Solar panels and wind farms have become fixtures of the global energy mix even if things like winter cold sometimes interfere with their operation. Hydrogen is garnering growing attention—even if skeptics are warning that it is still prohibitively expensive to become mainstream. And now another aspect of the all-out war on climate change is drawing more attention: carbon capture, also known by the fancier name of negative emissions.
Earlier this month, Elon Musk made headlines yet again, but this time with news unrelated to either Tesla or SpaceX. The billionaire entrepreneur offered a $100-million prize to those who can come up with a large-scale solution to our carbon dioxide problem.
"The world's leading scientists estimate that we may need to remove as much as 6 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2030, and 10 gigatons per year by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change," the XPrize website that announced the prize said, adding that simply reducing emissions from ongoing operations is not enough to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
Carbon capture is not something new, but it has stayed largely out of the spotlight because of the high costs. And yet it is being done, mostly at power plants and other industrial facilities that emit a lot of carbon dioxide. There is also direct air capture, which means exactly what it says on the tin. This is a neat and straightforward way of sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but—you guessed it—it's the opposite of cheap.
Wood Mackenzie's Vice-Chair for the Americas, Ed Crooks, wrote in a recent article that the short-term costs of direct air capture are in the range of $230 to $266 per ton of carbon dioxide captured. This is unviable over the long term, Crooks said, noting that Wood Mac's scenario for hitting the 2-degree Paris Agreement target—the less ambitious one—will need a cost of removing carbon of $100 per ton by 2050 to work. This means either a surge in financial support for this sort of technology or a sharp drop in costs.
Speaking of financial support for direct air capture, a team of researchers earlier this year published a paper that argued we could actually deploy direct air capture machines on a global scale even at current costs. This deployment, Wired wrote in a report on the paper, would cost between 1 and 2 percent of global gross domestic product.
For context, the 2019 global gross domestic product totaled $87.55 trillion. This means that at 1 percent of global GDP, based on 2019 numbers, the world needs to invest $875.5 billion in direct air capture every year to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at a rate of 2.3 gigatons annually. That would be 400 times the amount of carbon dioxide that is currently being captured and sequestered. Although the team argues this is doable, despite the price tag, Musk and Wood Mac do not seem to agree. The XPrize prize is tied to the solution being economical.
But direct air capture is by far not the only way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already released in the atmosphere. Capturing carbon emissions at power plants is much cheaper than DAC: at between $35 and $120 per ton of CO2, according to Wood Mac, some of these are a real bargain. But there are challenges there, too – not all such projects remain economical over the long term, as the Petra Nova plant in Texas demonstrated, getting shuttered after less than four years in operation due to mechanical problems and failure to meet capture targets. Related: Is This Oil Rally The Start Of Something Much Bigger?
This is the main problem with carbon capture facilities: they are very complex, hence they are expensive, but their complexity also makes them prone to a host of mechanical problems. And they also take a lot of time to build, so they are in no way a fast solution for what the media and politicians have labeled a climate emergency.
Yet there are other solutions that don't require much in the way of sophisticated technology: investment in natural carbon sinks such as forests and wetlands is also picking up, with the participation of none other than Big Oil that has recently doubled down on efforts to transform into Big Energy.
While not as direct as sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, carbon offsetting projects are certainly viable over the long term as they benefit all stakeholders involved: farmers, for example, earn carbon credits for farming practices that lead to the greater retention of carbon in the soil or in forests and the companies that help them develop these practices take a bite out of those credits.
Given the cost considerations around the different carbon capture technologies, it should be clear by now that there is no one single right way to tackle emissions, ongoing or already released in the atmosphere. Some of the ways currently available could become more economical and, as such, more viable but others will ultimately fail to contribute to the climate change war.
But here's a piece of good news that passed unnoticed last year amid the lockdowns and the energy demand crash: the Sun is helping. According to a paper by Maths Professor Valentina Zharkova from Northumbria University, last year, the Sun entered what scientists call a Grand Solar Minimum—a period of minimal activity—that will last until 2053 and will cool the Earth by 1 degree Celsius. Even the Sun has joined the quest to hit those Paris Agreement targets.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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