Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

This post – originally published in July 22 – is even more timely given the radical warming of the planet in 2023.


RALEIGH – In the past week, how many articles have been written because of the Supreme Court’s controversial decision overturning Roe v. Wade? And then how many posts and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc. have been written? The number probably rises into the tens of thousands. And this does not count all of the other articles and comments that were written back in May when the court’s draft decision was leaked.

The reversal of Roe v. Wade is a huge deal. What all of these articles are illustrating is the power that a single law can have on people. One minute, something is legal. The next minute it is illegal. Or vice versa. The change of status can dramatically affect the lives of tens of millions of people in an instant.

Another great example is marijuana legalization. Colorado was the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana, starting in 2014. In an instant it became legal to buy and sell marijuana in Colorado. What this single law means is that, in 2021, the state of Colorado generated a record amount of tax revenue, to the tune of $423 million. Since 2014, Colorado has collected $2 billion in taxes on marijuana. And that’s just the tax revenue.This does not count all the money that the marijuana growers have made, or the money that all the new marijuana retail store have made. That is many billions of dollars more.

The point is: a single law can have a huge impact on society.

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The Problem with Carbon Dioxide Pollution

Now let’s think about carbon dioxide pollution and its effect on our planet. Right now humanity has a gigantic problem with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and new carbon dioxide emissions every year. The problem is simple: Humanity burns fossil fuels like gasoline, natural gas, and coal. In the process, these fuels turn into carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 2021, humanity released 36.4 new gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  In 2022, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a new record high of 421 parts per million. As this article points out, “[p]rior to the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels were consistently around 280 ppm for almost 6,000 years of human civilization. Since then, humans have generated an estimated 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 pollution, much of which will continue to warm the atmosphere for thousands of years.  All of this new carbon dioxide pollution traps heat in a process called the greenhouse effect, which has been warming the planet. Humanity is now seeing more and more of the unpleasant effects of all this warming: heatwaves, drought, crop failures, and more.

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The more carbon dioxide that humanity emits, the worse things will get, until we see the ecosystem collapsing all around us. Before the ecosystem collapses, humanity must do two things as quickly as possible if we want to save ourselves and the planet:

  1. Humanity must stop emitting new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
  2. Humanity must start extracting excess carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere

The first one has been fiendishly difficult for humanity to accomplish, because of a combination of:

  1. The economic power and profits of the fossil fuel companies
  2. The amount of entrenched infrastructure around fossil fuels
  3. Human complacency
  4. Lack of political will and leadership, and so on.

Here is the simplest possible example to illustrate the point:

  • There are approximately 270 million gasoline-powered cars in the United States.
  • Each car burns about 10 gallons of gasoline a week
  • Each gallon of gas turns into about 20 pounds of new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • Each gasoline-powered car produces about 4.6 tons of new carbon dioxide in the atmosphere per year.
  • What this means is that cars in the United States are emitting about a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year.

These numbers are not going to change anytime soon without concrete action. At the current pace, it will be decades before we can eliminate all of these gasoline-burning cars in America.

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How One Law Could Totally Change Things

Let’s imagine that we create one new law in the United States that contains this simple stipulation: “Every time anyone burns a gallon of gasoline, they also have to pay to remove 20 pounds of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.” This law is so simple and obvious. And this law is also incredibly ethical.

Each gallon of gasoline creates 20 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution. All that this law does is to force the carbon dioxide polluter to clean up their pollution, for the benefit of everyone on the planet. This law could be implemented as a tax on gasoline at the pump. Then the obvious question becomes, how much is this tax going to be?

To get an estimate of the cost, I want to start with a terrible example. I am going to put this example out here because it is super-easy to understand and appreciate, and anyone could do it.

Let’s imagine a person named Joe Smith, and he is aware that his car is polluting the planet in a big way. Joe knows that every gallon of gasoline he burns is adding 20 pounds of new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and this carbon dioxide pollution is causing a mounting climate catastrophe.  Joe wants to take a real, active step to eliminate the carbon dioxide pollution that his gasoline-burning car is creating.

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Joe’s Scheme to Personally Offset his Carbon Dioxide Pollution

Joe hatches the following scheme. Every time Joe burns a gallon of gasoline, he is going to go to the store and buy 7 pounds of charcoal briquettes. He will store the bags of charcoal in his garage. Why is he going to do this? Joe reasons as follows:

  • Charcoal, as in charcoal briquettes for a BBQ grill, is usually made from trees.
  • A tree uses sunlight to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into wood.
  • Wood therefore contains a lot of carbon.
  • The process of making charcoal concentrates that carbon even more.
  • Therefore, a charcoal briquette is about 80% carbon. Not carbon dioxide – pure carbon.
  • Therefore, one pound of charcoal is equal to about 3 pounds of carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere by trees.

So if Joe buys and stores 7 pounds of charcoal, it is equal to extracting 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

How much does Joe’s charcoal cost at the store? I went to my local Walmart store on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 and took this photo.

Image: Marshall Brain. This is Walmart’s best price on charcoal on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at a local Triangle-area store.

