All that glitters; why Dale Vince’s promise of ‘sky diamonds’ doesn’t hold up

By Jamie O’Dell 

Waking up last Friday morning, I didn’t expect the first thing I read to be about Dale Vince producing ‘sky diamonds’. But this is 2020, so I guess this counts as getting off lightly. 

Manufactured diamonds have been around for almost a century; there has been an increasing appetite for ‘lab grown’ diamonds in recent years, presented by some as a sustainable alternative to traditionally mined and labour-intensive diamonds. Vince’s proposal takes a different approach to more conventional laboratory techniques, however, and is ostensibly driven by his environmentalist ethos. 

These ‘sky diamonds’ are made from carbon taken from the atmosphere and essentially compressed into a diamond that is chemically identical to those mined from the ground – over a period of a couple of weeks. The entire operation runs off wind and solar energy while using rainwater and is therefore ‘negative carbon’, given the carbon it takes from the atmosphere used to create the diamonds. 

The prospect of these diamonds, produced in Stroud and dubbed by some as ‘bling without the sting’, is certaining alluring; not least because such an undertaking in the local area could represent the good, green jobs that we need in order to transition into an ecologically and socially sustainable future. 

The key aspect of this story, however, and for many its greatest allure, is this renewable process through which these diamonds were made and the fact that they represent a novel form of ‘carbon capture’. 

Carbon capture essentially involves trapping carbon dioxide either at its emission source, such as from a power plant or heavy industry, or in this case from the atmosphere around us, and then storing it, usually deep underground, or using it for another means. For some, this is one way to tackle the climate emergency by reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere while, as Vince puts it himself, ‘enabling life as we know it’. 

The amount of carbon captured and stored in these diamonds is, however, unclear and although this venture is able to scale its production significantly (from 200 to 1,000 carats of diamonds a month within a year), it does not seem like this will represent a significant dent in the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.

There are also very real dangers contained within the idea that we can sustain ‘life as we know it’. The way we live currently is centred around economic growth and consumption, rather than living sustainably. By no means should this advocate a return to the dark ages to tackle climate change, but we need a reduction of excess energy and material output in order for our needs to be met fully by sustainable sources – the essence of a degrowth approach to tackling the climate emergency.  

This is not to say that carbon capture is not part of a green transition and keeping global temperature rises to under 1.5 degrees Celsuis; the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) have themselves highlighted the importance of carbon capture for achieving this crucial goal. Rather, focusing our efforts upon ‘enabling life as we know it’ is a dangerous idea because it obscures the extent of the transformation that we need to undergo.  

Innovative and green new ways of making money – green capitalism essentially – are not the solution to this crisis, and the sustainable sourcing of diamonds is not a key tenant of any Green Industrial Revolution. 

This is not to say that this venture is entirely without merit. Certainly, innovation is important and any carbon taken out of the atmosphere and locked away is a good thing. Likewise, the prospect of good, green, and preferably unionised, jobs in the local area is always a positive. 

Another positive part of this equation is that the diamond industry as we know it has an appalling record of labour exploitation and environmental degradation; something that persists to this day despite international efforts to promote greater corporate social responsibility, which is highly problematic in itself, and supply chain mapping. Vince is keen to highlight the ecological impact of this, pointing out that producing a one-carat stone through mining can involve shifting 1,000 tonnes of rock and earth, 3,890 litres of water and more than 108kg of carbon dioxide. In contrast of course, the sky diamonds are negative carbon.

When we’re presented with a new national lockdown and potentially a cancelled Christmas, the story of Dale Vince and his diamonds comes as a welcome relief of seemingly positive, quirky, news. The disruption we now face from Covid-19, however, is nothing to what an unfolding climate emergency could like, and for so many already has looked like. 

The scale and pace of the changes we need to make to how we collectively live our lives is thus daunting to say the least, but this is not a challenge we can ignore, and no amount of sky diamonds can change that.

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