The second half of 2017 must be an uncomfortable time to be a climate change denier. The rapidly growing list of weather records being set in recent weeks must make even the most rabid denialist squirm. The largest amount of rain to fall on the North American continent in a single storm (51 inches from Hurricane Harvey), the highest temperatures measured in San Francisco’s history (106 degrees), and what was the most powerful hurricane to originate in the Atlantic Ocean ever recorded (Irma) are among the recent high—and low—points. Add to these eye-popping new thresholds the sustained high summer temperatures in Florida and the unusually challenging fire seasons in Los Angeles, Oregon, and much of the Rocky Mountain West and the result is a near perfect storm of persuasion.
In Montana, where I live, we are in the second month of continuously unhealthy, smoke-filled air from the forty-five forest fires currently burning in the state. As of now, enough acres have burned in Montana to turn the states of Delaware or Rhode Island to blackened ash from one end to the other. Tourist dollars have evaporated as the summer activities that define this region—camping, river trips, mountain biking—have all come to a crashing halt. Meanwhile, whole towns are being evacuated and brave firefighters are dying in the woods. Combine these particular American challenges with flooding in Yemen and Bangladesh, then add a year shaping up to be among the hottest on record, and the result is a global picture in which even the fakiest of fake news is bumping up against a crushing reality.
Getting carbon out of the atmosphere has never looked so good.
While decreasing carbon emissions remains the priority, capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere may eventually be one part of the solution to the worsening climate crisis. Carbon capture technologies are not going to solve the problem on their own. They are too slow, too expensive, and too unproven to bank on for the urgent realities of today. Yet they do offer the promise of chipping away at one end of a problem that is otherwise in danger of running away from us.
Pulling carbon directly out of the surrounding air is not yet economically viable but its costs are starting to exit the well-known economic category of “laughably high.” A Swiss company, Climeworks, recently secured its first commercial contract to sell the carbon it captures out of the atmosphere to a willing purchaser. A Canadian company called Carbon Engineering is also closing in on a cost-effective technique for extracting carbon from the surrounding air so that it can be put to purposes more useful than heating up an already hot planet. The Center for Carbon Removal tracks a handful of other companies pursuing similar goals while the Virgin Earth Challenge is trying to incentivize development of these technologies with a $25 million prize.
For innovations like these to enter the mainstream, not only do they have to be economically viable, they also have to be carbon viable. It takes energy and quite a bit of industrial machinery to extract carbon from the ambient air. Remember that at 400 parts per million, carbon dioxide is only 0.04% of each industrial scoop of sky. It takes work to extract this slim fraction. There is obviously no point in doing it if the facilities generate more carbon than they can extract.
Another important question concerns the end-use of the carbon dioxide that is captured. Climeworks’ first commercial contract is with a nearby greenhouse that grows tomatoes. Greenhouses fertilized with carbon dioxide can grow 20-30% more produce than those without. Unfortunately, tomato plants don’t store carbon for very long, releasing it back into the atmosphere when they decompose at the end of the growing season.
Carbon dioxide also has value in the fizzy drinks industry, a use in which the carbon regrettably sneaks back into the atmosphere from right under your nose. Other markets for carbon dioxide make even less sense from a climate perspective. Carbon dioxide can be injected into oil wells to provide enhanced fossil fuel recovery, a practice that sounds a bit like rescuing a drowning cat from one lake in order to throw it into another.
Despite the obvious shortcomings, what one can say in favor of these various uses of captured carbon is that they are all a form of “recycling.” Each of them pulls a valuable commodity out of a waste stream (in this case, from the air) and re-purposes it for a different use. Recycling, if energy-efficient, is generally better than throwing something away.
Even better would be to do what Carbon Engineering eventually hopes to do. Their aim is to take the carbon dioxide they extract and combine it with hydrogen to create liquid hydrocarbon fuels that can power cars, trucks, and planes. If the hydrogen needed can be generated using renewable energy then this synthetic fuel production should be able to displace some of the carbon pollution currently produced by the use of fossil fuels. Digging carbon out of the air makes a lot more sense than digging it out of the ground, especially when the air is the last place you want that carbon to be.
This points to the preferred option for all that captured carbon. Find a way to sequester it deep underground or at the bottom of the ocean so that you don’t have to look at it again for millions of years. Underground, after all, is where it came from. Unfortunately, the world has not been quick to embrace this option. Only four relatively small carbon capture facilities dedicated to geological storage are in operation worldwide as of 2017 and all of them capture carbon at high-emission fuel facilities rather than out of ambient air. It’s a start, but it’s a long way from really coming to terms with the challenge.
Returning to the front end of the carbon problem, my wife and I recently decided it was time to bite the bullet and install solar panels on the roof of our house. If you are someone who has been concerned about climate change for a while it is a surprisingly moving experience to look up on your roof and see the perfect geometry of a new solar array bidding welcome to the sun’s endless supply of free and clean energy. A couple of days after they went up, I thought I should get a closer look. Standing on a desk underneath an upstairs skylight, I cranked the handle to get the few inches of viewing space the window allowed. I slowly inserted my head into the narrow gap and turned awkwardly to look up towards the new panels on the steeply pitched roof. It wasn’t a great angle and I was half stooped over to get the view. Nevertheless, I could just about see the black surfaces of the eight new panels anchored close to the ridge line.
It was a happy moment. But as I scanned our new investment, I noticed that on all of them lay a thin yet unmistakable film of forest fire ash. A sign, perhaps, of the difficult times ahead.
Solar panel photo by Andreas Gülklhorn