Carbon Capture is probably the simplest approach to rising carbon levels. If we’re putting too much carbon in the atmosphere, let’s pull it back out. Unfortunately, until recently there hasn’t been a viable way to do that. It was way too expensive.
Technology Improves though! And now we seem to have a promising prospect to vacuum up the carbon. It comes with a caveat though, and it’s one that has made it unpopular with some environmentalists.
Carbon Capture at the Source
Generally, there are two forms of carbon capture. Source targeted, and open-air carbon capture. The source targeted variety has been around for a while. It’s used at fossil fuel power plants as a way to collect carbon at its source. The Carbon can be extracted either before or after combustion to significantly reduce carbon emissions.
The high concentration of carbon at the source makes for easy collection. It greatly reduces the carbon footprint of traditional power plants, yet many see this as a Band-Aid solution. It’s WAY better than doing nothing, but if it incentivizes the use of more power plants it’s still counter productive.
This is one of the main reasons some people have problems supporting it. If you install it in an existing power plant, you’ve reduced carbon output, which is great! If you tear down an old plant and build a new one that captures most of its carbon, you’ve also reduced carbon output which is great! Right?
well, maybe. It really depends. If instead of building a new power plant, you would’ve built a solar farm then things get real tricky.
Carbon capture traces a fine line between reducing emissions, and perpetuating fossil fuel use.
Solar Specifically, has a few advantages that may still give it the edge in the future, but right now it’s iffy. Especially considering the fossil fuel industries desire to perpetuate itself. It really comes down to a case by case basis.
In places that aren’t sunny, windy or geyer-y it’s a great option, BUT it’s not perfect. More importantly it’s not an excuse to ignore viable renewable energies.
There is one other problem. What do we do with all the carbon we collect?
Currently, when we collect it it’s in the form of carbon dioxide, which is a gas, so we can’t just put it in a pile somewhere. Right now, we’re, pumping it back into the reservoirs where we pumped out the oil. This does have the elegance of simplicity. We pulled the carbon out of the ground, and now we’re putting it back in.
Unfortunately, carbon dioxide doesn’t have the same properties as oil, so we don’t know if it’ll just stay put. It might be fine, but it could leak out, or effect the rock it’s housed in. We don’t really know.
My completely unqualified opinion thinks that it’s better than it being in the air, and probably fine depending on what type of rock houses it. More intelligent people than I, will need to conduct further research to see though.
Pulling Carbon Out Of Thin Air
The Second type of carbon capture is the open-air variety. It pulls carbon out of normal air. Unlike source targeted, which only reduces carbon output, this can be carbon negative. It could not only reduce carbon emissions but can recover those that have already been put in the atmosphere.
It could dig us out of the hole we’ve put ourselves in.
It’s not easy though. The concentration of carbon dioxide in normal air is really small. It’s less than one percent, which means you need to sort through a lot of air. It’s like the world’s worst needle in a haystack. This has made open air capture very expensive.
Still, technology prevails! Recently there’s been promise from a company called Carbon Engineering which states that they have made a way to pull carbon out the air much more cheaply.
By blowing air through a filter with a solvent that bonds with carbon dioxide, they can pull carbon out of the air. All the chemicals used are reusable as well, so we don’t need to worry about chemical waste. They’ve also said that they’ve developed a way to turn this carbon dioxide into gasoline.
Awesome! Wait, is that awesome? It’s certainly impressive but creating fuel out of the carbon seems counterproductive.
Here carbon capture begins to tow that line between renewable and fossil fuels again. This fuel is made from carbon pulled from the atmosphere, so burning it would just be putting it back.
The Carbon Capture Compromise
It’s carbon neutral rather than carbon negative. Which is still a step in the right direction, but why not bury it?
The answer everyone’s dreading. I’m sure everyone already knows it. MONEY! Ah money, such a cruel mistress. Yep, unlike its source targeted counterpart this technology can’t piggyback on the profitability of a power plant. It uses energy, rather than creating it. So, unless the government’s willing to fund it, (Ahaha…aww) it needs a way to support itself.
This gets even more muddy when you know that some of the biggest funders (Other than Bill Gates) are Oil Companies. It raises a lot of red flags, but let’s look at their motivations before we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It’s not a very popular opinion, but the fact is that oil companies are not malicious, or stupid. They are companies that have grown incredibly wealthy by using a mispriced externality to their advantage. One that we have all been taking advantage of. The environment.
The Motivations Behind The Research
Luckily companies’ motivations are incredibly easy to understand. They want to guarantee their survival and remain profitable.
For oil companies this is in direct conflict with a switch to renewable energies. But they can see the writing on the wall. Even they know that the current model isn’t sustainable.
So, they’re looking for ways to make it sustainable. If they can help develop ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere while creating carbon neutral fuels, they can keep their current infrastructure. An infrastructure that would become obsolete if we completely switched to renewables and electric cars.
It is still possible that the research is being funded to alleviate consumer guilt though. By marketing zero emission fuel they could launder their other fossil fuels. This could slow the transition to electric vehicles, while prolonging our current consumption.
Many people have also voiced their concern that by spending money on researching carbon capture, you’re using resources that could be used to advance other renewables. Although I am a HUGE fan of funding renewable research, this argument is nonsense.
It’s Not Either/Or
The idea that if oil companies weren’t spending money researching carbon capture, they would be using it on other renewables isn’t reasonable. Why would a company research a technology that would displace their entire infrastructure? Also, why would other entities with a vested interest in renewable resources reduce their funding just because oil companies are researching adjacent technologies?
Beggars can’t be choosers and if we’re gonna tackle climate change we need all the help we can get.
There’s not a set amount of funding that goes to climate mitigation research. Research money is helpful regardless of the motivations of the companies. This is especially true for new technologies because they follow an s-curve and take a huge amount of time and money before they become viable.
We need to start now. Even if it means making synthetic fuels first, because we must become carbon neutral before even considering being carbon negative. Once we are, the technology may be advanced enough that we can bury the carbon once and for all.
Carbon Capture Needs Renewable Energy.
Finally, one last point. Carbon capture will not prevent renewable resources from being implemented because it NEEDS them to work. A carbon capture plant must be powered by renewable resources because otherwise you’re burning fossil fuels, to capture carbon, to create synthetic fuels. You would be losing energy every step of the way and couldn’t capture as much carbon as you’re using.
Carbon Capture allows us to use renewable resources to power or mitigate our current fossil fueled vehicles. This gives us more flexibility, and time to bring electric vehicles up to the challenge.
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