Big Ideas: “Convert CO2 from the air into concrete” with Peter Fiekowsky

…The first is an innovative initiative that converts C02 into limestone — which is used to make concrete. That concrete, in turn, can be used in buildings and roads, but because it comes from C02 it’s also a brilliant way to permanently sequester C02 from the atmosphere. Blue Planet Ltd is our partner on this project. Blue […]

…The first is an innovative initiative that converts C02 into limestone — which is used to make concrete. That concrete, in turn, can be used in buildings and roads, but because it comes from C02 it’s also a brilliant way to permanently sequester C02 from the atmosphere. Blue Planet Ltd is our partner on this project. Blue Planet’s technology turns CO2 into limestone aggregate for concrete to be used in buildings and infrastructure. This solution is commercially viable and is an incredible game changer for climate change. The global demand for concrete is 50 billion tons/year and growing YOY so this solution alone can restore the climate by 2050.

Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Fiekowsky. Peter is a physicist and entrepreneur who is committed to leaving behind a world he is proud of. Peter founded the Foundation for Climate Restoration and the Healthy Climate Alliance (HCA), a nonprofit organization that connects and supports the public, government, and scientists as they aim to shift the global climate paradigm and discover solutions to reverse global warming and restore the climate. Peter’s passion for this goal drives his leadership in multiple climate initiatives, including the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. He is the founder and president of Automated Visual Inspection (AVI) LLC, a board member of Repower Capital Inc., and an MIT-trained physicist with 27 patents. Peter is committed to reducing atmospheric CO2 levels to 300 parts-per-million and restoring polar ice by 2050 in order to restore the climate for our children.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I worked with poverty initiatives for years, but I soon came to realize that poverty efforts would come to nothing if we didn’t do something about the climate. Climate change is the single biggest challenge facing humanity today.

After I started volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby it became clear that they hadn’t thought out the long game. To make change happen — any change — you need to be very clear about your end goal. That hadn’t happened and the group asked me to take that on, to clarify where we wanted to be heading.

What I realized was that the outcome we really want is a safe and healthy climate. Repairing the damage done is quite different to reducing or mitigating the worst of human impact on climate and the environment. Climate restoration is bringing CO2 down below 300ppm — the levels that humans evolved for.

I realized that nobody had been asking the experts how they would restore the climate. Instead, they were asking, “Is it even possible?” That question is self-defeating because it assumes that something that isn’t yet possible is off the table. It’s a totally different proposition when you ask a scientist, “How would you restore the climate?” That’s an invitation to think through a problem creatively.

After this realization, I knew I had to bring climate scientists and economists together along with policy makers, business leaders and tech experts to work together and tackle the issues from all angles to find innovative solutions to restore the climate.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

At the Paris Climate Summit our organization gave a well attended workshop on climate restoration. A few months later I listened to a nobel laureate physicist and former high level US energy department official discuss the future of climate work. After his talk I asked him what I thought was an obvious question, “Since we want to give our children a safe and healthy climate, wouldn’t it be wise to make that an explicit goal?” The speaker paused a second and then said, “No. It’s too expensive.”

I was dumbfounded — to think that a progressive official would authentically say that we can’t afford to take care our our children — at the same time many of us in Silicon Valley are driving around in eighty thousand dollar Teslas.

A couple months later I ran into a very famous economist, who had helped frame the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which start with the explicit goal to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. I asked him the same question if we should make climate restoration an explicit goal, and he gave me almost the same answer, except he said, “No, it’s impossible.”

The light went on for me: each of these top global leaders felt he was blocked by the other. The physicist said that economics wouldn’t allow climate restoration, and the economist said that physics wouldn’t allow it.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

If we consider CO2 emissions a fatal knife wound to the climate, our collective approach to treatment has been to cut slower or to pull the knife out. Human beings evolved in a climate with CO2 levels that varied from 200 to 300 parts per million (ppm), and with current levels well over 400 PPM, it is time for stitches and a blood transfusion.

And that’s where The Foundation for Climate Restoration (F4CR), a cross-section of stakeholders unified by the common vision to restore the climate, comes in. We are all about a solutions-oriented approach to restoring our climate — bringing CO2 down to 300 ppm by 2050.

