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To beat the climate clock, don't be a pollyanna

Concordia University's climate clock

Concordia University's climate clock

Recently I posted something lauding Japan for pursuing R&D on commercial uses for carbon. This strategy is needed badly in order to beat the climate clock, but we can't lose sight of the enormity of the challenge. In this well-researched New York Times article by Jon Gertner on direct air capture of CO2, the technologists at Climeworks paint too rosy a picture. Pay attention to the article's quotes of MIT's Howard Herzog, Princeton's Stephen Pacala, and Columbia's Julio Friedmann, all of whom are giants in climate science research.

The problem with relying on direct air capture as our way to avert climate catastrophe is that we have five hurdles to pass: 1) R&D improvements on air capture making it much more efficient in terms of CO2 captured per input energy and materials; 2) Cost declines for air capture, making it not just a little cheaper but two orders of magnitude cheaper; 3) Scaling up of the technology to something meaningful in time for it to matter means a new, major global industry in just 1-2 decades; 4) R&D breakthroughs for the new use of CO2 in many products; 5) Shifting of all of those products’ manufacturing processes to utilize carbon cost-effectively.

Yes, R&D will continue to improve the efficacy of air capture, but we need more than incremental change. Yes, cost declines usually accompany R&D improvements, but we also need learning by doing and economies of scale. Yes, the air capture industry will grow, but we're talking about creating a global industry on a massive scale, relatively immediately. Yes, new products will be created that utilize carbon as an input and yes, existing products will change their processes, but those things take time too, and there will be a chicken-and-egg dynamic between the creation and scale-up of that demand for carbon, and the creation and scale-up of the air-capture. Some may argue that we don't need a carbon-utilization industry, because we can simply store the captured carbon underground. I maintain that utilization of carbon in products is a far more fruitful path than long term storage, because I think the business incentive structure would yield faster results (profit maximization rather than cost-minimization), and because I am deeply worried about literally endless NIMBY battles for siting enormous underground storage. Both options should be pursued, but neither is a given.

Should we pursue air capture and storage and commercial utilization? Of course! Along with about a dozen other things like even better and cheaper wind and solar, cheaper 8-hour and seasonal electricity storage, medium-scale geothermal, small modular nuclear, etc. Just don't pretend air capture is a panacea. Will it be successful? Who knows - it's R&D!

We need to take all options seriously. The clock is ticking and time's running out.

Michael Leifman's picture

Thank Michael for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on February 16, 2019

Michael, in a post yesterday discussion turned to Jevons Paradox, a behavioral phenomenon which tends to negate improvements in energy efficiency with increased consumption.

Another chapter in a book about unintended consequences might be devoted to Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). The idea originated with the possibility we might gather up the carbon we've been freely expelling for 170 years and stuff it back into the Earth, like toothpaste into a tube. Then the thought occurred to find some abandoned oil wells, and use them as a conveyance mechanism to pump captured carbon back from whence it came.

So far, so good. Soon thereafter though, someone investigating this hypothesis had the good (or bad) fortune to discover pressurized CO2 injected into the Earth tended to reanimate these abandoned wells - they began producing again. Thus began the nascent field of Enhanced Oil Recovery, or EOR.

Lost somewhere along the way was the original purpose of the experiment, and the science of returning carbon to the Earth became the science of pulling even more out. Profit has a funny way of making things like that happen.

Michael Leifman's picture
Michael Leifman on February 20, 2019

Thanks, Bob.

Profit motive is also why the emissions trading programs are so wildly successful, and why tax incentives have driven all the wind and PV we have built. Regarding your EOR, I agree that it seems preposterous that we might increase oil use with a technique meant to reduce CO2 concentration, but if there’s CCS were ever to scale (and, I remain skeptical)  , EOR would only comprise a tiny fraction of the wells. We need much more undergroundstorage than is available purely via EOR.

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