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Water and climate change: a global silver lining?

About the blog

Graciela Chichilnisky
CEO, GT Climate Innovation, Inc. and Co-Founder, Global Thermostat.

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  • Water and climate change: global silver lining?

Today’s water crisis shines a stark spotlight on two billion people in the world without access to drinkable water. We all know that this is one of the most critical issues gripping the world today. At the same time, climate change has become the existential risk of our times, one that defies conventional analysis, and will define the geological scope of human civilization and even the future of oxygen-driven forms of life on planet Earth.

The current water crisis is almost expected, as bad news in the area of natural resources has become the norm rather than the exception. As in the past, it is the poorer people of the world who will bear the cruelest consequences.

There is however an unexpected twist now. This unacceptable and inhuman situation has a global silver lining that was never anticipated. What has not been said, and is part of a patent-pending technology, is that it is now possible to resolve this water crisis and - almost by mistake - the very process of desalinating water and water reuse can remove CO2 as needed for reversing climate change. It is even possible now to remove the CO2 directly from the air (Direct Air Capture (DAC)) to desalinate water - using a technology we patented a few years ago and I executed as co-founder and former CEO of Global Thermostat with Peter Eisenberger. Why does this matter? This is fundamental because it means that desalinating water can help resolve the global scourge of climate change while at the same time providing desperately needed drinking water for underserved people - and it can do so the way the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change require in their reports to resolve climate change.

This new carbon removal market is indeed a novel and different version of the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol that I introduced

There is conclusive evidence in established science. The desalination of water by itself currently captures and can remove from the atmosphere over 2.3 gigatons of CO2 per year, and this number is poised to increase radically, and by orders of magnitude, as the water crisis proceeds inexorably. Indeed, as the water crisis worsens, more and more CO2 is needed for desalination and therefore more CO2 is required and removed for this purpose. This desalination is similar to processes that water companies in the world utilize today which can be modified to remove CO2 from air and additionally provide it for desalination. At GT we developed a technology that removes CO2 directly from the atmosphere making it accessible for desalination. In a recent article in Smart Water Magazine Bimonthly, Alejandro Sturniolo of H2O Innovation and Vice-President of the International Desalination Association (IDA) offered support for the process as well as inspiration.

The market is on our side. Is it possible to tie all this up expeditiously by the creation of a singular, new, global "carbon removal market." This market is now patent-pending, so it is used for the most efficient, and at the same time, the most vital human purpose: to resolve the water crisis and climate change together. This new carbon removal market is indeed a novel and different version of the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol that I introduced. This is now made more radically useful by requiring that 195 nations remove the legacy CO2 that causes the dramatic situation of climate change today.

How much time do we have left? It all works: it is (barely) possible to do all this within the 10-20-year period that the world's scientists have given us to resolve the climate change challenge. The answer is, that it can be done just in the nick of time, before climate change becomes terminal and can no longer be reversed.

Why did we not do this already? There is a key innovation required which is an international agreement by the 195 nations of the COP of the UN, primarily the most developed nations, and now joined by some emerging nations, which are today the largest emitters of CO2 in the world such as China and the U.S.; the developing nations were exempt when the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol became international law in 2005, because they were emitting too little then.

What is this, you may say? Developing nations have to participate in this solution when we know they were always unwilling to do so thereby making the solution impossible? Not quite. That is where the rubber meets the road. That is where the invention of the new carbon removal market shows its power and usefulness. That is how global financial systems, working with the UN (a combination that has never quite achieved so far) can be key: the unique combination of commercial gain and global UN policy most recently created by the author can resolve the dire situation by offering a silver lining to wrap it all up.

The process of desalinating water must adapt to use CO2 from different sources that are deliberately created for this purpose

More can be said on this matter: and will be said. In a nutshell, I believe the developing nations can be offered the solutions they need as part of a larger global solution by using the magic of global financial markets which now have an estimated US$4 trillion worth of "dry powder" in ESG opportunities; including new asset-backed - off-takes backed - securities introduced at present within existing patents.

At the very least, the plan proposed here is worth pursuing in a vigilant manner. My decades of experience in this particular field anticipate it will work out to the benefit of humankind. After all, as we know the survival of the human species - along with the survival of many other species - is now at stake.

How to do it. Two interlocking innovations are required and the IP is in essence available. One is in the business of purifying water and the other on climate change policy. Fortunately, they have been developed to fit what is needed even though action is required to activate the change. These innovations must be deployed now and to do so requires some harmony between business and policy - nationally and internationally - that has not been achieved often. The challenge is that the two innovations must work together: business innovation and policy innovation must work together at the global level - the business aspects to encourage water companies around the world to make more money in slightly different ways using slightly different technologies and the policy innovation by ensuring that nations around the world provide the policy environment in the UN COP that facilitates the functioning of a market for removing CO2. Fortunately, all the economic incentives are there to suit.

The business process of desalinating water must now adapt to a faster pace and expanded scope. This is a requirement that water companies worldwide have to face and conquer and they are in fact uniquely qualified to do so as their profits will swell. The process of desalinating water must adapt to use CO2 from different sources that are deliberately created for this purpose to rapidly enhance CO2 and drinkable water supplies and the efficiency of the post-treatment process. Rather than a cost center, CO2 can become a profit center for water companies if they support the climate change policies that the U.S. has recently introduced. More on this below.

From the economic side this can be ensured by policies that make CO2 available to water companies at a radically less expensive cost, indeed at a profit. The policies in question were proposed by this author at the request of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island (D) in what was the most important update in 2018 to the 45Q bipartisan law about tax credits in relation to CO2, expertly negotiated by Senator Whitehouse together with Senator John Barroso (Wyoming) (R), and more recently became the exemplary and celebrated IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) of 2023 that the whole world can adopt.

The blueprint for the business/policy innovation exists and the U.S. can offer it to the world with the support of the UN COP. This can offer the needed road map to climate change reversal, implementing what is needed to avoid the existential risk of climate change while resolving the water crisis. There is every reason to do it now.

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