While the foundation strongly supports emission-reduction initiatives such as the Paris Accord, we see reducing atmospheric CO2 as a collective imperative. That heart transplant that will allow our planet to live on. To that end, the F4CR is currently working with three solutions:

Carbon sequestration for a commercial market

The first is an innovative initiative that converts C02 into limestone — which is used to make concrete. That concrete, in turn, can be used in buildings and roads, but because it comes from C02 it’s also a brilliant way to permanently sequester C02 from the atmosphere.

Blue Planet Ltd is our partner on this project. Blue Planet’s technology turns CO2 into limestone aggregate for concrete to be used in buildings and infrastructure. This solution is commercially viable and is an incredible game changer for climate change. The global demand for concrete is 50 billion tons/year and growing YOY so this solution alone can restore the climate by 2050.

Restoring Arctic Ice

Arctic ice is melting at an unprecedented rate. We are working with Ice911 Research, a non profit that has spent 10 years creating, testing and refining floating glass spheres that act as a reflective layer on the Arctic ice. These spheres get spread across the ice in the fall and acts as as fresh snow — a highly reflective surface — for the 24-hour daylight in the summertime. This allows the ice to remain through the summer, which will allow the ice to thicken and become more durable over time.

Fishery Restoration

Another key part of our strategy is our fishery restoration solution which combines poverty reduction and community empowerment with carbon sequestration. There are massive stretches of ocean that are nutrient-limited due to climate change. If we supplement nutrients, then we promote photosynthesis and build up fisheries. That, in turn, allows for carbon sequestration in the deep ocean.

In the ocean, nutrients usually come from dust settling over the surface of the water, or from ocean currents circulating the nutrient-rich deep water up towards the surface. Both of these phenomena have been interrupted by climate change. We can provide the nutrients that nature normally circulates on its own and by supplementing those nutrients, we can bring back the phytoplankton. They may be tiny, but they are the organisms which do the photosynthesis and provide nutrition for the fish. Those fish have traditionally fed coastal communities. We’re working on a pilot project in Madagascar this summer.

There is no disputing the difficulty of the F4CR’s objectives, but with the UN forecasting terrifyingly grim climate scenarios, inaction is increasingly unconscionable. These solutions hold actionable potential to reduce atmospheric CO2 and mitigate the damage to our climate.

How do you think this will change the world?

From massive floods to wildfires, remediation is not enough — we need to focus on restoration. By removing C02 and restoring Arctic ice, global warming will slow, halt, and then reverse. Extreme weather events like powerful storms, extreme heat, and widespread wildfires will be reduced. Restoring the climate requires that we focus on the scale of intervention needed to get the climate back to safe and healthy conditions, which is a significant pivot from our previous efforts.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

The scale at which we’ll need to implement these solutions is unprecedented. Any minor unintended consequence has the potential to become significant, so it’s critical to keep safety and monitoring at the fore when testing and scaling up. These issues are at the front of our minds as we explore solutions and plan for scale-up.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

As I mentioned, my epiphany came when I heard the disconnect between what climate scientists and economists believed. Because they weren’t working together, both sides said restoration wasn’t possible. They were blaming each other for why that was the case. There I was in the middle, an MIT-trained physicist looking at the challenge ahead and realizing that they just needed to coordinate and change their frame of mind.

I remember when we first sent a man to the moon and brought him back safely. We would never have gotten there if we’d asked in 1958, “Is it possible to put a man on the moon?” At the time, of course it wasn’t possible. There were a thousand reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But that’s not how we framed the question. We asked, “How can we put a man on the moon?”

Suddenly, the options change when we reframe the question. It’s not about “is it possible?” It’s about, “How can we achieve this goal?”

Our goal is fixing the climate, reversing the damage we’ve already done. These are not stop-gap measures meant to slow down some inevitable catastrophe. Our approach is to focus on solutions. We look at climate repair the way an earlier generation looked at the moon. An intriguing problem to solve. Sure — it’s challenging. But just like those astronauts — we’ll get there.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need the UN to declare that climate restoration is a key climate goal. It turns out that almost all climate funding is based on the UN goals, especially the Paris agreement. Foundations and agencies won’t risk their reputations funding climate projects outside what the UN reports promote. Even investors are generally reluctant to step outside the status quo.

