In April, the Doerr School of Sustainability announced that it will begin to prioritize research and industry partnerships focusing on greenhouse gas removal — the first of what are planned to be multiple Flagship Destinations. Greenhouse gas emissions are the predominant cause of human-made climate change, but some within the school worry the new focus will detract from demand-side emissions reductions such as the transition to renewable energy.
The Flagship Destination is focused on directly removing emissions of greenhouse gas dissipated in the atmosphere, not point-source removal.
“We are in such a deep hole at this point that we need to be activating a wide range of responses, the primary dominant focus needs to be on emissions decreases, but we also need to be exploring, and I think in the case of CO2 removal, be pursuing additional options,” said Chris Field, professor of Earth systems science and director of the Woods Institute for the Environment.
This focus is directed primarily through the Sustainability Accelerator, while decisions about hiring are “an ongoing topic of conversation in the school,” according to University spokesperson Mara Vandlik. The Accelerator supports faculty-led research with grants from $20,000 to $1,000,000 and industry partnerships to scale sustainable technologies.
Only two of the thirty research teams funded by the Sustainability Accelerator for the 2022-2023 academic year are focused on emissions removal. One of them, led by professor of Earth system science Kate Maher, examines how sorbents can absorb carbon dioxide released underground by cellular respiration as it diffuses from soil into the atmosphere.
“I would say it’s about planting the seed and helping us think through the next steps [for scaling the project],” Maher said of the Accelerator. “[The Accelerator is] definitely focused on what most people would think of as that next stage, towards a startup or bringing it into more of a business model.”
When asked to what extent the Sustainability Accelerator would prioritize greenhouse gas removal in the next funding cycles, Yi Cui, the faculty director of the Sustainability Accelerator, said that he is “still formulating the ideas for action.”
The school has faced criticism from members of the Stanford community who are concerned that the decision behind the school’s first focus area may be influenced by the interests of the oil and gas industry.
According to the official announcement of the new Flagship Destination, the designation “builds on two recent workshops” with relevant stakeholders. The Chronicle of Higher Education identified the two meetings as Stanford Global Carbon Management Workshop #1 and Workshop #2, hosted before the school’s launch by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, respectively. The Workshop Organizing Committee for Workshop #1 included executives from Shell and Total Energies. Both executives also served in the Technical Advisory Committee for Workshop #2, along with a scientific advisor at ExxonMobil.
The Daily has reached out to Shell, TotalEnergies and ExxonMobil for comment.
The workshop agendas did not include any speakers from the departments of oceans, civil and environmental engineering, Earth & planetary sciences or geophysics. While they did include representatives from nonprofits, some within the Stanford community were disappointed that external partners seemed to play a larger role in the decision than people within Stanford.
“If you go through the list, at least what Stanford made accessible, of who was sitting in those workshops, there were faculty and there were fossil fuel companies and Bank of America representatives. I just think that the decision wasn’t representative of the Doerr School community,” Amanda Campos ’26 said. Campos is part of The Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, an activist group in the Stanford community calling for the Doerr School to reject research funding from members of the fossil fuel industry.
Organizers of the workshop say that the workshops did not play a large role in the designation of the Flagship Destination, but instead served to explore potential research in greenhouse gas removal.
“Those certainly didn’t have any direct connection to this Flagship Destination. We had no idea that there was going to even be a school [of sustainability] at the time that those workshops were being planned,” said Field, who was on the Workshop Organizing Committee for both workshops and was director of the Woods Institute while it hosted the first workshop.
Cui, who was director of the Precourt Institute while it hosted the second workshop, concurred with FIeld in an interview with The Daily last week. “People like to make the connection saying, you know, that the workshop led to the Accelerator’s decision. No, no. There’s very little connection right there,” he said.
Vandlik wrote that the school “chose this destination because of the widespread scientific consensus (both the IPCC and the National Academies have produced reports) calling for greenhouse gas removal, in addition to reducing emissions, if we are going to stay below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, as stated in the Paris Agreement.”
