The Corner

Energy & Environment

Removing Carbon from the Air Isn’t Becoming ‘Cheap’

A general view of the summer pasture “Rofenberg” located at 2,400 meters above sea level in the region of Tyrol, Austria, June 9, 2018. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

A lot of people were pretty psyched last week about a new development reported in The Atlantic:

A team of scientists from Harvard University and the company Carbon Engineering announced on Thursday that they have found a method to cheaply and directly pull carbon-dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere.

. . .

Carbon Engineering says the technique unveiled today has already been implemented at its small, pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia. It is currently seeking funding to build an industrial-scale version of the plant, which Keith says it can complete by 2021.

Wow! Sign me up.

Except, er, what do you mean by cheaply”? After all the hoopla on social media, I was shocked to see the actual details:

As recently as 2011, a panel of experts estimated that it would cost at least $600 to remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The new paper says it can remove the same ton for as little as $94, and for no more than $232. At those rates, it would cost between $1 and $2.50 to remove the carbon dioxide released by burning a gallon of gasoline in a modern car.

So if we wanted to, say, “cheaply” stop adding pollution from gasoline to the air using this technology, we’d need to fund the effort with a gas tax of $1 to $2.50 per gallon or raise the equivalent amount of money elsewhere. That seems like a political nonstarter, given that California, of all places, has revolted against a twelve-cent hike in the gas tax.

Josiah Neeley of R Street, meanwhile, points out that

even at the low end of the cost range, $94 a ton is still more than double the Obama administration’s estimate of the amount of damage done by a ton of carbon dioxide emissions (and is nearly 20 times the new Trump administration’s estimate). Going by the Obama numbers, using this technology on a large scale simply would not be worth the cost. And even if you thought the Obama administration had vastly underestimated the dangers of climate change, you would still only want to use a technology this costly once you had taken advantage of any cheaper ways to reduce emissions (of which thankfully there are many). This method is not even the cheapest technique for geoengineering (although some other possible methods tend to be more controversial).

To really be a breakthrough, technologies to counteract the effects of climate change need to be a lot cheaper, and the possible side effects need to be studied.

I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to tackle climate change over humanity’s next few generations, both by reducing emissions and through geoengineering efforts like this one. But I doubt we will see our deus ex machina just three years from now.

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