Carbon Capture and Storage Is Not a Silver Bullet, But…

By Perry Bryant 

            I enjoyed reading Dr. Pokladnik’s well-written article on carbon capture and storage in December’s Highlands Voice. I agree with her overall position that carbon capture and storage is not a silver bullet. However, I disagree with her conclusion that carbon capture and storage “is just a fossil-fuel distraction that is wasting time and tax payer money.”

            Carbon capture and storage is taking carbon out of the flue gases at coal or natural gas power plants or other industrial sources and storing the carbon deep underground.

Despite the problems with carbon capture and storage (it’s currently uneconomical on an industrial level among other problems), I support continued research and development into carbon capture and storage. 

Why? Several reasons, including the fact that many leading scientists believe that it is an important technology in preventing global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Both the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of the world’s climate scientist, and the International Energy Agency, the world’s experts on energy, included carbon capture and storage when they developed their pathway to holding global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Some proponents of carbon capture took these inclusions to be an endorsement of carbon capture and storage. It is not an explicit endorsement, but is, in my opinion, an implicit endorsement.

The National Acadamies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in their report, Accelerating Decarbonization of the U.S. Energy System, didn’t just include an implicit endorsement of carbon capture and storage; but rather offered a full-throated endorsement of this technology.

So, when the world’s climate scientist, the world’s energy experts, and some the nation’s leading scientists concluded either implicitly or explicitly that carbon capture and storage is needed to keep global warming below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, I take notice, and support their conclusions unless there’s a compelling reason not to.

Second, some industries are going to be very difficult to decarbonize, particularly steel and cement, two of the most versatile building materials. Europe is exploring the development of green steel, although it’s not commercially available yet. No one, at least to my knowledge, has figured out a means of creating cement without also producing a lot of carbon dioxide. Carbon capture and storage may well be the best technology to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when producing steel and cement.

Third, no one in the U.S. is planning on building new coal-fired power plants. Regretfully, that is not true for China. And the plants that they are building today will be around for 50 years or so. If the U.S. can successfully develop carbon capture and storage technology, we may be able to export this technology to China and reverse some of their reckless emissions of carbon dioxide.

Finally, there is a sister technology that may benefit from breakthroughs in carbon capture and storage technology. Direct air capture takes carbon out of the ambient air (not from flue gases) and stores it deep underground. The world already has too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Along with planting trees and preserving old growth forests, we are likely to need direct air capture technology to reduce the concentrations of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Breakthrough developments in carbon capture and storage could benefit the development of direct air capture. 

Like so much with climate change, the decision on whether to continue to support Research & Development into carbon capture and storage is not an easy choice. Along with whether to support R&D for advanced nuclear reactors (a carbon-free, base-load source of energy), support for carbon capture and storage is one of the most difficult issues in shaping climate change solutions. To use a basketball metaphor, these decisions are jump balls, and could go either way.

Keeping global warming below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius will require fundamental changes in how we produce and use energy. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is going to be the most difficult transition humankind has ever undertaken. This is going to be hard, very hard. We need, in my opinion, ever arrow possible in our quiver. We cannot afford to discard technologies that we may find essential in the future as we begin in earnest this monumental challenge.