The Make America First Case for Carbon Capture

The Make America First Case for Carbon Capture
AP Photo/Branden Camp, File

Next month, United Nations scientists are set to report that we can no longer win the battle against climate change by reducing carbon emissions: we have to start draining those emissions from the air. This conclusion simply adds to a growing scientific consensus that carbon removal technologies that actively remove CO2 already in circulation can be delayed no longer. Thus far, the U.S. government has only shown lukewarm support for these technologies, but America has as much to gain as anyone from their mass adoption. It’s time for President Donald J. Trump and his administration to take a second look at this issue to put America first in carbon capture technology.

The UN report is hardly surprising given the problems that have blighted the Paris climate agreement. Trump, of course, has already pulled out, and many other countries are showing indifference; a report earlier this year ranked three-quarters of EU member-states “poor” in their attempts to meet their Paris obligations. A recent meeting, supposed to lay down a set of rules for the agreement’s implementation, ended in deadlock – the latest in a series of tetchy summits that have exposed political fault lines in the accord.

As those lofty Paris targets recede into the distance, many scientists say it’s now too late. They add that, even if we manage to limit global warming to 1.5°C, this target is too conservative to avoid the worse effects of climate change. It’s time to start removing the carbon in our atmosphere rather than merely restricting it. The Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the World Resources Institute (WRI) have all reached this conclusion in recent months, while America’s own National Academy of Sciences is expected to take the same line shortly.

Carbon removal can be achieved through a variety of means, from planting trees to more advanced forms of carbon capture and storage (CCS). One of the most exciting of these approaches, known as direct air capture, sucks the carbon directly out of the air – often using a chemical absorbent – before storing or using it. Swiss firm Climeworks has raised over $30m for a patent-pending technology that filters the CO2 out of ambient air, while Canadian firm Carbon Engineering has developed giant fans that vacuum up the gases.

Scientists believe that there’s no limit to the amount of CO2 that can be harvested through direct air capture technology, and geological surveys from the authority Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shown that Earth has the capacity to sequester more than 1,000 years’ worth of CO2 – so there’s no lack of storage space. It’s also believed that retrofitting coal-fired power stations with advanced CCS mechanisms could reduce their emissions by up to 100%, a crucial benefit as so many countries still rely on fossil fuels.

But CCS technologies, particularly direct air capture, remain highly expensive. Climeworks, for example, says it currently costs between $600 and $800 to capture a ton of CO2. Although recent analyses have shown the cost of these technologies can be reduced exponentially, it requires a huge amount of investment at government level to realize these cost reductions and scale up the technologies.

The Trump administration has yet to fully commit to this technology, yet there have been some small steps forward. In May, for instance, the Department of Energy officially launched the Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) Initiative, which will be led by the U.S., Norway and Saudi Arabia along with other international partners. The government has expanded tax credits to accelerate investment in CCS, and extended eligibility to companies involved in direct air capture. And while the administration has slashed the DOE’s 2019 budget for R&D on CCS by up to 76%, it’s still backed a study to explore the viability of direct air capture.

If the government commits further resources to carbon removal, this process can eat up 25% of America’s emissions. President Trump understands that the global market for carbon removal is predicted to be worth $12 billion by 2023, and retro-fitting power plants with CCS technology will help the U.S. export more clean coal. COcan be recycled, from bricks to shoes (in fact, America is already using recycled carbon dioxide to boost its oil industry).

President Trump has already done some great work in this arena. America has achieved better emissions reduction figures than any other country since 2005; CO2 output from its power sector have fallen to 30-year lows. In contrast, current WRI projections show that, even in 30 years’ time, the technology will require around 7% of America’s entire energy output to capture a tiny fraction of its emissions. Yet we still have a ways to go, because the U.S. still has the world’s second-biggest carbon footprint, and it’s on track to miss its Paris targets by up to a third. A new study from Nature Climate Change suggests only India suffers more from carbon pollution than the U.S.

Activists will no doubt be watching with interest when Congress votes on a new piece of bipartisan legislation, which would establish a prize program for CCS technologies as well as an advisory board for direct air capture. Naturally, this would be a major boon to those working on carbon removal technologies. If America wants to be a leader in this field, this is a good first step.

Beau Rothschild, the founder of Rothschild Policy and Politics, formerly served as the members outreach director for the Committee on House Administration.

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