The carbon capture conundrum

Climate Economy

The carbon capture conundrum

Share on

Capturing carbon from the air could be the planet’s saving grace, but the technology is drastically inadequate. Is it worth investing in right now?

Pulling carbon from the air is vital to fighting climate change. Even if all global carbon emissions stopped today, the world’s atmospheric carbon concentration would rest at around 416 parts per million, far beyond the threshold of the 350 ppm of the past million years. As a result, multilateral bodies like the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now incorporate “negative emissions” mechanisms into their global warming scenario calculations. 

The race to capture carbon

As the race towards a low-carbon economy accelerates, carbon capture and storage technology are crucial — and increasingly contentious — parts of the climate discussion. Governments, companies, and the world’s billionaires are stumbling over themselves to pledge their allegiance — and part of their fortunes — to the concept. Yet, while everyone agrees it will cost trillions, scientists and engineers are far from certain how to make it work. That includes the world’s richest man and most public technologist Elon Musk, who in late January offered a $100 million investment in the first company to come up with a surefire solution. 

Some believe that mechanically sequestering carbon from the air is the silver bullet that will avert cataclysmic climate breakdown. However, today’s leading technology is drastically inadequate to confront the breadth of global emissions being released. Environmentalists argue that “carbon capture” is a convenient term used by most culprit emitters (read fossil fuel companies) to convince the public that a scalable solution is at hand.

Some believe that mechanically sequestering carbon from the air is the silver bullet that will avert cataclysmic climate breakdown.

Although President Biden’s “Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution” calls to “accelerate the development and deployment of carbon capture technology,” the new administration has yet to detail any further policy guidelines. So far, Biden has outlined a plan for advancing renewable energy solutions while setting an agenda to reduce emissions “by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees,” and analogous marine vegetation.

While biological approaches to carbon drawdown can benefit increased biodiversity and local access to nature, they require long-term planning: Trees, for example, can take decades before reaching the most effective point of carbon sequestration. And who knows what a future generation will do with those trees. Additionally, the drawdown of reforestation programs is extremely hard to regulate, thus allowing for malpractice in green carbon offsets. Look no further than the Amazon. 

Rampant public confusion

As natural carbon solutions come with their own setbacks, there is rampant public confusion around the different capture technologies currently being deployed. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is directed at capturing carbon emissions from high-emitting industries like steel, cement, or even fossil fuel combustion.

There is rampant public confusion around the different technologies currently being deployed.

The most famous carbon capture method involves sucking CO2 from the atmosphere, a highly energy intensive process known as direct air capture (DAC).

Zach Byrum, an analyst at the World Resources Institute, emphasizes that industrial CCS is the priority. “The focus should be on reducing emissions from carbon-intensive industries, as there are no current alternatives to these manufacturing processes,” Byrum explains. Such sentiments have been echoed by the Global Cement and Concrete Association, which has pledged an ambitious goal of using CCS technology to meet its 2050 carbon neutral agenda.

Others, including Bill Gates, advocate that direct air capture machines are the long-term solutions — despite the current technology’s profound insufficiency. Gates has invested in a huge project led by Canada-based Carbon Engineering, in partnership with energy majors Chevron and Occidental. Their goal: to build the world’s largest DAC plant in the Permian Basin of western Texas. Once completed, it is estimated to draw down one million metric tons of CO2 annually. Sounds impressive, but that is a drop in the bucket of the five billion metric tons of CO2 that are emitted annually by the United States alone.  

…that is a drop in the bucket of the five billion metric tons of CO2 that are emitted annually by the United States alone.

Don’t believe the hype: Oil majors spends 0.8% on renewable energy, biofuels, and carbon capture technologies.

If it works, the Permian plant will surpass all other competition – Swiss-based ClimeWorks, for example, draws down a mere 1000 metric tons of CO2 a year. But again, that is minuscule in the face of the gargantuan footprint of the fossil fuel majors. And despite a recent boast by Exxon that it intends to spend $300 billion on carbon capture, not a nickel of that investment is evident now. According to the report “Big Oil Reality Check” from Oil Change International, Big Oil spends an average of 0.8% of its capital expenditures on a combination of renewable energy, biofuels, and carbon capture technologies.

Big name players like Bill Gates promote technocratic solutions to climate mitigation, including geoengineering, CCS, and other very risky approaches that don’t solve the problem at its source – the continued burning of fossil fuels,” explains prominent climate scientist Michael Man.

This is particularly relevant to the Carbon Engineering plant in Texas (funded by Chevron and Gates) that requires the combustion of natural gas to power it.

Leaking Methane: How is that captured?

While Carbon Engineering claims that all carbon emissions will be captured from its gas generator, this does not consider the scope 3 methane emissions that West Texas gas is infamous for. Shale gas has come under great scrutiny for escalating U.S. methane emissions when it is extracted, transported, and wells are left to leak indefinitely after their abandonment. 

Direct air capture plants may be a marketable concept, or “social capital,” in which companies get credit for investing in them. Yet some climate scientists suggest that, regardless of the method, instead of one-off projects by individual companies, carbon capture should be regarded as part of a comprehensive, longer-term plan towards atmospheric normalization.

Some climate scientists suggest that carbon capture should be regarded as part of a comprehensive, longer-term plan towards atmospheric normalization.

There is no question that carbon drawdown might become important as a supplementary mitigation tool, but natural approaches like reforestation, afforestation, and regenerative agriculture seem far safer,” Mann continues.

That argument suggests that today’s priority should be to achieve impact through ecological regeneration while simultaneously making high-emitting industries carbon neutral. In the meantime, we would wait for technology like direct air capture to mature and prove itself.

However, it is unlikely that personal investments from Musk and Gates alone will suffice in catalyzing the necessary technological revolution. In fact, reframing this alongside a WWII-scale mobilization or a Mars landing-like achievement would be essential to genuinely addressing the scale and scope of what must be done to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.



Written by

Milo McBride

Milo McBride is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. His background is in climate advocacy with the Sunrise Movement.