Critics within the Doerr School are concerned that emphasizing emissions removal technologies, especially engineered solutions, could divert attention and resources away from emissions reduction programs, such as transitioning to renewable energy.
“Why would the first flagship be the second thing we should be doing?” said Jef Caers, a professor of Earth and planetary science who recently transitioned away from petroleum engineering and decades of work with the oil and gas industry.
“These are very highly speculative, highly expensive things, and they are not accepted throughout the community,” said Caers of carbon direct air capture (DAC).
Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the atmosphere/energy program, has been a vocal critic of the technology. “Capturing CO2 requires both equipment and energy, whereas it only reduces CO2. Now, if you use that same money to buy wind and solar to replace the fossil fuel source, you’re going to eliminate not only more CO2, [but will also] eliminate air pollution, mining and infrastructure,” Jacobson said.
Other greenhouse gasses are also included in the new Flagship Destination. Methane, for example, is a greenhouse gas 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide. The largest emissions come from agriculture (39%), but this is closely followed by the growing energy sector (37%), according to a report by IEA.
“Yes, methane emissions from cows are huge, but I see the largest rise in methane emissions today is from oil and gas wells and coal. So again, we could say, well, isn’t the easiest way to deal with this emissions reduction in the first place,” Caers said.
Researchers in emissions removal who spoke to The Daily agreed that emissions reductions needs to take priority, but see the issue as less of a dichotomy.
Field said that “as we build out more wind and photovoltaics, then during periods when we cannot use all of the electricity for ordinary stuff, we might use it for methane removal.”
“[DAC] are very highly speculative, highly expensive things, and they are not accepted throughout the community,” Caers said. Suggesting goals like rainforest restoration and renewable energy transitions in developing countries as easier ways to unite diverse expertise in the Doerr School, Caers said he thinks the focus on emissions removal as “not a uniting choice, it’s a divisive choice.”
Emissions removal technologies are often divided into two categories: engineered solutions and nature-based solutions.
DAC is one of such engineered solutions. DAC mechanically separates carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in a way to prevent carbon from returning to the atmosphere. Some companies compress the carbon dioxide and store it underground for long durations of time, but face challenges of induced seismicity, leakage and cost.
Current cost estimates of these DAC methods are at $600 per metric ton of carbon dioxide removed, exceeding the $85 tax credit that the federal government currently provides for sequestering carbon dioxide. Some processes also convert the carbon dioxide to fuels and consumer products.
Nature-based solutions instead take advantage of natural processes of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere within the world’s oceans and biosphere.
“The most powerful set, and most developed set, of technologies we have for [removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere] is growing plants,” said Field.
According to the UN, about 25% of emissions are absorbed by the ocean, and ecosystems on land are estimated to absorb another 25-35%.
“A lot of the agenda for greenhouse gas removal is asking whether we can further tweak that so we can end up with an even larger net flux of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into these ecosystems,” Field said.
While they are considered to be less expensive than current engineered solutions, nature based solutions are constrained by the availability of land area and the permanence of the carbon captured — a tree can be cut down and sorbents can be ingested by microorganisms.
“Monitoring [the effectiveness of GHG sequestration] right now is one of the more uncertain areas for a lot of these technologies, in terms of how to verify the carbon and what timescales do we verify over,” said Maher, highlighting a shared challenge for both types of solutions. Maher, whose research currently includes methods for carbon dioxide removal and sequestration, expressed agreement with the Doerr School’s first focus area.
More Flagship Destinations are to be formed within the next few years, possibly in a more inclusive manner. The school is already fielding proposals for the next one and will begin reviewing responses after May 31.
“Each future Flagship Destination will meet the following criteria: be measurable; have the possibility for global impact at scale; create outcomes in a timeframe that reflects the urgency of the sustainability challenge; examine equity issues; require an approach that integrates different viewpoints, partnerships, and strategies; and leverage the strengths of a global network of collaborators across many sectors,” Vandlik wrote. “For example adaptation to climate change, or protecting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.”