Apr 27, 2021

Biden sees net zero emissions in our future, but the plan relies partly on magic

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The technology to capture carbon does not exist — at least not at scale.

Carbon capture is the talk of the climate scene right now. That’s technology that removes planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air and sequesters it in the Earth. On Thursday, which was Earth Day, President Joe Biden laid out a vision of net zero emissions by 2050 that relies partly on carbon removal. Also, Elon Musk last week officially launched a $100 million XPrize to fund carbon capture tech. Australia plans to spend more than $400 million on it, too.

But climate scientists say carbon capture risks making us think we can just keep emitting all we want. I spoke with James Dyke, a senior lecturer in global systems at the University of Exeter, who recently wrote about this in the Conversation. He said there’s another big problem with carbon capture and storage. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

James Dyke: The technology does not exist. And that sounds like a very startling statement because surely it does, right? I mean, if we are literally banking our civilization, surely we’re doing that on the basis of well-researched, well-established, scalable technologies. And I know when I talk to people, they’re very surprised to learn that the ideas of net zero, the ideas of carbon dioxide removal, were not generated by scientists or engineers. The ideas behind direct capture were actually kind of invented in this climate economic-modeling policy context. And they for years, if not decades, served as a placeholder for future technological solutions that will somehow produce the required negative flux of carbon out of the atmosphere and into either the soils, into trees, into a geological reservoir. And none of these things exist at scale.

Molly Wood: I mean, we’re having increasing policy conversations. The oil and gas industry is saying, “Let’s definitely put $100 billion into carbon capture technology.” Should we stop all that work right now, in your view?

Dyke: There will be some role for carbon capture storage, absolutely. But if you look at the example of carbon capture storage for coal, it was a disaster, it’s never worked. You start having to put scrubbers on chimneys, and then have to pipe it and compress it and develop geological storage sites — it becomes far too expensive. So really, the solution is not to try to continue humanity’s addictions with fossil fuels. It’s to invest in the green technologies that we need to be able to transition away from and completely. So that’s renewables, wind, waves, solar, for example.

Wood: And that ultimately takes policy, right?

Dyke: Yes. You know, we can all have good lives, we just need to emit less carbon dioxide, which means we might need to change patterns of consumption, patterns of travel, maybe some of the things that we eat. It’s a potentially fundamental reworking of our industrialized societies. Now, that sounds very scary. But through that, we can address an awful lot of the other kinds of social challenges or social problems that we currently face. For example, widening inequality, food and fuel poverty. So political will is absolutely crucial. But if you’re going to say that, you need to get much, much more engaged about how that political will is going to get involved.

Wood: On a relative scale, how worried or optimistic would you say you are?

Dyke: I’m perennially optimistic. But I don’t want to be delusional. And I can’t fabricate solutions out of thin air, which is literally what we’re proposing to do with lots of these net zero policies. We have to look at them and we have to assess them in a very sober and critical light. Now, some people say that I’m optimistic and idealistic because I actually think we can undertake the kind of changes to our societies, to our economic systems, maybe change our political systems, which would be required in order to do the necessary decarbonization. So they say I’m just being unrealistic. But these are the very same people who essentially invent carbon unicorns, sometime around the middle of this century, that’s going to sequester tens of billions of [tons of] carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with very, very little evidence.

Now, I think I’m actually much more realistic. I think my optimism is based on the inherent properties of people, our ability to self-organize, our ability to support, help one another. We’re a tremendously caring and altruistic species — I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, right? But the reason that bad things happen in the news is because that is, by far and away, the minority of how humans behave. We largely get along. There are cities that have tens of millions of people, and it largely works. We can largely cooperate, work together to solve these kinds of problems. And we’ve done it since we started farming 13,000 years ago. Obviously, the challenge is much, much larger now, but I certainly think it’s within us. It’s certainly within us in the terms of innovation of our social systems, our economic systems, our political systems. That’s where the innovation is. We got to stop deluding ourselves that the innovation is going to be some kind of magical technological solution because in effect, that’s just stopping us doing the hard work that is required right now.

Wood: Unicorns, I love it. I know that some technologist is going to hear this and go, “I see what you’re saying. We should just pump the carbon into space.”

Dyke: [Laughs] I remember having a chat with somebody saying, “Yeah, but what if we just convert it to microwave radiation and beam it to the moon?” Well, thermodynamically, that might work. But there is this sense of you kind of crushing people’s dreams. You want to believe that we’re going to fix this. You want to believe in this optimistic, bright, shiny, technologically advanced future. And when you come back with a solution, which is about maybe citizens’ assemblies or maybe listening to people or trying to broaden out the climate policy content — that’s boring. That’s not SpaceX or Teslas or shiny suits and space stations and people living on Mars. So I completely get how you can be so invested in these kinds of technological solution space.

President Joe Biden speaks during climate change virtual summit from the East Room of the White House campus April 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
President Joe Biden speaks during the climate summit on Earth Day, attempting to reenergize the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Here is Dyke’s piece, which he co-wrote with two other scientists. And here is the XPrize page. I’m surprised Elon Musk himself hasn’t suggested pumping the carbon into space, but maybe I should give it time.

The BBC reported on direct air capture tech, how it would work and how much it might cost. It quotes one paper that said that to keep up with current carbon dioxide emissions, the world would need to build something like 30,000 large-scale plants capturing carbon from the air, and that each plant would cost up to $500 million to build, for a total of around $15 trillion. Doable to save the planet, probably, but then you’d need massive amounts of solvents to absorb the carbon dioxide, more than the entire annual supply of one particular chemical, according to the BBC. And you would also need about a sixth of the total energy in the world to run the plants — so much that they’d have to be powered by gas, which I guess is why you can see why ExxonMobil, as I mentioned, is ready to sink $100 billion into this idea, as long as, reportedly, it can get tax breaks and other potential subsidies, including a price on carbon that would make the technology profitable.

For some further context, the ExxonMobil plan would remove 50 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030, which sounds like a lot. But here’s a little math trick I learned recently from Bill Gates’ new climate book, which is that we humans emit 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. So in exchange for tax breaks and subsidies and the right to keep doing fossil fuel extraction and burning, ExxonMobil is offering to start capturing just under one tenth of 1% of the world’s emissions nine years from now. I should say that Bill Gates himself is also an investor in carbon capture technologies, and some of his environmental critics have argued that he should have more faith in renewable energy solutions and societal change. But at least I learned that good math trick, which is something to think about.

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