Capturing carbon emissions: pragmatic solution or costly distraction?

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/File
A section of the Mississippi Power Co. carbon capture power plant in DeKalb, Mississippi, on Nov. 16, 2015. Carbon capture typically entails catching the carbon emissions from a power plant or cement or steel factory and then putting them to industrial use or injecting them underground for permanent storage.

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The idea of collecting greenhouse gasses before they leave a smokestack or after they are in the air isn’t new. But for the most part, carbon capture and removal has lingered on the sidelines of climate action.  

These days, though, the concept is the focus of an unusually bipartisan push on Capitol Hill. It’s in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. The private sector has been heavily investing in it. Even Elon Musk is offering through his foundation a $100 million XPRIZE for a cost-effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Why We Wrote This

It’s an ugly duckling of climate policy. Yet the idea of capturing and storing carbon emissions seems to be gaining bipartisan support. Beneath the fray is a debate over the meaning of pragmatism in policy.

For some environmentalists, all this is a sign that Big Oil is coopting the label of “climate action” to delay progress. Yet phasing out fossil fuels will take time, especially for nations like China that rely heavily on coal. And fossil fuels aren’t just burned for electricity. Globally, cement manufacturing alone produces 8% of carbon emissions, by one estimate.

Lee Beck of the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force sees carbon management as a crucial part of any toolkit for slashing emissions toward zero. 

“Every single technology has trade-offs,” she says. “There’s not a single bullet. ... We need to enable each region, each country to decarbonize with technologies that work.”

After a decade of sitting on the outskirts of climate change policy, efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere – or to trap it before it leaves a smokestack – are gaining widespread momentum in Washington and beyond.

An unusually bipartisan push on Capitol Hill has resulted in a number of new bills designed to bolster what is broadly referred to as “carbon management,” a variety of efforts to capture carbon, store it, and also take it from the air. The private sector has been heavily investing in this technology – as much as $4.96 billion globally in 2019, according to Polaris Market Research. Groups ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the United Steel Workers to Shell have joined in a coalition that has lobbied for carbon capture and removal, which recently appeared as part of the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan. 

Even Elon Musk has gotten in on the action, offering through his foundation the largest XPRIZE ever, at $100 million, to the team that comes up with a scalable and cost effective way to remove carbon from the air.

Why We Wrote This

It’s an ugly duckling of climate policy. Yet the idea of capturing and storing carbon emissions seems to be gaining bipartisan support. Beneath the fray is a debate over the meaning of pragmatism in policy.

“This is a bit of a watershed moment in terms of awareness and interest and enthusiasm for a variety of carbon removal strategies,” says Shannon Heyck-Williams, the director of climate and energy policy for the National Wildlife Foundation. “It’s one of the few areas where folks on both sides of the aisle see the potential to come together and work on a climate solution.” 

For supporters, all of this is a sign of essential progress – a coalescing around a technology they see as necessary for the world to have any hope of drastically reducing the concentration of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere by midcentury. But for some environmentalists, particularly those on the progressive left, the flurry of activity is a worrisome sign that Big Oil is coopting the label of “climate action” to delay a necessary phase-out of fossil fuels. 

They are particularly concerned with carbon capture, the technology that traps and stores carbon emissions before they enter the atmosphere. Last month, a White House advisory group on addressing environmental injustices wrote to the president expressing opposition to this technology as a climate solution, citing it as an example of “the types of projects that will not benefit a community.” 

'Greenwashing' with a pretty narrative?

“It's a greenwashing technique,” says John Noel, Senior Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace US. “They can adopt the language of climate action just by talking about CCS [climate capture and storage] in a press statement.”

Still, Mr. Noel acknowledges that the narrative of carbon capture is appealing. Basically, the idea is that companies can use technology to catch carbon emissions at their source, so none of the greenhouse gasses go into the atmosphere. They then send that carbon elsewhere, to be stored underground, used in products such as carbonated beverages, or even returned to oil fields in a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”

This means, in theory, that a coal or gas-powered plant could operate without releasing carbon into the air – a reason, most observers agree, that the fossil fuel companies have been so enthusiastic about supporting it. 

