At RealClearScience Chris Hawes surveys some developments in carbon capture technology:
According to a recent major UN report, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions to net zero by 2050. This means eliminating fossil fuel use fast – but to cushion that transition and offset the areas in which there is currently no replacement for combustibles, we need to actively remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. Planting trees and rewilding are a large part of this solution, but we are highly likely to need further technological assistance if we are to prevent climate breakdown.
So when recent news emerged that Canadian company Carbon Engineering has harnessed some well-known chemistry to capture CO₂ from the atmosphere at a cost of less than $100 a tonne, many media sources hailed the milestone as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, the big picture isn’t as simple. Truly tipping the balance from carbon source to carbon sink is a delicate business, and our view is that the energy costs involved and likely downstream uses of captured CO₂ mean that Carbon Engineering’s “bullet” is anything but magic.
I haven’t summarized my views on this issue for a while so this looks like a good opportunity. I think it is evident to anyone who cares to observe that climate is changing and it has always been changing. That human beings are a contributing factor to the process can hardly be denied as well. Human beings have been, at the very least, a contributing factor to the desertification of the Arab Peninsula and the Sahara through overgrazing.
Most of the Chicago area used to be a marsh. That people drained and filled in the marshes, even redirecting rivers to make things more conducive to the population is a matter of record. Before the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, the Los Angeles basin was home to at most a few thousand people. Now more than 10 million people live there, paving over the pre-existing scrub, bringing in water and all of the other things people need to live.
There is presently an enormous accumulation of heat in the ocean off the coast of China. It’s hard to find an explanation for it other than the the huge number of people and the industrialization of the last several decades. All of these examples I’ve presented are local change but all have implications that reach far beyond those localities.
I don’t know whether carbon in the atmosphere is the primary culprit. I think it’s probably a factor. I’m skeptical of fine-tuned predictions of what is going to happen. I think the matter is too complex for that. I do think that extracting carbon that has been stored for millions of years and injecting it into the atmosphere in the millions of tons is bound to have some effect.
I also think that demanding that the Chinese and Indians eschew any ambitions for improving the lots of their people because doing so emits too much carbon will be futile while demanding that we first reduce the amount of carbon we’re emitting, then become net zero, then net negative is not only futile but fantastical.
I think that reducing the amount of oil that we burn for fuel would be a good idea if only because the stuff is to darned useful for other purposes. I think that wind and solar power are good for some niche uses, particularly for producing consumer electricity where sunlight is plentiful, e.g. Southern California and the American Southwest, but we still need reliable sources of power for places not so blessed and presently the best candidate for that would be nuclear power. I have expressed a preference for small scale nuclear reactors based on thorium as “inherently safe”.
I think that carbon capture is a promising technology and we should be looking to it, particularly in the areas adjacent to power plants, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Consequently, I see a diverse energy future that includes nuclear in our future. Less coal and oil, more natural gaS.
And for goodness sake don’t do what the Germans have been doing.