After decades of sowing doubtConcerning climate change and its causes the fossil fuel industry has shifted to a new strategy: presenting it as the source for solutions. This repositioning includes rebranding itself as a “carbon management industry.”
This strategic pivot was on displayAt the Glasgow climate summit and at Congressional hearing in October 2021, where CEOs of four major oil companies talked about a “lower-carbon future.” That future, in their view, would be powered by the fuels they supply and technologies they could deploy to remove the planet-warming carbon dioxide their products emit – provided they get sufficient government support.
This support could be coming. The Department of Energy recently added “carbon management” to the nameof its Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management and expanding its funding for carbon capture and storage.
But are they effective and what are the consequences?
Coming from backgrounds in economics, ecology and public policyWe have been here for several years. focusing on carbon drawdown. Despite U.S. government investments exceedingly large, we have seen mechanical carbon-capture methods fail to succeed. US$7 billion in direct spendingMinimum of a billion more in tax credits. However, biological solutions that offer multiple benefits have received less attention.
CCS’s Troubled Track Record
Carbon capture and storage (or CCS) aims to capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks at power plants and industrial sources. CCS at U.S. power stations has so far been a failure.
Seven large-scale CCS programs were tried at U.S. power plant facilities, each with hundreds million dollars of government subsidies. These projects were either cancelled before they reached commercial operation, or both. were shutteredAfter they started, financialor mechanical problems. Only one CCS power plant is currently in operation worldwide. in Canada, and its captured carbon dioxide is used to extract more oil from wells – a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”
In industrial facilities, all but one are the dozen CCS projects in the U.SThe captured carbon dioxide is used to enhance oil recovery.
This expensive oil extraction technique has been described as “climate mitigation” because the oil companies are now using carbon dioxide. A modeling study of the entire life cycle of this process at coal fired power plants revealed it to be true. puts 3.7 to 4.7 times as much carbon dioxide into the air as it removes.
The Problem with Pulling Carbon From the Environment
Another way would be to directly remove carbon dioxide from air. Oil companies like Occidental Petroleum ExxonMobil are seeking government subsidies to develop and deploy such “direct air capture” systems. However, one widely recognized problem with these systems is their immense energy requirements, particularly if operating at a climate-significant scale, meaning removing at least 1 gigaton – 1 billion tons – of carbon dioxide per year.
That’s about 3% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences projects a need to remove 10 gigatons per year by 2050, and 20 gigatons per year by century’s end if decarbonization efforts fall short.
A powered direct air capture system is the only one currently in large-scale development. fossil fuelTo attain extremely high heat for the thermo process.
A National Academies of Sciences study of direct air capture’s energy use indicates that to capture 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide per year, this type of direct air capture system could require up to 3,889 terawatt-hours of energy – almost as much as the total electricity generated in the U.S. in 2020. This system is used in the largest direct-air capture plant currently being developed in the U.S. the captured carbon dioxide will be used for oil recovery.
Another method of direct air capture uses a solid absorbent. However, it consumes less energy and companies have struggled with scaling it up beyond pilots. Scientists are skeptical about the potential of direct air capture technologies. However, there are ongoing efforts for more efficient and effective technology. One study reveals the enormous energy and material requirements of direct air capture, which the authors claim makes it a very attractive option. “unrealistic.”Another example shows that you can spend the same amount on clean energy as on fossil fuels to replace them. more effective at reducing emissions, air pollution and other costs.
The Cost of Scaling up
A 2021 study envisions spending $1 trillion a yearTo scale up direct air capture at a meaningful level. Bill GatesCarbon Engineering, which is backing a company that directs air capture, estimates that operating at a climate-significant scale would run up to $5.1 trillion annually. Much of the cost would be borne by governments because there is no “customer” for burying waste underground.
Legislators in the U.S. and around the world are considering putting billions more into carbon capture. They need to consider the consequences.
The carbon dioxide must be transported somewhere to be used or stored. Princeton University’s 2020 study estimated that 66,000 miles of carbon dioxide pipelinesTo reach 1 gigaton per annum of transport and burial, it would be necessary to build them by 2050.
The problems with burying high-pressured CO2 underground will be similar to those that have been faced by nuclear waste sitting, but in much larger quantities. Transporting, injecting, and storing carbon dioxide can pose health and environmental dangers, such as the risk for pipeline ruptures, groundwater contaminationThe release of toxinsAll of these are particularly dangerous for the most vulnerable communities that have been historically most affected by pollution.
Bringing direct air capture to a scale that would have climate-significant impact would mean diverting taxpayer funding, private investment, technological innovation, scientists’ attention, public support and difficult-to-muster political action away from the essential work of transitioning to non-carbon energy sources.
Trees, plants and soil: A proven method
Instead of putting our trust in expensive mechanical methods with a poor track record and requiring decades of development, there is a way to sequester carbon using biological sequestration.
Trees in the U.S. are already sequestered almost a billion tonsyearly amount of carbon dioxide. Improved management of urban trees and existing forests, without the need to use additional land. could increase this by 70%. The U.S. could sequester if it reforests nearly 50 million acres, which is roughly the area of Nebraska. nearly 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. That would equal about 40% of the country’s annual emissions. Restoring wetlands grasslands better agricultural practicesCould sequester even further
Per ton of carbon dioxide that is sequestered, biological Sequestration costs about one-tenth as muchAs current mechanical methods. It has many other benefits, such as reducing soil erosion and urban heat, increasing water conservation, biodiversity, energy conservation, and improving watershed protection.
To be clear, no carbon removal approach – neither mechanical nor biological – will solve the climate crisis without an immediate transition away from fossil fuels. But we believe that relying on the fossil fuel industry for “carbon management” will only further delay that transition.