What if greenhouse gasses could be turned into a valuable commodity?

Photo via Señor Codo
Economists have been saying for years that the best way to reduce greenhouse gasses and prevent catastrophic climate change is to use a carbon tax to put a price on pollution. The logic is pretty self evident: If producing carbon emissions costs money, businesses will look for ways to reduce those costs and that, in turn, will promote "green" technologies and reduce emissions.

But there may be an even better way. What if those carbon emissions, specifically CO2, could be turned into a valuable commodity and even a new source of liquid fuel? We've seen how industry reacted to oil and natural gas.

It doesn't take an economics degree to know that if CO2 becomes something worth money, something that can power cars, heat homes and drive machinery, industry will not let it simply float away into the atmosphere. They will, in fact, find ways of taking it out of the air and anywhere else it may be hiding.

The idea may sound far fetched and it may be. The idea has been discussed for many years and has generally been considered a fringe idea but, in the lab anyway, it has been making progress.

In 2013, an Icelandic company managed to turn CO2 into methane with a little help from a volcano but in that case the volcano was apparently a necessary component and those are a little more difficult to come by and aren't very portable.

A 2014 report in the Guardian, however, hi-lighted several companies using CO2 to create a variety of products, and apparently none of them were using volcanoes to do it.  Early in 2015 more breakthroughs were announced in, what is being called, "artificial photosynthesis", that could push the technology along further.

Then, in April, a study on hydrothermal vents showed that life on Earth could have originated due to natural interactions occurring in hydrothermal vents. While doing this research, the scientists discovered something else as well.

According to Astrobiology Magazine: "The study could also have a practical applications, as it provides a method for creating carbon-based chemicals out of CO2, without the need for extreme heat or pressure. This could, in the long term, replace oil as the raw material for products such as plastics, fertilisers and fuels.

This study shows, albeit on a very small scale, that such products, which are currently produced from non-renewable raw materials, can be produced by more environmentally friendly means. If the process can be scaled up to commercially viable scales, it would not only save oil, but use up CO2 – a greenhouse gas – as a raw material."

If this turns out to be a viable technology we know, from experience, that CO2 will become hard to come by. If companies are willing to tear up the oil sands and drive drilling equipment beneath the frigid waters of the arctic to find oil, they will find ways to grab the CO2 which is literally floating around in the air.

Over the last few decades governments have spent billions researching alternative fuel sources. This seems like a no-brainer for some of those funds. If the greenhouse gasses themselves can be the fuel, or one of the fuels, of the 21st century then the problem, it seems, is solved.
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