Over the past year, large gas and oil companies have faced increasing pressure from shareholders, governments, and even court systems to cut emissions. For them, carbon capture could be a win-win: a way to achieve climate goals while also continuing their operations. 

Supporters of carbon capture technology also point out that with successful deployment of the technology, communities dependent on fossil fuel production could maintain their plants and jobs – as well as related industries such as pipeline construction, which could evolve into a carbon transportation infrastructure. 

But all of this, Mr. Noel and other critics say, simply distracts from and delays the necessary phase-out of fossil fuel production – something even the generally conservative International Energy Agency called for in an unusually direct report last month.

Calls for realism

Still, many involved with both carbon capture and carbon removal – a different carbon management technology that involves collecting carbon that already exists in the atmosphere – say it’s important to be realistic rather than ideological.

 

Daniel Becerril/Reuters/File
A worker walks next to a mixer truck at a concrete plant of Mexican cement maker CEMEX in Monterrey, Mexico, on January 25, 2020. Cement making accounts for an estimated 8% of global carbon emissions – discharges that could potentially be mitigated by carbon capture technology.

“The world uses a lot of fossil fuels,” says Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a center-right organization that supports innovation-based approaches for lowering emissions. “If you look at just the coal fleet that China has built over the last two decades … the idea that they’re going to prematurely retire that terawatt of brand new, high efficiency coal plants is difficult to believe.”

Many industrial processes also release emissions. Carbon dioxide is a chemical biproduct of cement manufacturing, for instance. While many groups are investigating how to create low carbon cement, currently cement manufacturing alone produces 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the Chatham House think tank. Carbon capture, supporters say, could have a huge impact on this. 

“Having a solution for very economically capturing those emissions, either directly from the plants, or perhaps the air, is pretty vital if we’re serious about solving the problem,” Mr. Powell says.

The cost challenge

But that word, “economically,” continues to be a sticking point.

The technology for capturing carbon has existed, in some form, for decades. Today, there are 13 commercial scale carbon capture facilities in the U.S., along with a handful of direct air capture operations in the U.S. and Europe. The problem, explains Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, is that the cost of trapping or removing carbon is disproportionately high – far more than most governments and companies are willing to pay. 

This means that even with a carbon offsets market – a way to “buy” emissions reductions, which many fuel-intense sectors, such as the aviation industry, see as essential for reaching net-zero pledges – the finances simply don’t work. It still costs more to remove a ton of carbon than a company would pay for a ton’s worth of carbon offsets.

“We’re still mostly at the starting line,” Dr. Herzog says.

But carbon management advocates see huge potential. A combination of private investment, government support and new technological breakthroughs could prove game-changing for carbon management – and the global fight to combat climate change, says Brad Crabtree, a director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a bipartisan group of more than 80 businesses and groups that has been lobbying for support of carbon technologies.

“What we need to do from a public policy standpoint is to leverage the same sort of policy framework that has led to such huge success in wind and solar,” he says. 

To that end, the Carbon Capture Coalition has been pushing a number of different legislative initiatives, including an extension of – and adjustments to – a tax credit for companies to recoup spending on carbon capture. Other efforts include the SCALE Act, a bipartisan bill designed to help drive carbon dioxide storage and transport. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan also includes carbon capture, storage, and removal components, proposing 10 carbon capture demonstrations in an effort to commercialize the technology.

Lee Beck, international director for carbon capture at the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, says the combined policy agenda could increase the U.S. carbon management capacity 13 times over – something she sees as crucial for fighting climate change, despite the critics’ concerns. 

“Every single technology has trade-offs,” she says. “There’s not a single bullet. There’s not a single technology that will do the job on its own. We need to enable each region, each country, to decarbonize with technologies that work.”

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