The UN goals still call for getting emissions down to zero, so most people think that the climate is an energy problem. The climate problem is directly related to CO2 in the air, and solving the climate problem requires getting the CO2 out.

UN leaders love climate restoration in private, but they can only promote restoration in public when there is scientific backing for it. However the scientists can’t get funding to do research and write papers on restoration because it isn’t yet sanctioned by the UN.

It turns out that money talks: Getting philanthropic and commercial funding for climate restoration projects is beginning to turn the tide. As news articles about commercial solutions to get all the excess carbon out get published, UN leadership is increasingly discussing climate restoration. We need philanthropic and commercial funding for the projects that can grow to “restoration scale”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. There are no enemies on this path. Everyone wants a safe and healthy climate; most people just haven’t thought that was an option. It will take some time for people to understand that we really can restore a safe and healthy climate. We’ve yet to find anyone who isn’t interested in that future, once they realize it’s possible.
  2. The solutions will show up. Having a clear goal means that creative, intelligent people can develop solutions. We found that people had actually already developed solutions without realizing they could be scaled up to restore the climate.
  3. Objections come from people who are comparing potential consequences with our current status quo; they’re not comparing those consequences with the projected reality in 30 years.
  4. Let the naysayers do their thing. Some may have very compelling arguments about why what you’re doing is wrong or impossible or a waste of time — but that doesn’t make them right. That negativity — other people’s doubts — don’t have to affect your work or your mission. Sure, think critically about what they have to say, but remember that you do not have to take their advice.
  5. The way you ask a question makes all the difference. “Is it possible?” makes people think about what is currently possible with the knowledge and technology they have right now. “How would you do it?” gets people thinking creatively about how to achieve a goal, and they come up with much more interesting ideas. This is how we discovered that there are solutions that are scalable, financeable, safe, and ready to be deployed.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Keep in mind who your “customer” is. Who do you want to please? When you get excited about the people you want to benefit from your work, you will find exciting and satisfying work.

I decided that my favorite customer is the next generation, and I want to give them a world that will be a delight to live in. I have musician friends who live for the happiness their music produces, and engineer friends who are motivated by seeing advertisements for products they designed. Find a customer you want to make happy, and then inspire them with your work.

When you get tired of that line of work, find a new set of customers. You’ll bring your old experience to your new customers, and they’ll probably love your innovation. I started out working in astrophysics — to stimulate curious people — then advanced computer chips to make life better for my friends, and now climate restoration — to protect our children.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I would invest in solutions that can permanently sequester CO2 into existing markets — like construction — and products that can scale up to restore the climate by 2050. Based on those criteria I would invest in Blue Planet, and our nascent Fishery Restoration project.

Those projects are “can’t lose” projects. Those two commercial projects can remove all the excess CO2 from our atmosphere, and do it as profitable companies licensing their technologies. Without those companies, it’s likely that much of our environment and civilization will collapse as storms, fires, floods and droughts increase due to climate change. So the F4CR and others will make sure that all the hurdles are overcome to ensure their rapid success, and humanity’s long-term success.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

At work, identify yourself with your clientele. Focus on the future they want-that now becomes the future you want. There will always be naysayers, but the fact that some people think your goal is unachievable doesn’t mean it’s not worth working toward. In fact it’s a good sign that you have a unique gift to give. There’s much more power and action in a specific goal of something you want to achieve than a vague goal of something you want to avoid. The default for many people is trying to avoid bad things, and that’s a paralyzing way to work — not to mention it’s not much fun.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  • Make simple explicit goals. Ours is getting CO2 levels under 300 ppm by the year 2050.
  • Convert conceptual goals to measurable goals. We came up with our explicit goal in order to better define our conceptual goal of “restoring a safe and healthy climate”.
  • Do it over and over.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

There are huge economic opportunities in tweaking existing markets (e.g., construction) to be carbon negative. If you see an opportunity to invest in a carbon-negative product that already has a huge market, jump on it! Of course, we recommend investing in Blue Planet, and we’re hoping that many other commercially viable, scalable, permanent sequestration solutions will be developed soon.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/healthyclimatealliance/

Or on Twitter @HealthyClimateA

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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