Could atmospheric carbon harvesting unleash environmental havoc? Only if we don’t heed history.

Energy Blog: Trading One Crisis For Another

Sep 22, 2020

by Michael E. Webber

Good news, everyone! It’s actually possible that in a few decades the climate crisis will be in the rear-view mirror. We’ll ramp up emissions-free power sources from nuclear to renewables. Citizens will shift to less energy-intensive behaviors, such as working from home and bicycling around town. Meanwhile, we will soak up the excess carbon in the atmosphere through widespread deployment of direct air capture of carbon dioxide. Mission accomplished.
Allow me to pull this promised technological utopia apart.
Direct air capture, or DAC, is a pretty neat concept: By removing CO2 straight from atmosphere rather than from industrial exhausts, the air itself becomes a source of carbon to manufacture fuels, plastics, chemicals, and other products. The technology is still in its infancy, though. Scaling it up to where it can bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels will require large investments paid for by people like us.
That means DAC companies likely will reap huge financial rewards for cleaning up nearly two centuries of mess, just as our wastewater treatment and trash pickup companies are paid handsomely to remove our liquid and solid wastes. It will make sense for companies to harvest quickly and aggressively.

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Economics suggests something else would also happen: Because of economies of scale, technological learning, and tighter regulations on traditional fossil fuel production, the costs of DAC may drop so much that harvested carbon becomes much cheaper than extracted coal, oil, or gas as a source of carbon for industrial needs. And conveniently, DAC plants could spring up wherever they are needed rather than be dictated by geology.
With cheap raw materials right there for the taking, the demand for harvested carbon will no doubt soar. Incentives in place to encourage CO2 scrubbing will effectively pay companies twice to harvest carbon: once through the government subsidy for cleaning the atmosphere and once for the commodity itself.
The unintended effect of those incentives would lead companies to draw down as much CO2 as they can, so much so that they would return the atmosphere to pre-industrial CO2 levels under budget and ahead of schedule—hooray! And then they wouldn’t stop. Suddenly, the world would be facing the problem of too little atmospheric carbon.
It’s also utterly predictable what might happen when scientists and activists push to remove the financial incentives for atmospheric harvesting: The multitrillion CO2 industry that employs millions and donates freely to elected officials will object fiercely, seeking to protect them. Pundits will mock environmentalists— “Global warming? Global cooling? Make up your minds”—while politicians will delay taking action indefinitely.

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I’ve spun an alarmist scenario, sure, but it’s not unprecedented. After all, we solved the 19th-century urban manure pollution problem when we replaced horses with cars, only to create oil dependence in its place. We took on the oil crisis of the 1970s (in part) by building a lot of coal power plants to replace oil-burning generating stations, only to exacerbate a climate crisis along the way. In both cases, the new solutions addressed immediate challenges but led to long-term problems. And because of the entrenched economic power those industries gained, solving the problems later has proven to be politically difficult.
The lesson from this thought experiment is not that we shouldn't tackle the climate crisis—indeed we need to solve it as quickly as possible. The lesson is that we need to plan ahead, anticipating problems before they arise, and building an incentive structure that doesn’t lead to unintentional feedback loops.
To solve today’s climate emergency, we’ll need to deploy lots of new energy technologies—and fast. But in addition to heeding engineers to get the technology right, the world will need to listen to economists, political scientists, and others who study these sorts of power arrangements in order to avoid trading one set of problems for another.
MICHAEL E. WEBBER is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and chief science and technology Officer at ENGIE, the Paris-based global energy company. His series, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and local PBS stations.

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