Activists Call It A ‘False Solution.’ But UN Scientists Say We Need To Suck Up CO2.

21st August, 2021.      //   Climate Change  // 


This week, a United Nations-led team of scientists issued a dire prognosis: The world is 2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was a century ago, and even if we somehow stopped emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, we would have released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to lock in severe climatic consequences for the next 30 years.

At this point, avoiding climatic disaster would need eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. When plants and algae photosynthesize, the Earth absorbs carbon naturally. However, the long-awaited report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes scientists from nearly every country, makes clear that averting disaster now will necessitate the development of measurable, reliable methods to absorb CO2 from the air and return it to the ground.

However, many of the technologies that experts predict we’ll require are still under development. This strategy has sparked debate among environmentalists, who believe that fossil fuel interests would pressure legislators to focus on removing CO2 from the atmosphere so that oil and gas drilling and burning may continue.

Carbon removal specialists, on the other hand, believe the latest UN study should put to rest the notion that reducing emissions alone would enough to avert calamity.

“We will fail to hit 1.5 degrees without CO2 removal,” Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, warned, referring to the point beyond which climate change is expected to be disastrous. “That’s it. That’s just math.”


An Alphabet Soup of Carbon Sucking 

The IPCC isn’t expected to issue its estimates on policy options for countries to reduce emissions quickly until March of next year.

However, various approaches to cleaning up centuries’ worth of accumulated carbon will likely rely on a variety of options, ranging from incorporating rocks into soil to aid carbon capture to two technologies best known by their acronyms: bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, and direct air capture, or DAC.

A facility that produces trees that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis before being harvested and burnt to generate electricity is an example of BECCS. Instead of releasing the CO2 from smokestacks back into the atmosphere, technology collects it and pumps it underground. DAC technology, on the other hand, resembles enormous fans sucking carbon from the atmosphere, attaching it to calcium particles via a chemical process, and injecting the resulting material back into the Earth.

At least on a small scale, both technologies function. However, they have significant disadvantages. BECCS would require enormous tracts of land and vast quantities of water to extract meaningful amounts of carbon at scale, competing for space with food crops, natural ecosystems, and human residences, all of which are projected to experience increased stress as the globe continues to heat up.

And, at least in its current version, DAC is costly. Climeworks, a Swiss firm that is one of the world’s most sophisticated DAC businesses, estimates that it costs between $500 and $600 each metric ton of carbon it removes. This is primarily due to the technology’s high energy requirements. According to a research published in the journal Nature Communications in 2019, DAC will use a fourth of world energy supply by 2100 if implemented at scale. At a time when the world is striving to replace fossil fuels with zero-carbon alternatives, DAC appears to doubters to be equivalent to taking out a loan to pay off a debt.

Improving by Trying

BECCS’ land-use concerns may continue to be difficult. According to a 2018 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the United States could only remove 100 metric tons of CO2 per year with BECCS due to present restrictions on land use and infrastructure to transport collected carbon from the source to storage sites.  That’s the equivalent of a year’s worth of pollution savings from switching coal facilities to natural gas.

Few studies have been done on “enhanced weathering,” which involves putting particular types of broken rock dust into soil to draw carbon into the earth. Last October, the Department of Energy submitted a request for additional research. According to a study released last summer by the University of Sheffield, the technology could extract 2 gigatons of carbon each year at scale, which is equivalent to the yearly emissions of more than 500 coal plants.

However, according to a 2018 study published in Environmental Research Letters, DAC implemented at scale throughout the world may remove up to 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from all of China’s and India’s coal-fired power plants combined.

The country’s deep geology, especially in areas most devastated by years of fossil fuel exploitation, such as Appalachia, means it has great potential to store trapped carbon. The average number was around 3,000 gigatons, according to the US Geological Survey’s first thorough estimate of the country’s storage potential.

The cost remains a significant barrier. However, preliminary pilot-scale experiments suggest that the price per metric ton of carbon removal may fall to between $94 and $232. According to a 2019 article published in the journal Joule, that value might decrease below $60 per ton by 2040. However, those price reductions are contingent on subsidies and other measures that make a DAC supply chain viable enough to justify its construction.

In June, the Biden administration committed $12 million to DAC research. Another $3.5 billion would be made aside in the infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress to establish regional DAC centres, replicating a scheme recently pioneered by the British government.