This is 36 pounds of charcoal briquettes (two 18-pound bags) for $17.88. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that these 36 pounds of charcoal represent 100 pounds of carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere by trees.

Joe is therefore going to spend about $3.58 cents per gallon of gasoline to extract his carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere using charcoal. The reason why Joe’s idea is a terrible one is because $3.58 per gallon is a lot of money. Also, the charcoal takes up a lot of space in his garage. If Joe’s car emits 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide in a year, he needs to buy and store about 1.5 tons (3,000 pounds) of charcoal to offset his carbon dioxide pollution. This is 166 18-pound bags of charcoal in his garage every year.

How could we make Joe’s idea better?

  • First, Joe is buying a nationwide brand of charcoal, which means it has a huge advertising budget and other costs of branding added into the price. If we look at aspirin at Walmart, branded aspirin (e.g. Bayer) costs three or four times more than generic aspirin.
  • Second, this is the retail price of the charcoal, not the wholesale price.
  • Third, this charcoal is packaged in colorful little paper bags. This is a very expensive way to buy 1.5 tons of charcoal per year. It would be better to buy the charcoal by the trainload to lower the cost even more.
  • Fourth, storing the charcoal in Joe’s garage is silly. We should be burying charcoal at a national scale in huge landfills.

In other words, when Joe buys branded, bagged, retail-priced charcoal, it is far more expensive than generic, bulk, wholesale-priced charcoal by the trainload would cost. What we would want as a nation is giant companies that make charcoal by the trainload and bury it in huge pits, like a landfill.

What we want is nationwide infrastructure to make charcoal and bury it in the massive quantities necessary to offset the nation’s gasoline consumption, and therefore the lowest possible price. Let’s assume that Joe is paying three times more than he should be paying. In other words, Joe’s wholesale charcoal would likely cost him $1.20 per gallon of gas or $120 per ton of carbon dioxide at scale.

Another thing: we might not use trees to make the charcoal. We would probably use bamboo or some other faster-growing plant. Bamboo happens to be the fastest growing plant on Earth, so it captures more carbon dioxide per acre than trees do.

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Machines are even more efficient than plants

And here is the even better news. We probably would not use trees or bamboo at all. Humanity will instead be using giant machines to do the extraction of carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere. This 5-minute video shows a great example of what one of these machines looks like.

This video points out that the technology is viable now, and today costs $200 per ton to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. With economies of scale and a little more research, the costs will come down below $150 per ton, which is very similar to the price we calculated for Joe using charcoal for storage. The big advantage of using these machines to extract carbon dioxide out of the air rather than trees is that the machines take far less land than trees do. One Direct Air Capture (DAC) factory can do the work of millions of trees.

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Now, Please Start Thinking About This Idea

We started this article with the idea of one simple new law. This law would create a new tax on gasoline that covers the real cost of extracting the gasoline’s carbon dioxide pollution back out of the atmosphere. The money from the tax can go to pay for real action, where we actually do extract the carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere and bury it. We can do the extraction using trees or bamboo and turning it into charcoal that we bury in landfills. Or we can use Direct Air Capture machines to do it, using far less land.

The cost of the tax might be $1 to $1.50 per gallon of gasoline once we scale everything up to a nationwide level. The tax would directly fund the cost of extracting the carbon dioxide pollution that the gasoline creates. This tax would immediately jumpstart the creation of companies to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Then these companies would start competing to lower the cost of extraction.

The same kind of tax can be applied to all the other carbon polluters:

  • Electricity coming from coal or natural gas power plants would have a tax applied to extract their carbon dioxide pollution.
  • Airplanes and cruise ships would have a tax applied per passenger to cover the cost of extracting their carbon dioxide pollution.
  • Retail products shipped by trucks, trains and container ships would have a tax applied to cover the cost of extracting the carbon dioxide of transportation back out of the atmosphere.
  • Concrete and steel can create a lot of carbon dioxide during manufacturing, so they would have a tax applied as well.
  • And so on.

Suddenly, through these taxes, we have all the money we need to create a carbon-neutral world very quickly. These taxes would also create the correct incentives in the economy. If someone does not want to pay the gas tax, then they can buy an electric car or use public transit. Companies might also start producing and selling carbon neutral synthetic gasoline to avoid the tax. Airlines and cruise ships would have incentives to change over to carbon neutral fuels. Power plants that burn fossil fuels would have more trouble competing against renewables. And so on.

What we are talking about here is an easy-to-implement system that can immediately jumpstart and fund the process of extracting all our carbon dioxide pollution back out of the atmosphere. What we need to do is create a few laws that mandate a tax to fund the extraction of carbon dioxide pollution. With a system like this, the probability of a climate change catastrophe would go down significantly.

Now the question becomes: can we get humanity to do the right thing here? This tax should have been levied 30 years ago or more. But humanity has failed to act over and over again. Now we are standing on the brink of a climate catastrophe. bilitytytyCan humanity rise to the occasion and start creating carbon dioxide taxes like this very quickly?

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