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The Great Restoration

Cleaning up carbon
Tim Kruger

Tim Kruger is a leading authority on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He shares his time between the University of Oxford and a cleantech startup, Origen. 

Tim runs a programme at the Oxford Martin School which assesses the range of proposed techniques for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to determine which, if any of them, could be deployed at meaningful scale without creating countervailing side-effects.

Origen is developing a technology, based on the lime cycle, to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Once upon a time the climate was stable

For the past 8,000 years we have benefited from a period of climate calm. That stability enabled the development of agriculture, settled living and civilisation. It was foundational to the modern world.

Those foundations are now being shaken. Throughout those eight millennia temperatures might have jiggled about slightly, but they were always within a tight band deviating, at most, by about half a degree from the average. We are now busting out of that range – temperatures are up by a whole degree in the past century and there’s every expectation that they will rise much further.

Some people are unperturbed by global warming – what difference does a degree or two make? A warmer world might even sound like an opportunity to cut heating bills and enjoy more time on the beach each summer. However, we need to think of our planet’s temperature as we would our own. A degree rise on the thermometer is discomfort, two degrees is a raging fever, three is potentially fatal.

We need to calm the fever. The good news is we know how to. The bad news is we may choose not to. Curing climate change is not beyond the wit of man, but it may be beyond our will.

Reduce and remove

Decades of climate negotiations have served us equal helpings of hope and cynicism. For glass-half-fullers, the very fact that the divergent interests of the planet’s nations have been aligned in climate-calming ambition is little short of a miracle, while glass-half-emptiers can point to the stark gap between saccharine statements of intent and the dearth of action.

For all the criticism that recent climate talks were, in the words of Greta Thunberg, “blah, blah, blah”, there were two substantive outcomes. Firstly, the global commitment to ‘phase down’ coal heralds the end of the fossil energy era – and not just for coal – oil and gas too are going the way of the dinosaurs. And secondly, Net Zero is going to happen – over 90% of the global economy is now committed to that goal.

Those two outcomes talk to both halves of the walnut of what it will take to cure climate change. Reduce and remove. The first priority is to reduce – cutting emissions – but we will also need to remove colossal quantities of carbon dioxide from the air in the decades ahead.

This points to two inevitable megatrends. One relates to the transition from our existing, fossil energy-based society to one powered by renewables. The other relates to Greenhouse Gas Removal, the nascent field of proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the air and squirrelling it away permanently, deep underground.

The rise in global temperatures depends on cumulative emissions. Stopping the rise in temperatures will require not just a decrease in emissions, but a complete halt.

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Ruffer Review 2022
Download our 2022 edition of the Ruffer Review. We explore how turbulence lies ahead for investors as inflation volatility sets up to be the biggest challenge for investors in a generation. We also discuss risk and its repercussions, shifts in global politics and Great Power relations, a warming planet and shifting energy mix as well as financial disruption and regime changes.
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This article first appeared in The Ruffer Review 2022.

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The views expressed in this article are not intended as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any investment or financial instrument, including interests in any of Ruffer’s funds. The information contained in the article is fact based and does not constitute investment research, investment advice or a personal recommendation, and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. References to specific securities are included for the purposes of illustration only and should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell these securities. This document does not take account of any potential investor’s investment objectives, particular needs or financial situation. This document reflects Ruffer’s opinions at the date of publication only, the opinions are subject to change without notice and Ruffer shall bear no responsibility for the opinions offered. Read the full disclaimer.

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London
80 Victoria Street
London SW1E 5JL
Edinburgh
31 Charlotte Square
Edinburgh EH2 4ET
Paris
103 boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris, France