The 45Q tax credit, which allows firms utilizing carbon capture technology to write off collected CO2 for between $12 and $32 per metric ton, depending on what happens with the captured gas, is the major government policy generating a market for DAC at this time. The tax credit pays around $20 per metric ton for CO2 utilized in oil drilling, thus oil companies like Occidental Petroleum were among the first to invest in DAC.

“We will fail to hit 1.5 degrees without CO2 removal. That’s it. That’s just math.” 

– Julio Friedmann, senior research fellow at Columbia University

Proposals to increase the payment for carbon collected and stored underground to around $120 per ton are likely to be included in one of the final government infrastructure bills.

Policies at the state and regional levels may also be beneficial. DAC projects are now valued exclusively under California’s low-fuel standard, which is the world’s only significant carbon-trading market that does so expressly. Expansion of other markets, such as the carbon-trading system in Canada, may give the technology a boost.


A “False Solution” No Longer? 

As measures to encourage carbon removal technology gain traction, opposition to them has increased. More than 500 community organizations and environmental campaigners signed a letter to Biden and congressional leaders last month encouraging them to oppose new regulations that would favor carbon capture technologies, such as DAC.

The critique mirrored long-held environmentalist worries that carbon removal technology is primarily used by polluters who oppose completely reducing emissions to make it difficult or impossible to create laws that do so.

“Artificial carbon removal is largely a sideshow when it comes to climate change,” in a recent blog post, Jonathan Foley, a climate scientist who leads the advocacy group Project Drawdown, said. “At best, it may eventually grow into a minor solution. At worst, it’s a distraction from reducing emissions — and plays right into the fossil fuel industry’s hands.”

According to Michael Thompson, a research fellow at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy, the current IPCC report demonstrates “that is incorrect.”

“Carbon removal has to be part of the real work ahead, and I sincerely hope this report will help bring closure to that debate,” he said, adding that the political stigma has kept progressives from even discussing how to best build regulations to regulate these technologies.

“I hope this will be a wake-up call to climate justice groups that they need to come to the table and be part of this process, if not dominate the process on what carbon removal will be,” Thompson stated.

In a May study conducted by the progressive pollster and think tank Data for Progress, the great majority of American voters said they had heard “very little” or “nothing at all” about carbon removal technology. About 44% of respondents said they didn’t know enough about the tools to indicate if they had positive or negative feelings about them. Planting new trees and conserving existing forests, which is the favored carbon removal method of environmentalists, received the highest support, with over 70% of respondents in favor.

Trees and other “nature-based” solutions should be included in any carbon-reduction strategy. However, Celina Scott-Buechler, a Data for Progress fellow who produced a report for the think tank on what a progressive carbon removal program would look like, cited recent wildfires in Oregon that charred carbon-storage forests.

“As forest fires continue to rage and as other natural disasters continue to become stronger and less predictable, there needs to be a broad enough portfolio of carbon removal options such that we are not relying on plots of land that just end up burning,” she added. “The progressive environmental movement has decided that, with renewable energy, these technologies are good and we should be pushing for as much deployment as possible. But these other areas of newer technological advancement are still mistrusted.”

Building faith in the technology would likely require making it more economical to absorb carbon from the air and store it underground rather than using it for oil drilling, and tax credit hikes like those suggested for 45Q might be a good first step, according to Thompson.

The current status of the technology is comparable to that of solar and wind when the first major IPCC assessment of climate science was released 31 years ago, according to Noah Deich, head of the carbon removal advocacy group Carbon180.

“Back in 1990, the report was telling us that, of course, solar and wind are not ready to displace the fossil economy, but if we had started really really investing in those technologies then and started to limit the expansion of fossil fuels, we could have scaled those solutions much more quickly and we’d be in a much less dire situation today,” Deich stated. “That’s the same story we’re hearing today for carbon removal. Fortunately we have time ― we just don’t have that much time.”

Friedmann, a Columbia research fellow, compared carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to a ship taking on water, implying that carbon removal technologies may provide a safe haven. He claims that the major IPCC report, expected out in March, will tell us “whether we need 10 or 50 lifeboats”

“What we know now is we need lifeboats,” Friedmann continued.

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