Carbon Capture: Does it Work?

Harken! Good news (maybe) “encouraging news” is a better description, as Negative Emissions Technology (“NET”) starts coming into focus. Conceptually, carbon removal or direct air capture removes CO2 from the atmosphere, which would be great for suppressing climate change.

In that regard, Elizabeth Kolbert recently interviewed (Yale Environment 360) Stephen Pacala (Princeton professor) chairman of the US scientific panel studying carbon removal under the auspices of the National Academies. Which means the project has top-notch clearances, in fact, blue chip.

Of course, the big question about direct carbon capture is whether it can fix a very big problem created by humans burning fossil fuels like crazed Madhatters portending an ecological disaster in-waiting because of excessive levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, possibly leading to human extinction way ahead of schedule, too early, or looked at another way, extinction occurring well ahead of scientists’ models. But really, honestly and truly who in his/her right mind “models” human extinction?

Negative Emission Technology -NET- that removes carbon dioxide (“CO2”) from the atmosphere would be a dream come true, assuming it happens fast enough to prevent already-collapsing ecosystems from further total collapse; e.g., permafrost throughout the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the East Siberian Arctic Sea, ESAS, where subsea permafrost covers massive quantities of methane (CH4) in extraordinarily shallow waters. It’s the world’s largest reservoir, and CH4 is the most potent of the greenhouse gases. Problem: The subsea permafrost protective cap is rapidly thinning because of global warming. Already a Russian/American research team has witnessed alarmingly large columns of methane escaping into the atmosphere in the ESAS.

Therefore, the crucial question of the 21st century:  Does technology for carbon removal ultimately measure up to the task at hand, meaning, long-term survival of Homo sapiens?

Answer: Yes~er~no, maybe, depending. After all, it’s not a straight line from concept to actual carbon removal. For example, the infrastructure for effective capture and sequester of carbon is overwhelmingly huge.

According to Wallace Broecker of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in order to capture “current annual CO2 emissions” requires 100,000,000 trailers or carbon removal modules, or using his words: “…one-hundred million units.” He did not specify the size of the “units.”1

One hundred million units, assuming each one is the length of a semi-truck, end-to-end would circumnavigate Earth 44xs and cost trillions of dollars.

Hello… anybody still out there?

Yes, 44xs around Earth. And, if Direct Carbon Removal sounds too good to be true in the first instance… well, yes, maybe as it requires worldwide cooperation and lots of money and land and massive infrastructure almost as much as the fossil fuel industrial complex. Imagine that for size!

And 44xs around the planet is only for current emissions. What about all of the GHGs already up there?

Elizabeth Kolbert’s interview of Dr. Stephen Pacala revealed a couple of important considerations, for example:

  • “Our panel thinks direct air capture could be brought into the marketplace in a heavy way within 10 years’ time.” (Pacala)
  • “Now, in the [2017] tax bill, an entirely Republican bill, they retained subsidies on wind and solar that are 1.9 and 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour, and they retained a $7,500 tax credit (drops to $3,750 in 2019) on buying an electric car. Then, last February, a bipartisan act created a $50-per-ton tax credit for carbon capture and storage. That means that the Republican Congress passed subsidies for the entire enchilada. I think it’s very interesting to contemplate why it is that on the one hand we have this political rhetoric, and on the other hand we have this subsidizing of the alternatives.” (Pacala)

According to Pacala, the reason more work is not being done on negative emissions today has everything to do with “the price of carbon, which is inadequate” meaning, in Pacala’s mindset, the best formula for NET success is similar to the success behind solar and wind; meaning, government subsidies until operating costs and production costs fall enough for capitalism’s longstanding shopworn paradigm of mass manufacturing.

According to Pacala:

In the last 15 years, wind and solar went from extremely expensive green luxury items maintained by subsidy to the cheapest forms of energy ever. That happened because government subsidized wind and solar, made a market for it that companies competed over, and they relentlessly drove the cost down. It’s a remarkable achievement – that conservatives should relish – of market success, but through government subsidy.

Effectively, Pacala calls for the free market to handle the impending crisis, and similar to success with solar and wind energy, after a period of government subsidizing, the free market takes over, expanding the market via profitable transactions. All of which brings to mind a question: Who is willing to subsidize, and when? Hello… anybody still out there?

Thus, the very market forces of neoliberalism or gonzo capitalism, which caused the problem to begin with, should now be induced to fix it. Milton “Free Market” Friedman would be proud. How ironic if capitalism profits by removal of carbon that it created in the first instance.

