25 April 2013

The Importance of Carbon Capture to the Climate Debate

UPDATE: The journal Climatic Change has a special issue on this subject just out, it is open access and can be found here.

Dan Sarewitz and I have a piece just out in The Atlantic on the importance of carbon capture to the debate over climate change. Here is how the short piece starts out:
Today, more than 85 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels. Despite centuries of growing use, these fuels remain abundant. Powerful economic and political interests are organized around the fossil-energy system, as are complex social arrangements (consider, for example, the dependence of rapidly expanding cities on conventional electrical grids).

These realities have made a mockery of the 20-plus years of international efforts to wean the world off oil, coal, and natural gas. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying; when it comes to climate-change mitigation, a shift to carbon-free energy remains the Platonic ideal. Yet it is past time to acknowledge that on any given day, “Drill, baby, drill!” is in fact a highly effective strategy for continuing to deliver the many benefits of cheap energy.

As a result, it’s also past time to explore more seriously a parallel path to reducing greenhouse gases—one focused not on moving off fossil fuels, but on capturing the carbon that these fuels emit.
Head over to The Atlantic to read the whole thing.

Dan and I last conspired on a piece in The Atlantic on climate change back in 2000 (Al Gore was on the cover, with fangs;-). Here is that oldie-but-goodie as well.

We'd welcome your comments. Thanks!

10 comments:

  1. "As a result, it’s also past time to explore more seriously a parallel path to reducing greenhouse gases—one focused not on moving off fossil fuels, but on capturing the carbon that these fuels emit."

    I suppose so. A bit like cutting the horns from unicorns to make them safe. It would be great if it was at a small cost. It would keep the noise pollution down too !!

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  2. If you look at the total amount of carbon released into the atmosphere annually about 97% is natural and about 3% is from burning fossil fuels. And about half the anthropomorphic seems to be taken out of the atmosphere by nature. Put in this context, you have to increase mother nature's absorption from 98.5% of what is released to 100%. What does it take to increase the natural rate of CO2 absorption by just 1.5%? I honestly don't know but when I hear of the methods being proposed to capture CO2, concentrate it, then pump it into the ground I am dumbfounded. I've heard these system will use a substantial portion of the power generation capacity of the plant to operate, nearly 30%. At least people using CO2 for enhance oil extraction will have a revenue stream to pay for their efforts.
    If CO2 capture is ever going to become a viable solution, I think the CO2 will have to be treated as a resource like it is in the oil industry. Could advanced bio-fuel production be co-located with gas for coal fired power plants and could the low grade heat and CO2 emissions be used in bio-fuel green houses? Could CO2 from a power plant be combined with high mineral content in our rivers (from agriculture) to precipitate out limestone (using low grade heat) that could be used in agriculture or other uses? When it comes to CO2 capture, think like biologists and chemists rather than engineers. Mother nature is likely already using the most efficient approaches.

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  3. The cost of CCS will be at least 50 USD/tonne of liquid CO2.

    The cost of CO2 credits on the EU market is nearly 1/20th of that price.

    With that spread, there will be no viable CCS.

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  4. "While the cost of air capture is largely speculative—current estimates range from $20 to $2,000 per ton of carbon dioxide removed—it appears to be comparable with the equally speculative cost of moving the global energy system off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy resources, which might reduce global GDP by several percentage points."

    no problem with the rest of your article but the paragraph above is a whopper Roger...

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  5. With respect, the economics of CCS look even worse than those for large-scale windpower generation.

    Nor is there any strong evidence for CO2 as a near-term environmental problem.

    Why would society spend money (other than blue-sky research) on such an unpromising idea? There are actual, real problems that could certainly use the funding....

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  6. "Yet it is past time to acknowledge that on any given day, “Drill, baby, drill!” is in fact a highly effective strategy for continuing to deliver the many benefits of cheap energy."

    I'd love to see some analysis of when this is true, and to what degree.

    The catchphrase came out of ANWR (as I recall), but most analysis at the time (again, as I recall) suggested that drilling ANWR for oil would have virtually no impact on the price of oil that consumers faced.

    What about Keystone XL? What kind of impact will building, or not building it have on prices?

    I know that, globally, producing fossil fuel resources is necessary to deliver the benefits of cheap energy given current systems and infrastructure. It's much less clear to me how much this argument can be made for individual cases and projects - Roger, if you could speak to this, it would be great!

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  7. "Various chemical processes, some of which are already widely adopted for industrial applications (such as producing hydrogen and ammonia), can remove up to 90 percent of power-plant emissions, although they have yet to be deployed on a large scale."

    It seems to me that making this more widespread would be an excellent starting point before we begin to wonder about drawing carbon directly from the atmosphere. The cost of the technology has already been mentioned, perhaps efforts should focus on that and other ways to make this option more attractive to private industries (since federal regulation is unlikely). I'm also skeptical that drawing carbon from the atmosphere would be cost-effective, feasible or attractive on a large scale in places that are developing their economies and becoming sources of carbon pollution.

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  8. Hi,

    An analysis that rather easily refutes the Science magazine notion that global warming is "irreversible."

    In my analysis, the world spends 10 percent of its GDP under various IPCC scenarios, starting in the year 2100, and ending when ambient CO2 concentrations have been reduced to the pre-industrial concentration of about 300 ppm.

    I don't start the analysis until 2100, because those folks will be filthy rich. (Even per the IPCC, which dramatically underestimates likely economic growth in the 21st century.)

    http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2013/04/global_warming_is_not_irreversible-1.html

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  9. Problem is, Mark, in 2100 higher temperatures will be the new status quo ante. We will have adapted, and probably will be opposed to anthropogenic global cooling.

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  10. "@9Problem is, Mark, in 2100 higher temperatures will be the new status quo ante. We will have adapted, and probably will be opposed to anthropogenic global cooling."

    It seems to me that depends on warm it is in 2100. I think the world will be 1-2 degrees Celsius warmer than at present. If that's the case, I agree that people might simply let things go. But it was more like 3+ degrees Celsius, I think they'd reduce.

    But even if they reduce, they'd probably start with carbon capture at stationary sources.

    In fact, if we look to before the middle of the 20th century, I think there's the possibility of using CO2 from stacks to make fuels. (I think that window is closing fairly rapidly...because I expect the majority of vehicle-miles in automobiles to be by batteries before the middle of the century.

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