Carbon capture and sequestration continues to get attention from fossil fuel companies and jurisdictions trying to maintain their profits and tax revenues. But it’s worth looking at what it would cost. The scale of the problem is enormous and the cost of capturing CO2 from the air and storing it somewhere is very high — about two times the global GDP.
Prior to the industrial revolution there was about 250 ppm of CO2 in the air. Now we’re at about 400 ppm. Each part per million represents about 7.81 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide or about 2.13 gigatonnes of carbon by itself. That means about 1,172 gigatonnes of CO2 would have to be removed from the atmosphere to bring it back to pre-industrial levels and stop global warming.
A gigatonne is 1,000,000,000,000 kilograms. A trillion kilograms. 2.2 trillion pounds.
Each tonne of CO2 will cost $120-$140 USD to capture, ship and sequester. That means that capturing and sequestering the 1,172 gigatonnes would cost about $140 trillion to $164 trillion USD. The global GDP in 2015 was about $76 trillion dollars, so capturing all of the excess CO2 in the air would cost about two years of the total creation of wealth for the entire world, with nothing spent on anything else.
The largest form of human sequestration is in enhanced oil recovery fields, where CO2 is pumped in one end of mostly tapped out fields, the acidity liquifies the remaining sludge and the pressure pushes it to the other end where it is pumped out. CO2 in, more carbon-bearing fossil fuels out. Not really all that sensible when you look at it from that perspective.
In 2008, the entire enhanced oil recovery use of CO2 was 48 million tonnes or 0.048 gigatonnes. That’s about 0.004% of the necessary sequestration. Put another way, if CO2 were captured in the air and used for enhanced oil recovery at the same rate, it would take over 24,000 years to sequester the carbon emitted in the past couple of hundred years.
And that wouldn’t really help with all of the CO2 being put into the air from burning more fossil fuels. Currently, about 10 gigatonnes of CO2 are added to the atmosphere annually. That would require spending $1.2 to $1.4 trillion USD to capture and sequester just to stand still. That’s about twice the USA’s annual military budget, to put it in a little perspective. All for something with no inherent value.
And it won’t help with the non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions such as methane.
The answer isn’t carbon capture and sequestration. That’s a small wedge. Useful to spend a bit on, but not an answer. The answer is to decarbonize electrical generation, then electrify everything. That will eliminate most CO2e emissions in the first place.
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