Marc Gunther on the Promise of Air Capture Technology

Having only first read about air capture technology in 2009, I was delighted to read Marc Gunther’s short, accessible, and fair-minded take on its origins, its evolution, and its possible future, the cleverly-titled Kindle Single Suck It Up. Gunther has a number of views that I don’t share, particularly with regards to the urgency of introducing carbon pricing in the U.S.

That said, Gunther is admirably frank about the ideological barriers to a serious consideration of geoengineering strategies to alter the climate:

Environmental groups feared that any public discussion about ways to cool the planet would distract people from the urgent task at hand, namely, reducing CO2 emissions. Geoengineering creates what economists call a “moral hazard,” meaning that it could shield people from the risks created by recklessly burning fossil fuels. If we can dial down the Earth’s temperature at will, why not keep driving SUVs and burning coal?

Yet as Gunther goes on to explain, the decision of the celebrated climate scientists Paul Crutzen weigh in on behalf of geoengineering as a serious option changed the conversation. Though Gunther is focused on air capture technology, he also offers useful discussions of other geoengineering technologies, including marine cloud brightening (or cloud reflectivity , the brainchild of climate scientists John Latham and the British engineer Stephen Salter:

Latham, a climatologist, and an array of collaborators around the world have published seven papers on marine cloud brightening in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Their research has found that “cooling sufficient to hold the Earth’s temperature constant for perhaps 50 years could be achieved by increasing the reflectivity of low-level, shallow maritime stratocumulus clouds, which cover a huge area — between about a quarter and a third — of the oceanic surface.” When we met at NCAR, Latham told me: “There seems little doubt that the idea would work.” To seed the marine clouds with tiny particles of seawater, Latham and a British engineering professor named Stephen Salter have proposed building a fleet of about 1,500 remote-controlled wind-powered ships that could patrol the world’s seas.

This has always struck me as one of the more attractive geoengineering strategies, yet (a) we don’t know if it will work at scale and (b) we’re far from understanding consequences for rainfall and thus for agriculture. 

But the core of Gunther’s Single is the discussion of air capture technology and the three pioneering firms that have pursued it most aggressively. David Keith of the University of Calgary plays a particularly prominent role in the narrative, who does an able job of explaining why we should be concerned about climate change. One of the key reasons is that there is a great deal of uncertainty around climate sensitivity:

If climate sensitivity is on the low end of the scale, only 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) for a doubling of CO2 concentrations from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm, he says, then “for a lot of things, you’d be able to go up to 600 ppm without gigantic impact. If, on the other side, it’s 5 degrees or 6 degrees C for a doubling (9 to 10.8 degrees F), then we’ve already committed ourselves to big trouble.”

Keith’s basic point is that mitigation isn’t enough because it can only reduce emissions — it can’t reduce the existing concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. And so we need a Plan B in the form of solar-radiation management (marine cloud brightening, etc.) and carbon dioxide removal, hence the importance of air capture technology.

As Gunther explains, getting countries to agree on mitigation has proven extremely difficult for the obvious reason that the costs are extremely high and concentrated and the benefits are not clearly visible and diffuse. Indeed, Gunther quotes Keith on some of the more frustrating aspects of the climate conversation:

Keith can be brash and opinionated. He’s perturbed by the quality of the climate debate in the U.S. Environmentalists who claim that regulating CO2 will drive economic growth by creating green jobs are being disingenuous, he says. “Not a single competent business owner or economist really thinks that you are going to put a big carbon restraint on the economy and see accelerated growth. It’s going to cost money to cut emissions. So on that side, some in the green movement are overhyping to the point of bullshit. And everybody knows it,” he says. Even more disturbing are conservative politicians and media outlets that sow doubts about climate science. “And on the other side, the claim by the right wing that the science is all wrong is a slip back into medievalism,” Keith says.

While greens and climate skeptics might object to Keith’s harsh language, his observation reminds me of a point that Jim Manzi has made: skeptics actually empower greens because they shift the conversation towards the basic science (where the skeptics are at a relative disadvantage) and away from the fact that conventional green solutions are extremely expensive and economically damaging (which obviously weakens the greens).

The beauty of carbon-capture, in theory, is that it could be used to turn a waste product into a crucial ingredient in the making of low-cost carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuel. As Gunther explains, alas, we are very far from seeing this vision become a reality, as the cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere remains extremely, prohibitively high — much higher than the market price of CO2 for purposes of enhanced oil recovery (EOR), which is nothing to sneeze at. (Incredibly, Gunther reports that the EOR with carbon dioxide would effectively quadruple current proven domestic reserves.)

I definitely recommend Gunther’s Single to climate and energy nerds. It’s quite fun and informative, if necessarily sobering and inconclusive. 

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

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