as the cycle of capturing and reusing greenhouse gas emissions that remain after reduction. The captured carbon can create clean fuel, plastics, and other useful materials. The authors of Beyond Energy agree on adopting the CCE to enhance decarbonization through non-energy means and based instead on life cycle emissions reduction. The International Energy Forum (IEA) considers it a more realistic carbon management system toward a carbon-neutral environment.

The King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center’s CCE Guide Overview highlights that the CCE further enhances the previously promoted circular economy that called for reducing, reusing, and recycling. The CCE adds removing to complete the cleansing of the environment.

According to expert William McDonough, there are differences in the types of carbon, and not all carbon is bad for the earth. Healthy ecosystems have a foundation of living carbon, and this is naturally recycled. The dangerous type of carbon is fugitive carbon emitted to the environment. A third type is durable carbon, which is stable in solid products or stored geologically. Captured fugitive carbon becomes durable carbon through sustainable processes and is then either safely useful or harmless. This is the carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technology.

One example is the Vivakor oil separation technology that removes hydrocarbons from soil contaminated by oil spills. The proprietary system does not use water and does not emit dangerous particulates into the atmosphere. The company reuses the harvested hydrocarbon as asphalt concrete for road construction.

Measures to Facilitate CCE Implementation

The authors of Beyond Energy note that there are still barriers to the global implementation of CCE. These include the lack of adequate government regulations, the behavior and expectations of consumers, and not enough business models.

Current government regulations worldwide focus more on cost savings to the detriment of CCE implementation, even if unintended. For instance, high material wastage sometimes occurs as a result of cutting down on labor costs. Also, some incentives unintentionally lead to unwanted results. For instance, imposing high taxes on waste disposal does not minimize waste but instead increases illegal landfills. A deeper and wider scope of analysis is necessary for policymaking.

Consumers need education on the benefits of CCE to ensure acceptance and ownership of its principles. For instance, consumers must repair products they own rather than replace them. If the product is no longer repairable, they must replace it with a second-hand rather than a brand-new item. This will reduce the production of new items and reduce overall emissions.

While there are not enough business models yet that support CCE, there are already several success stories like ridesharing services and Airbnb. Businesses that are pay-per-use maximize the usage of products across many users. Other services that must offer product repair, reuse, refurbishment, re-trade, reconditioning, and rebuilding.

If governments, businesses, and consumers all work together, CCE can be a feasible model around the globe.

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