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Technology, Not Politics or Penance, Solves Climate Change

Blog Post | Pollution

Technology, Not Politics or Penance, Solves Climate Change

Is it finally time for the carbon capture revolution?

We were never going to reduce atmospheric carbon by appealing to people’s better judgement. When the kids are hungry and our subsistence and livelihood is on the line, concerns for a changing climate — today or fifty years into the future — go out the window.

This is climate scientist Roger Pielke Jr.’s Iron Law of Climate Policy: whenever policies for economic growth run up against emissions reductions, economic growth will win out. That is why the Biden Administration stopped pushing high gas prices as a climate change-mitigating measure when the cost of filling up the tank hit records in 2022-23.

We can’t stop economic growth, and considering how valuable growth is for almost every other aspect of human well-being, we definitely shouldn’t. Green technologies are promising and improving, but incapable of replacing the 85%+ of primary energy that come from fossil fuels. What then?

For years, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies have been seen as a possible silver bullet for those who worry about climate change. For an equally long time, all such technologies were too expensive and impractical, but that may be changing.

Carbfix is a company that emerged from a collaboration between the University of Iceland, Reykjavík Energy, the French research institute CNRS, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The company believes that its method for turning carbon dioxide into basalt rock will revolutionize the CCS industry. In October, Carbfix was the cover story of National Geographic. In November, its CEO Edda Aradóttir was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential business climate leaders.

Is it finally time for the carbon capture revolution?

Rush Forward, Slowly

Not quite. If anything, carbon capture projects sink money more than they sink carbon. They’re inefficient and energy intensive. “It’s so energy-intensive that if you add CCS to a coal plant, you’re roughly doubling the amount of coal you need,” says Emily Grubert, a sustainable energy professor in a recent Bloomberg interview.

But none of that matters to many of the participants of a carbon capture conference in Reykjavík this fall. All new technologies must “climb the cost mountain,” said an untroubled Jan Wurzbacher, CEO of Climeworks, whose direct air capture plant Orca outside Reykjavík is the world’s first and largest such facility in the world.

Orca captures about 10 tons of CO2 a day by running industrial-sized fans with specially designed filters to absorb carbon from the air, liquify it, deliver it to Carbfix, which then pumps the CO2 two thousand feet underground using huge amounts of water. The Carbfix method for storing carbon involves dissolving the CO2 into water which then reacts with the Icelandic bedrock, thus starting the mineralization process. The process mimics the slow-moving geological process that makes volcanic rock, and has been investigated in academia and attempted to replicate for decades.

By setting up a scrubbing tower onto an existing power plant—basically a sophisticated filter capturing emissions on-site before sending it down a well to the bedrock to mineralize—Carbfix can get the price of capturing carbon down to the truly impressive mid-$20 range.

When we take all the infrastructure and construction expenses into account, however, the full life-cycle analysis of a direct air capture plant like the one Climeworks operates, is in the hundreds of dollars per ton of CO2 captured and stored—still well above the highest estimates of the social cost of carbon.

All successful innovations take off only when entrepreneurs and inventors bring prices down.  Wurzbacher thinks that’s just a matter of time, hoping that direct air capture and mineralization “can change the way we deal with global warming.”

Mineralization “basically has to be the solution,” said Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University, an early proponent for mineralization. It’s a process that is permanent, scalable, and verifiable. “I’m a technology optimist,” Lackner told the National Geographic, “but I’m a policy pessimist.” Seeing how limited the results are from the tens of thousands of politicians, lobbyists, and scientists making the pilgrimage to Dubai for the UN climate summit this month, it’s hard to disagree.

The state of mineralization as carbon capture might look unpromising. It might be expensive. It might only be workable in some select corners of the world where the bedrock and access to water and electricity are favorable. And we might need some nine million of Orca-type plants—enough to carpet the whole of Maryland—just to offset what humanity emitted in 2021 (i.e., not even reducing the overall atmospheric levels of CO2). 

Yet, what’s so wonderful about CCS, is the implicit admission that plastic straws and “flying shame” were never going to amount to much. Having quotas, limits, taxes, restrictions, and altogether less access to goods and services was never going to fly. Having some hard-working tinkerers experiment and find a way to undo some of the emissions of the last two centuries just might.

Sustainability by numbers | Pollution

The World Has (Probably) Passed Peak Pollution

“The health impacts of air pollution are often underrated. There are a range of estimates for how many people die prematurely from local air pollution every year. All are in the low millions. The World Health Organization estimates around 7 million.

The good news, then, is that the world is probably passed ‘peak pollution’. I say ‘probably’ because confidently declaring a peak is, apparently, the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Here, I’m talking specifically about emissions of harmful local air pollutants: gases like nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide which causes acid rain, carbon monoxide, black carbon, organic carbon, non-methane volatile organic compounds. I’m not talking about greenhouse gases.”

From Sustainability by numbers.

C3 | Pollution

Lab Grown Algae Could Be Pivotal in Reducing Global Emissions

“Brilliant Planet, a UK-based climate technology company … aims to harness the power of marine algae to remove emissions by the gigaton, and then sell its service within the broader carbon marketplace. Brilliant Planet relies on a mix of modern engineering coupled with the carbon-capturing capacities of some of the world’s most ancient aquatic organisms.

The startup essentially replicates the natural algal coastal blooms that sustain marine ecosystems –– albeit on land.”

From C3.

Our World in Data | Pollution

Oil Spills from Tankers Have Fallen by More than 90% since the 1970s

“In the 1970s, oil spills from tankers — container ships transporting oil — were common. Between 70 and 100 spills occurred per year. That’s one or two spills every week.

This number has fallen by more than 90% since then. In the last decade, no year has had more than eight oil spills, as shown in the chart.

The quantity of oil spilled from tankers has also fallen dramatically. Over the last decade, the average is less than 10,000 tonnes per year, compared to over 300,000 tonnes in the 1970s.”

From Our World in Data.

The Hill | Pollution

US Emissions Fell 17 Percent from 2005 Levels

“Net U.S. emissions increased by 1.3 percent in 2022 for a total of 5,489 million metric tons of carbon dioxide compared to the previous year, according to the EPA. The agency attributed the bulk of the increase to higher levels of fossil fuel combustion as the economic rebound and lifting of pandemic-related restrictions that began in 2021 continued.

Despite the year-over-year increase, however, the EPA determined that net emissions fell 16.7 percent compared to 2005 levels between 1990 and 2022. This decrease was partly due to a decline in emissions from industry over the last decade, according to the EPA. The agency attributed this drop to several factors, including macroeconomic trends like the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy. Improvements in energy efficiency also played a role, as did transitions to lower-carbon fuels.”

From The Hill.