A carbon dioxide scrubber is any sort of gadget that removes carbon dioxide from the air. There are various ways such gadgets can work, and various things we can do with them. For example, they’re already being used to clean the air in submarines and human-occupied spacecraft. I want to talk about carbon dioxide scrubbers as a way to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, and a specific technology for doing this. But I don’t want to talk about those things today.
Why not? It turns out that if you start talking about the specifics of one particular approach to fighting global warming, people instantly want to start talking about other approaches they consider better. This makes some sense: it’s a big problem and we need to compare different approaches. But it’s also a bit frustrating: we need to study different approaches individually so we can know enough to compare them, or make progress on any one approach.
I mainly want to study the nitty-gritty details of various individual approaches, starting with one approach to carbon scrubbing. But if I don’t say anything about the bigger picture, people will be unsatisfied.
So, right now I want to say a bit about carbon dioxide scrubbers.
The first thing to realize—and this applies to all approaches to battling global warming—is the huge scale of the task. In 2018 we put 37.1 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and making cement.
That’s a lot! Let’s compare some of the other biggest human industries, in terms of the sheer mass being processed.
Cement production is big. Global cement production in 2017 was about 4.1 gigatonnes, with China making more than the rest of the world combined, and a large uncertainty in how much they made. But digging up and burning carbon is even bigger. For example, over 7 gigatonnes of coal is being mined per year. I can’t find figures on total agricultural production, but in 2004 we created about 5 gigatonnes of agricultural waste. Total grain production was just 2.53 gigatonnes in 2017. Total plastic production in 2017 was a mere 348 megatonnes.
So, to use technology to remove as much CO2 from the air as we’re currently putting in would require an industry that processes more mass than any other today.
I conclude that this won’t happen anytime soon. Indeed David McKay calls all methods of removing CO2 from air “the last thing we should talk about”. For now, he argues, we should focus on cutting carbon emissions. And I believe that to do that on a large enough scale requires economic incentives, for example a carbon tax.
But to keep global warming below 2°C over pre-industrial levels, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’ll need negative carbon emissions:
Indeed, a lot of scenarios contemplated by policymakers involve net negative carbon emissions. Often they don’t realize just how hard these are to achieve! In his talk Mitigation on methadone: how negative emissions lock in our high-carbon addiction, Kevin Anderson has persuasively argued that policymakers are fooling themselves into thinking we can keep burning carbon as we like now and achieve the necessary negative emissions later. He’s not against negative carbon emissions. He’s against using vague fantasies of negative carbon emissions to put off confronting reality!
It is not well understood by policy makers, or indeed many academics, that IAMs [integrated assessment models] assume such a massive deployment of negative emission technologies. Yet when it comes to the more stringent Paris obligations, studies suggest that it is not possible to reach 1.5°C with a 50% chance without significant negative emissions. Even for 2°C, very few scenarios have explored mitigation without negative emissions, and contrary to common perception, negative emissions are also prevalent in higher stabilisation targets (Figure 2). Given such a pervasive and pivotal role of negative emissions in mitigation scenarios, their almost complete absence from climate policy discussions is disturbing and needs to be addressed urgently.
Read his whole article!
Pondering the difficulty of large-scale negative carbon emissions, but also their potential importance, I’m led to imagine scenarios like this:
In the 21st century we slowly wean ourselves of our addiction to burning carbon. By the end, we’re suffering a lot from global warming. It’s a real mess. But suppose our technological civilization survives, and we manage to develop a cheap source of clean energy. And once we switch to this, we don’t simply revert to our old bad habit of growing until we exhaust the available resources! We’ve learned our lesson—the hard way. We start trying to cleaning up the mess we made. Among other things, we start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We then spend a century—or two, or three—doing this. Thanks to various tipping points in the Earths’ climate system, we never get things back to the way they were. But we do, finally, make the Earth a beautiful place again.
If we’re aiming for some happy ending like this, it may pay to explore various ways to achieve negative carbon emissions even if we can’t scale them up fast enough to stop a big mess in the 21st century.
(Of course, I’m not suggesting this strategy as an alternative to cutting carbon emissions, or doing all sorts of other good things. We need a multi-pronged strategy, including some prongs that will only pay off in the long run, and only if we’re lucky.)
If we’re exploring various methods to achieve negative carbon emissions, a key aspect is figuring out economically viable pathways to scale up those methods. They’ll start small and they’ll inevitably be expensive at first. The ones that get big will get cheaper—per tonne of CO2 removed—as they grow.
This has various implications. For example, suppose someone builds a machine that sucks CO2 from the air and uses it to make carbonated soft drinks and to make plants grow better in greenhouses. As I mentioned, Climeworks is actually doing this!
In one sense, this is utterly pointless for fighting climate change, because these markets only use 6 megatonnes of CO2 annually—less than 0.02% of how much CO2 we’re dumping into the atmosphere!
But on the other hand, if this method of CO2 scrubbing can be scaled up and become cheaper and cheaper, it’s useful to start exploring the technology now. It could be the first step along some economically viable pathway.
I especially like the idea of CO2 scrubbing for coal-fired power plants. Of course to cut carbon emissions it would be better to ban coal-fired power plants. But this will take a while:
So, we can imagine an intermediate regime where regulations or a carbon tax make people sequester the CO2 from coal-fired power plants. And if this happens, there could be a big market for carbon dioxide scrubbers—for a while, at least.
I hope we can agree on at least one thing: the big picture is complicated. Next time I’ll zoom in and start talking about a specific technology for CO2 scrubbing.