John Kerry Warns Relying On Carbon Capture Technology Is Dangerous

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John Kerry has served America in a number of ways, from naval officer to US Senator to Secretary of State. Today, he continues to serve his country and the world as President Biden’s special envoy for climate. This week, he placed himself firmly in the center of the debate about whether carbon capture technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are a practical solution to an overheating planet, or a waste of money that could be better spent on finding ways to replace humanity’s reliance on burning things — wood, peat, coal, methane gas, and oil, for instance — as the basis for the global economy.

In an interview with The Guardian, Kerry said that relying on carbon capture technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is “dangerous” and a cause for “alarm.” Why is it dangerous? Because it can cause people and their governments to overlook the urgency required to save our planet for irreversible harm as various climate “tipping points” occur.

What are some of those tipping points? The rapidly accelerating melting of the world’s glaciers, for one. This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. More melting leads to higher temperatures, which lead to more melting. If the world’s glaciers melt, sea levels around the world will rise by several hundred feet. All that fresh water entering the oceans will disrupt marine habitats, which could lead to a slowing of the enormous ocean currents that control much of the Earth’s climate, resulting in more severe heat and drought in some areas and more cataclysmic flooding in others (Pakistan, for instance).

“Some scientists suggest that it’s possible there could be an overshoot [of global temperatures, beyond the limit of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels that governments are targeting] and you could clawback, so to speak — you have technologies and other things that allow you to come back,” Kerry told The Guardian. “The danger with that, which alarms me the most and motivates me the most, is that according to the science, and the best scientists in the world, we may be at or past several tipping points that they have been warning us about for some time. That’s the danger, the irreversibility.”

Instead of being distracted by carbon removal technologies, Kerry said, we need to focus all our energy on replacing our current reliance on burning stuff with renewable energy that allows us to maintain our lifestyle without adding more carbon and methane emissions to the atmosphere. We know how to do this. Mark Jacobson and the authors of Project Drawdown have drawn us a detailed road map for how to get from where we are to where we need to go — a world without fossil fuels.

“Part of the challenge we face right now is countries that have technologies available to them are not necessarily deploying them at the rate that they should be,” he said. “Fatih Birol [executive director of the International Energy Agency] has made it very clear for some time that all you need to meet the 2030 goal of 45% reduction [in greenhouse gas emissions] globally is to deploy renewables in the current state of technology, and that’s not happening.”

“There’s a resistance right now that I see from several quarters to doing what we know we need to do,” Kerry said. “I think there are things that are really quite simple that we could be doing, but it requires political will, it requires resources, allocation and a determination to get the job done.”

Carbon Capture, Politics, & Pollution

Kerry pointed to the Inflation Reduction Act that went into effect in the US recently as the kind of direct action needed to replace fossil fuels. Some of America’s closest allies are unhappy with that legislation, because they see it as protectionist. But Kerry has an answer for those complaints. “If we accelerate the pace of discovery, then the world benefits. This is not a US-centric thing. If we can advance those technologies very rapidly, then we’re sworn to share them and help people to develop similarly. That’s the way collectively we try to meet the challenge.”

Indeed, he believes the IRA is already having a positive effect. “People are shifting and realizing the best thing to do. There are a number of countries in Europe — Germany, and France, and others — that are hell-bent to do a similar kind of effort. They try to define it for themselves and go out and do it. Given the trillions we need to be deploying to meet this challenge, to have something that excites investment is in everybody’s interest. We are seeing a tremendous amount of venture capital moving in the direction of some of these transition essentials,” Kerry said.

“Everybody in the world [needs a net zero strategy]. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it crystal clear that we’re not on the track we need to be … everything needs to be increased exponentially in effort,” he added.

Speaking of money, Elon Musk put the number needed to cure the world of its fossil fuel addiction at $100 trillion in his Master Plan 3 that was released a few weeks ago. That’s a ton of money, no question about it. But the cost of doing nothing is even higher — $140 trillion, Musk said.

The IPCC & Carbon Capture

carbon capture oceans efuels MIT Navy
The US Navy is eyeing e-fuels made from green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide to sustain seagoing and land-based operations (image via MIT News).

The latest report IPCC report is bleak. It warns the world is rapidly approaching “overshoot” — a phase where average global temperatures blow past the mythical 1.5º C limit established in Paris in 2015 and continue on toward 3º C or more. In its conclusion, that report contains several references to technologies that remove carbon dioxide from the air.

