By Todd L. Pittinsky, Stony Brook University
After rising steadily for decades, as the COVID-19 pandemic squashed economic activity, global carbon dioxide levels fell dramatically.
President Joe Biden has taken out the national credit card to ensure the U.S. economy will come “roaring back.” With a roaring economy, CO2 emissions will roar back too.
What about Paris? The U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement in January. Paris is the right name for it. Just as we have an idealized image of the city, we have an idealized image of what international “agreements” can achieve.
As a mug says, “Paris is always a good idea”. Fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough for every day. And while Paris sounds inviting in theory, an honest visit would include visits to the suburban ghettos that surround Paris.
Global CO2 emissions clearly aren’t going to stop—or slow down enough—in time to save ourselves. Developing countries are not going to give up developing.
The International Energy Agency, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the US National Academies of Sciences—along with many other researchers—agree that the transition to solar, wind, and other renewables will not cut emissions sufficiently in time to avoid a climate catastrophe. Nor will “natural” forms of carbon capture such as tree planting and regenerative agriculture be sufficient.
The International Energy Agency has said it would be “virtually impossible” for the world to hit climate targets without capturing and storing emissions from factories, power plants, and transportation—that is, carbon capture. Put another way, the Paris Climate Agreement— soaring ambition weighted down by scant enforcement—wasn’t going to work, Trump or no Trump.
Carbon capture, a set of technologies (some natural, some human-made) is our best hope. Why? Because of all solutions, it’s the least dependent on the comradeship of human kind.
To solve global challenges, leaders must work together. But we’d have to be crazy to bank our survival on that. History records many attempts and just about as many failures. Even a global response to COVID was more than we could manage. Sure, there was some cooperation, but just as much obstruction, with countries protecting their own short-term interests to the extent they could.
The fact is humans are super-clever but super-uncooperative on a large scale. With the clock ticking, we need to put our money on human cleverness—specifically, the ability to develop new technologies—and not on an aspirational ability to all work together.
And, in any case, working together is somewhat overrated. We all likely know the phrase “teamwork is dreamwork.” When a group gets large (let alone 7.7 billion people spread across 195 countries) the dream turns more and more into a nightmare—and not one poised for finding and implementing solutions.
Carbon capture has always been controversial and still is. In part, this is because it seems like an unreasonable concession to the big polluters.
It doesn’t help that the fossil fuel industry supports this technology to keep its own gravy train running. Also, the technologies are newer, so they are less familiar to the public and policymakers and have less testing and data to back them up.
There are two forms of carbon capture. One uses technology (think air purifier) to suck CO2 directly out of the air. The other type uses infrastructure to capture emissions at the source—say, those smokestacks towering over a power plant. Either way, the captured carbon is then stored somewhere, usually underground.
These technologies have been developed and improved over several decades, but they are still very, very expensive. Without rapid and deep investment in these technologies, it’s not clear how well they can scale, nor is it clear how much leakage there might be—especially over the long term.
Carbon capture can be adopted by industries that are already well-established and that have long provided goods and services in huge demand (such as gasoline and air travel). We don’t have to upend or reform any country’s economy or power grid. Big polluters already have incentives to adopt this technology, which creates its own incentives to improve it and bring the price down.
Currently the world captures only a tenth of 1% of its total annual carbon emissions. The global carbon capture industry is small. This makes particular sense for a U.S. contribution. The U.S., even with its small carbon capture footprint, is widely recognized as a global leader.
Many of us agree that it’s well past the time to act on climate change. Can we also agree it’s time to play to our strengths rather than our weaknesses?
Todd L. Pittinsky is a Professor of Technology and Society in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Stony Brook University (State University of New York). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (617) 642-5483.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.