Carbon Capture Will Be Hard & Very Expensive, UK Scientists Say

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Carbon capture is an idea that is attracting a lot of attention from climate scientists and a great deal of research money from governments. For instance, the UK government is currently spending about $90 million to fund a competition to find the best ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

According to The Guardian, those technologies are due to begin removing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2030. The hope is that the winning methods could be scaled up and ready for market in two years. The UK government is confident that will be the case. The Department for Transport has stated, for example, that greenhouse gas removal (GGR) technologies will enable Britons to take “guilt-free flights” by the end of next year.

Yet at a Greenhouse Gas Removal Hub event in London this week, the organizers asked attendees whether they believed the carbon removal targets would be met. Of the 114 who voted, 57% said they were “not confident” the UK’s net zero by 2030 goals would be met, 25% said they were quite confident they would be, and 11% said there was no chance of that happening. [A quick poll of the people at the CleanTechnica Tiki bar next to our rooftop lap pool found 100% of them believed that much ballyhooed goal was so not happening.]

A recent government press release announced somewhat breathlessly that these technologies will enable net zero flights by 2023. Professor Mark Taylor, deputy director of energy innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told The Guardian, “No, that’s not the case.” He said the government’s position was “a little bit cheeky.” The techniques under consideration include  direct air capture, biofuels, biochar, afforestation and enhanced weathering.

Carbon Capture Is Hard & Expensive

One of the most popular approaches is direct carbon capture, a process that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and uses it to make rocks or as a feedstock for biofuels. It can also be pumped underground into abandoned oil and gas wells. Taylor says, “We need to use energy to extract the CO2, the pure stream CO2 from the solid, so what we’re looking for an integration that can drive down the costs of DCC, and particularly drive down the cost of extracting the CO2 and the energy costs of extracting the CO2. Because at the moment, there’s no point in capturing CO2 from the air and then using natural gas to run a heat process to extract a pure CO2 stream.”

Taylor adds, “People see it as having the biggest market. There’s been funding from American companies — it feels like a silver bullet, there are lots of people who like it. Ministers like it because they think: ‘Oh, that sounds easy, you can take it out the air and that’s it.’ And that’s the thing that gets investment. I’m very much on the fence as to whether it is the best solution. It’s very, very expensive. So some of the other technologies may emerge as winners, but the good thing about our competition is we pick the best one.”

Making fuel from crops means diverting food from humans so people can drive SUVs and pickup trucks. In addition, thanks to heavy rains, punishing heat, prolonged drought, and war in the Ukraine, the risk of famine is especially high this year. The same applies to reforestation, which seems like a wonderful idea except it takes land out of production for growing food as well.

Enhanced weathering involves dropping tiny rock particles into the ocean to create chemical reactions that lock carbon into seawater. While it has potential, it is in an earlier stage than many of the other carbon capture methods. It could potentially offset ocean acidification but its total effect on the oceans is poorly understood as of yet.

Storing carbon in the soil is another popular method. But Gideon Henderson, the chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, tells The Guardian, “There are concerns over how long the carbon can be stored and how it is measured. If the soil begins to release carbon again shortly after it is stored, this could cause problems, especially if it is not being measured effectively and counted in net zero targets.

“I think that if we see significant financial resources coming into this area to incentify storing soil carbon without being able to measure it, and being sure of its permanence, there’s a risk of continued emission from storage which isn’t permanent or sufficiently well measured. GGR is hard and expensive. And we cannot afford to see it as a surrogate to compensate for continued emissions in sectors that can be decarbonized. It is not an excuse not to decarbonize, so we must drive down emissions anyway.”

That’s The Point

The point of all this is that greenhouse gas removal is being touted by politicians as a way to mollify the concerns people have about a warming planet. It’s a ploy promoted by the oil, gas, and coal companies. Tell people not to worry. We can go right on doing what we have always done — burn every molecule of fossil fuel we can find anywhere on Earth, whether in the Arctic, under the ocean, or atop the highest mountains, because we can always take it back out of the atmosphere in the future.

So go back to sleep, people. Nothing to see here, move along. Nothing to see here, move along. Just keep buying all those humongous cars and trucks like there’s no tomorrow and let us worry about the consequences. Nothing bad will happen because of course we have humanity’s best interests at heart and we have never lied to you, have we?

Well, in fact, they have been lying to us for more than half a century and they are lying to us now and they will continue to lie to us in the future so they can keep their shareholders pacified and their senior management well fed. If you think carbon capture or any of those other strategies will cool the Earth while we continue to pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere at an every increasing rate, we have some land in the Bermuda Triangle we can let you have at a really good price!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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