We Have a Problem Statement Problem

Marty Odlin
2022-09-21
minute read

We have a problem statement problem

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein.

The discipline of engineering requires carefully constructed problem statements before solutions are considered. 

Our climate is an incredibly complex system, and is the function of interactions between many complex sub-systems. Our climate is changing in significant ways that are already having profound and detrimental impacts on the foundations of civilizations. 

The common framework for defining the problem of our changing climate as:

Burning Fossil Fuels = > CO PPM increase in atmosphere = > Warmer Planet = > Bad

This atmosphere-centric problem statement is not wrong — it is just incomplete. And an incomplete problem statement leads to incomplete solutions. 

Concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased dramatically in the atmosphere, but they have also increased dramatically in the ocean. A singular focus on atmospheric carbon has huge ramifications for which climate solutions get funded, built, and deployed, as well as the policies and carbon accounting frameworks that surround them.  

At Running Tide, we look to the global carbon cycle for a more complete problem statement. 

The carbon cycle can be divided into two systems:

  1. A slow carbon cycle, which involves the deep ocean, geological reservoirs, and inorganic material like rocks, where carbon is trapped and circulated through geological and volcanic activity, over many thousands and often millions of years. 
  2. A fast carbon cycle that is dynamic and volatile, where carbon more quickly circulates (on human and other organic timescales) between the atmosphere, biosphere, and upper ocean. It can be best understood as the flow of carbon through living ecosystems from days to years.

A more complete Problem Statement: The carbon cycle is out of balance and pulling the climate out of the goldilocks zone

Burning Fossil Fuels = > Unbalanced Global Carbon Cycle = > Warmer Planet/Acidified Ocean/Ecosystem Loss => Pulling climate out of the goldilocks zone = > Bad 

By burning fossil fuels — organic material that had been compressed by geology into the slow carbon cycle over millions of years — human beings have moved more than 1.5 trillion tons of carbon from the slow carbon cycle to the fast carbon cycle. This is perhaps the most consequential mass transfer in human history. It unlocked a highly scalable, portable, and low cost energy source that powered the Industrial Revolution and helped build the world as we know it today. 

But there has been a massive global cost to unleashing that energy source. By moving 1.5 trillion tons of slow carbon mass out of long-term storage, we have unearthed a Godzilla and given it the power to warm our planet, alter weather patterns, acidify our oceans, and destroy ecosystems that are critical to supporting life.  

Killing Godzilla will require that we rebalance the carbon cycle.

The fossil fuels industry is a highly efficient, multi-trillion global carbon market that moves carbon from slow to fast. To rebalance the global carbon cycle, we must build the fossil fuels industry in reverse — a highly efficient, global carbon industry that moves carbon from fast to slow. We must decarbonize the global economy by stopping the movement of carbon from the slow to fast cycle (i.e. decrease the carbon cycle deficit). We must also reverse the flow of carbon and move 10 gigatons of carbon from the fast cycle back to slow every year (i.e. draw down the large carbon debt we’ve already accumulated). We need carbon removal. 

Carbon removal is a measurable attribute of a fully accounted supply chain defined as the intentional net movement of fast carbon to the slow carbon cycle.  

Fixing carbon in the fast carbon cycle is only part of the equation; for carbon removal, you must take the next step of transferring that carbon in the fast carbon cycle back to the slow carbon cycle. We must restore and increase the size of fast carbon sinks, but we must also build the pipes that move that fast carbon to slow. That is the work of carbon removal. 

To do this, we must look to the natural world and learn from how it already naturally moves carbon from the fast cycle to the slow. Functionally, there are two pathways that exist in nature: you can put organic carbon under tremendous pressure or you can turn organic carbon into inorganic carbon and put it under tremendous pressure. Put simply: You can bury biomass or you can turn fast carbon into rocks. 

The transfer of carbon from fast to slow is the most important mass-moving challenge of the 21st century. As the IPCC has demonstrated, we must move up to 660 gigatons of carbon from the fast cycle back to the slow cycle. At Running Tide, our bet is on the ocean. The ocean is the single largest sink of anthropogenic carbon. Moreover, the ocean’s biological carbon pump is the Earth’s most powerful carbon removal technology, naturally moving >2 billion tons of carbon from the fast to the slow cycle every year.

Running Tide’s carbon removal system utilizes natural phenomena — sunlight, photosynthesis, ocean currents, carbonate chemistry, and gravity — to restore and sustainably amplify the carbon buffering capacity of the ocean. Our multipathway system utilizes materials that already exist in the ocean, including terrestrial biomass (floatation and transport), calcium carbonate (alkalinity enhancement), and macroalgae (carbon sequestration) to put carbon back in the slow cycle in the deep ocean and marine sediments. 

Put more simply, by utilizing the best of foundational science and first-principles systems engineering, we aim to use the natural power of the ocean to rebalance the carbon cycle,  re-bury Godzilla, restore ocean health, and help solve the (complete) problem.

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To learn more about our ocean based carbon removal process and details, check out our whitepaper.

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