The Air Capture Approach

Via FuturePundit I found a really fascinating short article in Science by University of Calgary climate scientist David W. Keith, in which he argues that we should sharply increase investment in air capture, “an industrial process that captures CO2 from ambient air, producing a pure CO2 stream for use or disposal.”

Technologies for decarbonizing the energy system, from solar power to the capture of CO2 from the flue gases of coal-fired power plants, can cut emissions but they cannot reduce the climate risk posed by the carbon we have already added to the air. It may be possible to increase the Earth’s reflectivity, engineering a cooling that counteracts the CO2-driven warming. Although climate engineering may be important for managing climate risk, it cannot eliminate long-term climate and geochemical risks posed by elevated CO2. It is therefore in our interest to have a means to reduce CO2 concentrations in order to manage the long-run risks of climate change.

Like most climate scientists, Keith believes that we should focus on reducing emissions, and to that end he favors the creation of a carbon market. While I think reducing emissions is a worthy goal, I’ve been convinced by Jim Manzi that most of the proposals for decarbonizing the energy system, which focus on some combination of a carbon market and large transfers to incumbent energy firms, are too costly relative to the likely benefits, which is why I prefer large-scale public investment, financed out of general revenue, in technologies like air capture: whether you believe, as I do, that the IPCC is most likely underestimating the dangers from climate change or that it is overestimating them, this is a smart hedging strategy. 

So why not back a carbon market? I’d be more inclined to support one if we could somehow create a global carbon market. Brad Plumer recently cited a report from Climate Group on what a multinational carbon market might look like.

More specifically, the Climate Group estimated that, by 2020, carbon prices in Europe would hover around $65/ton if the E.U. was still going it alone. But, if both the E.U. and the United States had interlinked cap-and-trade programs, the price would go down to $28/ton. And if all developed countries and China somehow hooked up under one big cap-and-trade system, the price of carbon could be as low as $4/ton. In other words, the cost of reducing carbon would be nearly negligible.

Basically, the Chinese use a number of obscenely inefficient coal plants. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the developing world. Reducing emissions in the United States and Europe, in contrast, is more expensive, as our economies are already less carbon intensive. 

What if air capture became so efficient that we could unilaterally scrub the atmosphere? I’m sure that David Keith considers this a far-fetched scenario. But this research agenda certainly seems worth more than the $3 million of public and private research money we’re spending at the moment. The benefits of a breakthrough would be massive. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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