For certain, NET can’t come soon enough. (P.S. It’s not ready for the big time, not yet.) According to knowledgeable sources fossil fuels account for 80% of energy today, which is about the same as 75 years ago, meaning progress has been negligible even with 195 countries agreeing to the Paris climate accord way back in 2015.

In point of fact, the entire world has been alerted to climate change for decades now. Still, no real progress as both renewables and fossil fuels each grow along side one another. Thereby, exposing the vulnerable underbelly of the Paris ‘15 climate accord where countries voluntarily agreed to reduce their emissions. Yes, voluntary.

On October 30 and 31, 2018, the “Negative Emissions Conference: Integrating Industry, Technology and Society for Carbon Drawdown” was held at the Shine Dome, Canberra, focusing on the need to explore and develop a new suite of approaches to address climate change via removal of greenhouse gases.

Here’s a key message from that Conference:

Even rapid decarbonization through emissions reduction will not be sufficient to stabilize climate at the global temperature thresholds of the Paris Agreement. To limit warming at 2 degrees or less requires NETs to draw down past and future emissions and store this carbon in land, ocean, and geological reservoirs…..

However, there is already evidence galore of ecosystems starting to collapse well ahead of reaching the infamous 2C, which is a faux guardrail if only because it creates false comfort for public consumption, meaning people figure if it took a couple hundred years to get to +0.80C above baseline, then we’ve got at least a hundred years to go before 2C becomes relevant. Wrong- A lot of serious, maybe irreparable, ecosystem damage will occur on the way to 2C, and it is happening faster, faster, and faster, making a couple of hundred years ago look very ancient.

Recent studies have highlighted that current NETs, despite their potential, are as yet, not sufficiently mature to be implemented at scale. Key questions exist around the efficacy and scalability of proposed NETs.2

In conclusion, key questions surrounding the efficacy and scalability of “proposed NETs” are likely enough to push back funding by private or sovereign sources, bringing into question how, when, and if any source is willing to commit to billions, and more likely trillions of dollars to capture and sequester carbon?

There is no known response to that question in the public domain.

But, what is known is not encouraging, meaning, world leadership on climate change is, at best, splintered and lackadaisical. Here’s proof: According to the World Bank, fossil fuel energy as a percentage of total energy in 1988 was 79%, the year Dr. James Hansen warned the U.S. Senate, and the world via New York Times’ headlines, that human-caused greenhouse gases had been detected. Today fossil fuels are still approximately 80%. No movement!

And, according to British Petroleum’s 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy: Global oil consumption growth for last year averaged 1.8%, or 1.7 million barrels per day (b/d), above its 10-year average of 1.2% for the third consecutive year. China (500,000 b/d) and the US (190,000 b/d) were the single largest contributors to growth. Fossil fuels retain a hefty leadership position.

After three decades of ongoing brilliant glaring public exposure of a festering problem that could lead to major climate upheaval accompanied by massive starvation and untold deaths, here are the results of how the world has reacted, according to Carl Edward Rasmussen, University of Cambridge, as of September 14, 2018:

What does the data tell us? It shows that all is not well in the state of the atmosphere! In order to prevent further warming, the carbon dioxide levels must not grow any further. On the growth curve, this corresponds to the curve having to settle down to zero ppm/yr. There is absolutely no hint in the data that this is happening. On the contrary, the rate of growth is itself growing, having now reached about 2.3 ppm/y the highest growth rate ever seen in modern times. This is not just a “business as usual” scenario, it is worse than that; we’re actually moving backwards, becoming more and more unsustainable with every year. This shows unequivocally that the efforts undertaken so-far to limit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are woefully inadequate.

It’s been 30 years since Dr. James Hansen testified to the Senate, making NYT headlines the next morning:3

The earth has been warmer in the first five months of this year than in any comparable period since measurements began 130 years ago, and the higher temperatures can now be attributed to a long-expected global warming trend linked to pollution, a space agency scientist reported today.

Postscript:

After spending three or four years interacting with the Bush administration, I realized they were not taking any actions to deal with climate change. So, I decided to give one talk, and then it snowballed into another talk and eventually to even protesting and getting arrested.

— James Hansen- Earth Institute, Columbia University.

  1. Interview of Climatologist Wallace Broecker: “The Deniers Are Going To Go Apeshit. They’re Going to Have a Riot,” YouTube, November 4, 2018. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate,” The New York Times, June 24, 1988 []
Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.