Catching Carbon: Why ‘Cheap’ Still Comes with a Cost.

A peer-reviewed study published last week revealed that the cost of capturing carbon directly out of the atmosphere may not be as high as initially feared.

Canadian firm Carbon Engineering have been running a pilot plant in British Columbia since 2015 capable of capturing a ton of carbon dioxide per day from the ambient air. On the basis of what they have learned, they just offered a detailed analysis of what a scaled-up plant would cost.

Using performance models, data generated by an independent engineering accounting firm, and cost estimates supplied by suitable contractors and utility providers, their analysis suggests a price of between $94 and $232 per ton of CO2 for a plant capturing one million tons of this greenhouse gas per year (with the range reflecting different financial assumptions, energy costs, and plant configurations).

This new figure is down from the most widely cited number of $600 per ton used by a Swiss competitor, Climeworks, the only company currently capturing carbon out of the air for a commercial market.

In the grand scheme of things, the study is pretty good news. A million tons a year is equivalent to the emissions of 250,000 cars. The new price estimate is below the symbolically significant $100 per ton.

Capturing carbon directly out of the ambient air suddenly looks a lot more reasonable than it did a week ago.

The report generated headlines in part because it is increasingly clear that taking carbon out of the atmosphere is going to be absolutely necessary if the global community is to stand any chance of keeping the rise in temperatures beneath 1.5 degrees Celsius, the aspiration contained in the 2015 Paris Agreement. A draft document being prepared by the IPCC and leaked in January described it as “extremely unlikely” that emissions reductions alone would make it possible to reach this goal.

thomas-millot-While nobody in the fledgling carbon-capture business is suggesting that this kind of technology replaces the need to reduce emissions, the lower price estimate is significant. The ability to cheaply remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere could be a valuable tool in the transition to a low carbon economy. It would immediately start to offset today’s fossil fuel emissions, emissions that may take a while to come down. It would be extremely useful for sectors such as aviation that are hard to de-carbonize. Furthermore, using technology to supplement the natural processes that slowly draw carbon out of the atmosphere might also eventually help get the current 410 parts per million of atmospheric carbon down to a safer number within a meaningful period.

With such promise in the air, an article in The Atlantic suggested that the new findings “could transform how humanity thinks about the problem of climate change.”

It seems that the developers of the technology hope that this is exactly what their study DOES NOT do. Lead author David Keith remains committed to the current focus on emissions reduction. “[W]e should stick to trying to cut emissions first. As a voter, my view is it’s cheaper not to emit a ton of [carbon dioxide] than it is to emit it and recapture it.”

Keith’s argument is based solely in economics but I suggest that a related set of concerns also needs to be placed up front in this conversation.

A million tons of carbon dioxide represents a lot of vehicle emissions but it amounts to only about 1/36,000 of the amount currently being added to the atmosphere each year. Dealing with these emissions – let alone the excess carbon already in the atmosphere – would require tens of thousands of these plants dotted across the landscape.

Although the authors of the paper are confident that the emissions generated in building these plants would pale in comparison to the emissions potentially sequestered by them, they admit to having done only a cursory life cycle analysis of the carbon cost of building infrastructure on this scale.

Even if the life cycle carbon costs look favorable, building on this scale would create considerable new materials and engineering needs as an entire industry was created from scratch. Attaching itself to this massive new industry, political interest groups and a whole new lobbying industry would emerge. The contentious politics created would somehow have to be grafted onto the contentious politics that already surrounds fossil fuels.

The plants themselves would be noisy and visually intrusive and would require extremely challenging debates about siting. The conceptual sketch of the required machinery on Carbon Engineering’s website indicates what you might politely call an “inelegant addition” to the landscape. Debates mirroring the ones that have followed the siting of wind turbines are almost certain. Placing these plants “offshore” may not be an option, at least not until the technology matures considerably and prices have fallen further.

The capture facilities would also demand resolving still unsettled questions about appropriate methods of disposing of the extracted carbon. (One of the suggested uses for captured carbon dioxide is, ironically, to inject it into wells for enhanced oil recovery! A better one is Carbon Engineering’s proposal to create a carbon neutral fuel). Funding, regulating, and permitting the operation of these facilities would raise questions about moral and political responsibility that are already proving difficult to resolve in other climate contexts.

In short, creating a huge new industrial machinery to contend with a problem created by the existing industrial machinery of the fossil fuel industry is a daunting prospect. There is no respect in which direct air capture of carbon provides an easy fix.

The point here is not to be negative about some rare good news on the climate front.  It is to offer the reminder that there is no get-out-of-jail-free card for this problem.

It is likely the authors of the study recognize this already.  Let’s hope those who read it do too.

Image by Thomas Millot (via Unsplash)

(*Updated on 6/15/18 to make clear that $600 is an actual cost indicated by Climeworks)

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