Emergency? Part 3
Requiring Large-Scale Carbon Capture
We give a lot of lip service describing climate change as an emergency or existential threat. In accordance with the Climate Emergency Declaration Organization, 2336 jurisdictions all over the world have declared it to be an emergency, but we are usually not really acting prefer it. There are a lot of possible emergency actions. I’m taking a look at 6 that might make a major difference, are doable, but require real sacrifice and hard decisions:
- Ending financing of fossil fuel projects
- Accelerating renewable siting on- and offshore
- Fast tracking transmission
- Requiring large-scale carbon capture
- International agreement and deal with methane
- Ending deforestation
Today, it’s requiring large-scale carbon capture. (Here’s Part 1 and Part 2).
This may occasionally be probably the most controversial of the emergency response proposals I would like to think about, primarily because industrial carbon capture has been branded by the environmental justice community as a false solution. Here’s a statement from the Center for International Environmental Law:
Despite occupying center stage within the “net-zero” climate plans trumpeted by america and Canada on the Leaders’ Summit on Climate, government spending programs, and bills pending before Congress and Parliament, carbon capture just isn’t a climate solution. Quite the opposite, investing in carbon capture delays the needed transition away from fossil fuels and other flamable energy sources. It poses significant recent environmental, health, and safety risks, particularly to Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities already overburdened by industrial pollution, dispossession, and the impacts of climate change.
Mine is probably going a minority view, but I feel that the attack on carbon capture is overbroad, lacks nuance, and fails to reckon with an emergency. First, carbon capture mustn’t take the place of emissions reduction. That is still essential and central. Second, we want to explain what’s included within the concept of carbon capture (also known as carbon capture and storage and carbon capture, utilization, and storage). There are a lot of types of carbon capture, including nature-based (in trees, soil, wetlands, ocean, regenerative agriculture, etc.), direct air capture (directly from the air, through a chemical response), and industrial carbon capture (from industrial emissions, including cement, steel, and power plants). “Utilization” refers to make use of, in some form, of the captured carbon, including for plastics, aviation fuel, and even Vodka. The captured carbon will also be stored underground in certain geologic formations.
While there’s little opposition to most nature-based carbon capture (with some exemptions, and it will possibly be expensive and difficult to attain), and minimal opposition to the concept of utilizing captured carbon (once it’s captured), opposition grows exponentially with direct air capture and, particularly, industrial carbon capture. Immediately, direct air capture is comparatively expensive, uses lots of energy (to drive air through catalysts that capture carbon), and would require lots of land if implemented at scale. All of that’s changing – the value is dropping because the technology improves, cheaper and more efficient catalysts and processes are being invented, and efficiency and size are improving. Governments are providing incentives, and the industry is progressing. It is probably going not yet ripe for an emergency set of actions along the lines of what I even have been discussing.
The larger controversy and greater set of potential emergency actions focuses on industrial carbon capture. Here’s my argument:
Scientists now agree that we are able to’t stay anywhere near 1.5°C of warming without removing carbon from the atmosphere – in other words, carbon capture (or, to make use of less controversial nomenclature: carbon removal) in some form. A few of that might be through nature-based solutions, and the more of that the higher. A few of it would be through direct air capture, but that is not going to be in a form to scale quickly for numerous years.
We are able to scale industrial carbon capture more quickly since the higher concentration of carbon at the commercial facility versus the air makes the method more efficient and more cost effective. The powerful and vehement argument against it’s that if dirty, polluting industries and facilities can capture carbon directly, that can extend the lives of those facilities and industries, thereby continuing to affect the overburdened communities that bear the brunt of the pollution. We’re talking about steel plants, cement plants, refineries, power plants (coal and natural gas fired), and other large manufacturing operations that use lots of energy.
If I believed it was realistic that we could transition these manufacturing operations quickly – in something akin to an emergency fashion – I might have a distinct view. But we are usually not going to stop using natural gas in the subsequent five or ten years, not going to stop producing cement or steel in that point period, and never going to finish polluting emissions. The problem is about what the transition to scrub fuels and manufacturing looks like and the way long it would take. We must always do two things without delay: transition rapidly to scrub energy but capture carbon while we make that transition.
Polluting industries will try to extend the lives of their operations for so long as they will no matter whether or not they are capturing carbon or not, so in my opinion carbon capture provides a climate profit with significantly less downside risk of life extension than opponents contend. (As one example, in California, numerous coastal power plants were speculated to shut down due to rules around once-through-cooling, but due to concerns about blackouts, those plants got an extension for operation, and can likely get an extra extension. Will cement, steel, and power plants really be shuttered more quickly because they’re emitting carbon than they’d be in the event that they are capturing the carbon? I’m not convinced.)
Mine just isn’t a preferred view, but, in an emergency, shouldn’t we rigorously consider the risks, rewards, and alternatives?
This approach requires careful consideration of consequences and what the energy transition looks like in additional detail than we now have done so far. Shouldn’t that be a part of emergency response? The climate change emergency response needn’t be frantic, at the very least not until climate change impacts turn into much more acute.
Next time: fast motion on methane.