That references were inserted at the behest of Saudi Arabia, which said it would refuse to sign off on the report otherwise. “Saudi Arabia brought 10 very experienced negotiators,” one person with knowledge of the proceedings told The Guardian. “They tried to take out references to renewable energy and tried to insist that references to carbon capture should be in there instead of, or at least as well as, renewables.”

The fact that the IPCC report mentions carbon capture and carbon removal strategies has ignited a heated debate in the scientific community. Many fear that giving the impression there are viable options for removing carbon dioxide might lead to a false sense of security. Most of the technologies are unproven, likely to be limited in scope, will take years to develop, and will cost huge amounts of money.

Lili Fuhr, the director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law, said, “We need to challenge the idea that we have to do less now, because we can do more later, with technofixes. This is a dangerous idea.”

Friederike Otto, a lead author of the IPCC, and senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, added, “My feeling about carbon dioxide removal is that we should pretend it is not an option. We should act as if it will never be achievable. We do not have a technology at the moment that works at scale, so we should make our policies as if it is not an option.”

She termed it a dangerous distraction and questioned whether it was a good idea to spend money on technologies that offered highly uncertain future benefits when viable ways of reducing emissions right now were not being deployed fast enough. “Carbon removal has already been used as an excuse to dither and delay,” she said. “It’s very important to highlight that we still can keep to 1.5 C — we have the knowledge and the tools to do it. But what we do not have is a sense of urgency and political will.”

David King, a former UK government chief scientific adviser, disagrees. He believes carbon removal technologies of many kinds will be needed, along with the means to “repair” the climate — such as by refreezing the polar ice caps. “We are already at 1.35º C above pre-industrial levels today,” he said. “We are already experiencing massive warming in the Arctic, where it’s more than 3º C above the pre-industrial average.”

King said he supports carbon removal now because the world failed to act appropriately when it had the chance. Now we have left it for too long. He said people like Fuhr and Otto “are taking the exact position I took in 2015 when I was leading global negotiations for the UK, but there is no time for messing about now.”

King added, “The IPCC does not go nearly far enough on carbon removal. I believe it is more than likely we will hit 1.5º C by the end of the decade. It’s false thinking that the IPCC is saying we can manage [to stay below that level] with reducing emissions. The carbon we have put up [in the atmosphere] will have to be removed. It may cost a fortune, but we have to recognize that the alternative is to lose our civilization.”

Fossil Fuels As A Temporary Solution

President Biden is under scrutiny for approving several programs that will increase the production of oil and gas in the United States, but John Kerry defends those moves on the grounds that more fossil fuels will be needed temporarily because of the war in Ukraine. He said some oil and gas expansion could occur within climate limits, particularly if carbon capture and storage, or other ways of reducing the impact of the fossil fuels, could be used. Hmmm…didn’t he just say those technologies were a dangerous distraction?

“We needed desperately to not allow Putin to make his gas cutoff a weapon. And because of Ukraine, and the urgency of calming the marketplace, making sure that economies are not suddenly crashing because prices are going so high that people can’t afford to live, you’ve got to have some supply. It’s transition. That’s why the goal was 2030 and then it’s 2050. It’s not tomorrow.”

Some readers may hear echoes in Kerry’s remarks of the “too big to fail” argument that gained currency after the global financial meltdown of 2008-2009. That’s the theory that pumped billions of of dollars into the pockets of those who caused the crisis in the first place while millions of ordinary people — those who weren’t wise enough to have Senators and Congressmen on their payroll — lost their homes and saw their life savings evaporate.

Kerry insisted the US would still meet its climate targets. “President Biden has reiterated a full fledged commitment to keep our target, We’re not moving on our target. This one thing is not an aberration in terms of us walking back on our goals or walking back on our expectations. I feel very confident about that.”

The Takeaway

Carbon capture and removal strategies have received a lot of coverage here at CleanTechnica. In general, we regard them as red herrings that the fossil fuel interests trot out from time to time to distract us from the awful truth, which is that although burning fossil fuels has raised the standard of living of billions of people, it has also destroyed our environment.

Now it is time to ask ourselves whether we wish to preserve human life on Earth or continue our joyride to infamy. Based on the observable evidence, the vast majority of people alive today prefer the second option.

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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."

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