Applying Ecosystem Thinking in Carbon Tech

We need to rapidly scale up the technologies on carbon capture, utilization, and storage to help stop global warming and prevent catastrophes (and also unlock huge opportunities).

One way to make that happen is by creating a healthy and productive ecosystem of carbon-related businesses and organizations. This is similar to natural ecosystems with rich interaction, diversity, and flow.

How ecosystems start and work
Healthy natural ecosystems often start with a favorable environment (e.g. availability of nutrients, quality soil and water, rainfall, relatively stable and mild weather conditions). That favorable physical environment and the current physical processes set the stage and introduce what’s possible in that site.

Then, different organisms and species arrive at that place. Some of them will survive and thrive. These pioneer species, often plants and other photosynthetic organisms, will further set the stage. They’re the initial food source which will then attract other organisms (which in turn attract other species). Soon the place will be rich in diversity and there will be countless interactions among the organisms and there will be regular flows of material, nutrients, and energy.

It’s not a smooth process though because sometimes there’s a major disturbance (e.g. pests, fires, natural calamities). Many of the species might die, though not all because of the good diversity. Some or many of them might get displaced temporarily or permanently in search of a new safe habitat or adequate food source. Thankfully, given enough time the ecosystem can still recover and perhaps house again the displaced species. It’s also possible that the place will attract a new set of organisms better adapted to the new conditions of the site. Organisms can thrive again and the ecosystem will become highly productive and healthy again.

Ecosystem thinking in carbon tech
Similarly, we can apply that ecosystem thinking in scaling up carbon technologies and maximizing their impact. First, we set up a favorable environment that will attract the pioneer species. For example, this environment should encourage innovation and forward thinking. The initial capital and supportive policies should also be there so that innovators can better focus on their work. Both the innovators and investors (the pioneer species) can then further set the stage to attract the next set of investors and innovators as well.

After some time and with sustained efforts and support, that ecosystem will start to thrive because of the increasing diversity and interaction. Different approaches to carbon removal and utilization will emerge (e.g. biological and chemical approaches). This in turn also increases the flow of resources as well as information among the different participants (innovators, investors, entrepreneurs, catalysts, corporations, think tanks, and other organizations).
Similar to natural ecosystems, the ecosystem of carbon tech businesses and organizations will also experience major setbacks and disturbances. Whether it’s because of a policy, a shift in priority, new findings, lack of sustained financing, or a technological barrier, the disturbance might affect many of the participants. Some might give up, pursue other opportunities, and leave the network or ecosystem. This displacement might be temporary or permanent. Some of them might come back or another new set of participants will come in.

Because of the favorable initial environment (e.g. adequate financing, innovative culture), sustained efforts and support, rich interactions and diversity as well as continuous flow of resources and information, the carbon tech ecosystem will stay resilient. This is a lot similar to a tropical rainforest where there’s rich diversity and continuous flow and movement of resources and organisms. Sure, there are disturbances and setbacks both on a micro and macro level. But the entire ecosystem will continue to survive and thrive especially if we continuously support and encourage interaction and flow within it.

Thankfully, there are now organizations that support and encourage that interaction and flow. The Global CCS Institute, CO2 Value Europe, Circular Carbon Network and many others help the carbon tech ecosystem thrive. Through the rich flow of information and sharing of expertise, they help accelerate innovation and deployment. With the supportive regulations and market incentives, more players will come in (increasing diversity) and the sustained financing and technical support would continue to be there. All these will make it a bit easier to overcome technical and financial challenges as well as unlock more opportunities in turning carbon dioxide into valuable products.

Ecosystem thinking is also at work there where we use what’s available and turn it into something useful. In natural ecosystems there’s this continuous nutrient cycling and the “waste” of an organism is actually a resource of another. In carbon tech, we use the “waste” (carbon dioxide) and turn it into fuels, chemicals, and materials.

This circular approach and ecosystem thinking help accelerate the deployment of carbon technologies. Mimicking how natural ecosystems work can help make our own efforts smart and sustainable while also unlocking huge opportunities and vast possibilities. Thinking at a complex ecosystem level is one way to better overcome the complex challenges humanity and our environment face as well as rapidly scale up our carbon removal and utilization technologies.