Author’s note: This article is NOT meant to question the importance of reducing our long-term reliance on fossil fuels as energy sources. Alternative energy measures, emissions regulations, and climate treaties are not only necessary but vital. This article’s purpose is to examine the very real threat of what should happen if these options fail.
It seems that the concept of climate change has become synonymous with ‘doomsday’. To hear the story told, we’re on a runaway freight train that will inevitably crash and burn in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics. Undeniably, that is the direction where we’re headed, but framing it in that light is rather defeatist. I mean, this is the only planet we’ve got (well, that and the new Earth-like planet that was discovered a few days ago…). And no matter how bleak our fate might look, our salvation lies in innovative solutions, not bottomless cynicism.
Enough with the sermon. I want to talk a little bit about carbon capture and storage (CCS). I’ve discussed the technical aspects of each in previous posts, but I’d like to look at the broader implications. Carbon capture and storage are both young and evolving disciplines that encompass a broad array of technological solutions to the carbon dioxide problem. Capturing carbon isn’t fundamentally a difficult process. Just like scrubbers in power plants remove harmful particles from the flue gas or exhaust, chemically treated surfaces can be used to bind with carbon dioxide and trap it. The catch? The energy bill.
While binding CO2 is simple enough, removing it from the surface once it’s been caught is another story entirely. Imagine that you’ve just used a paper towel to mop up a mess from your kitchen counter. Now try removing all the dirt from the paper towel and putting the paper towel back to work again. While this sounds like something straight out of a Bounty commercial, it creates a real problem for carbon capture technologies. The principle of capture is simple. The challenge is to cut the amount of energy and therefore the cost needed to recycle the scrubber after each use.
Once CO2 has been captured, it needs to be permanently stored. There have been many ideas proposed, including storage in ocean floor sediments, geological formations, depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and even within rock layers where it will react over time to form stable minerals. Each scenario bears its own share of challenges, but the point is that it can, in principle, be done.
To digress just for a second, it’s worth mentioning another portfolio of proposed solutions, which falls beneath the umbrella of ‘geoengineering’. I need to clarify here that geoengineering and CCS are distinct and very different from each another. While the goal of CCS is to reverse the addition of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, most geoengineering approaches involve changing the climate through means other than CO2.
Perhaps the most commonly cited geoengineering strategy is the use of atmospheric aerosols (microscopic particles) to reflect sunlight. This operates on the same principle as volcanoes, which can cool the climate by spewing ash and dust high into the atmosphere. They can remain there for months to years and reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. Unfortunately, this can create secondary problems such as acid rain and fundamentally fails to address the root cause of climate change – CO2.
Let’s jump back to CCS. The price tag on carbon capture alone is currently $100 to $200 US per ton of CO2. This price is what it would cost to remove CO2 directly from the air, and could be done virtually anywhere in the world. To compare, Norway, which has one of the highest carbon taxes in the world, charges an average of $21 US per ton. Finally, the social cost of carbon – the economic damage associated with climate change, including agricultural losses, health risks, and flooding (and therefore the amount we would be willing to pay to prevent it) – is estimated as $7 to $85 US per ton of CO2.
It’s obvious that the price tag on carbon capture and storage is currently too high to invest in it as a realistic solution. However, as research and development into CCS continues, its cost is expected to drop significantly. At the same time, the social cost of carbon will continue to rise in response to droughts, flooding, and extreme weather events. Eventually, the two will meet, and at that point, CCS will become the economically desirable alternative. Ideally, we should never need to resort to CCS. If global efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions are successful in the short to medium-term, it is possible that CCS will remain nothing more than a pipe dream.
However, more important than the actual implementation of CCS is what it represents. Carbon capture and storage serves a backstop technology – a solution that can be applied no matter the severity of the problem. Air capture can be implemented no matter the circumstances and at virtually any scale to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This is not to say that we have a ‘get out of jail free card’. The effects of climate change are very real and quite possibly disastrous. Impacts such as rising sea level and ocean acidification cannot be reversed.
What this doesn’t imply is that the only way forward is deeper into the rabbit hole. Research shows that it is often easier for countries to cooperate on research and development than it is to draft and enforce global climate treaties. Investing in technologies to solve problems is something governments are good at. Restructuring their economies and trusting other countries to do the same is a different ball game entirely.
Until next time, be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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Cover photo courtesy of Bruce Irschick, Flickr Creative Commons. Other images from Wikimedia Commons.