It’s clear to me that deploying them [direct air capture hubs] to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is pointless until society has almost completely eliminated its polluting activities.
David T. Ho, Professor of Oceanography, University of Hawaii in Nature
Direct air capture hubs. Photovoltaic and wind turbine farms. Electric vehicles (EVs). NetZero buildings. Heat pumps. EnergyStar appliances. Imitation meat. There is no shortage of technologies promising to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and rescue humanity from a climate-induced mass extinction event. And while this tech is undergoing record levels of investment, does it — or can it — fulfill its promise of reducing emissions? Or is it a green-hued way to meet consumer demand in an inherently wasteful industrial system? To answer these questions, consider the following:
- 30–40 percent of food in the U.S. is thrown away (source)
- ~60 percent of the average single family home goes unused when occupied (my estimate)
- 50 percent (conservatively) of America’s office buildings sit unoccupied (source)
- 38 percent of all personal vehicle trips in the U.S. are single occupant (source)
- The average American disposes of 81 pounds of clothes each year, most of which ends up in landfills (source)
- Household leaks waste nearly 1 trillion gallons of water annually in the U.S. (source)
- “Idle load” or “vampire” electricity (the power used for plugged in, but unused, electronics) accounts for 23 percent of power consumption in the average U.S. household and 1 percent of global GHG emissions (source)
- 65 percent of U.S. energy production is “rejected”; i.e. it’s energy that’s lost in the production of energy (source)
Don’t solve avoidable problems. Eliminate them.
The above statistics suggest that eliminating excess and waste might be a higher priority than developing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) tech like DACs or lower-emission replacements of energy, food, mobility, manufactured goods, etc. Until systemic waste is rooted out, so-called sustainable tech is likely to power, manufacture, and offset the impacts of extraneous, excessive, and wasted stuff.
Examples abound for how technological efficiencies abet excess and waste. Modern homes are more thermally efficient than older ones, but their efficiency gains are canceled out by their much bigger sizes. Today’s internal combustion engined cars are more efficient than older ones, but their efficiency gains are canceled out by their increased size and power; this trend is being mirrored in the EV market, where things like 9,000 pound Hummer EVs are presented as climate friendly transportation.
David T. Ho’s CDR Nature piece alludes to the waste problem, stating that until humans have “almost completely eliminated its polluting activities,” things like DACs will be too little, too late to redirect humanity from its crash course with annihilation. This reduction will not come about by focusing on supply (for power, mobility, food, etc.), but on demand. Meaningful emission reductions won’t occur until what’s supplied is brought in line with what’s needed and what can be supplied by the earth’s resources in an ongoing fashion.
Stating the above in more concrete terms, figuring out how to meet humanity’s nutritional needs while using as close to 100 percent of the food supply is more important than developing low-carbon, low-nutrient foods in a system that wastes 40 percent of its produced food. Figuring out how to meet basic needs like heating, cooling, refrigeration, and lighting with as close to 100 percent of net produced energy is more important than developing new, lower emission energy sources that power a system characterized by wasted and unnecessary stuff. Replanning cities to eliminate the need for cars — not to mention increasing occupancy of existing cars — is more important than ensuring all cars on the roads are electric. Eliminating vacancy and maximizing real estate potential is more important than building or converting underused and unused buildings to NetZero standards.
Sustainable excess and waste isn’t a thing.