04 January 2022

GlobalEcoGuy: “7 Reasons Why Artificial Carbon Removal is Overhyped”

While many people think this is a new technology, it’s not. In fact, the US Department of Energy spent at least $6 billion over two decades on it. Not to mention the tax credits oil and gas companies have received for pilot projects.

And we have very little to show for it. The machines are still insignificantly small when it comes to addressing climate change. In fact, they are still far from even being noticed by the atmosphere.

Even the biggest projects stretch to absorb a few thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, we emit over 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. That’s a million-fold gap. So, even if artificial carbon removal scaled 1,000x — which is still years and billions of dollars away at best — it would need to grow by another 1,000-fold even to be a small percentage of the solutions we need.

Dr. Jonathan Foley

If Don’t Look Up is a satire about climate change, then artificial carbon removal would be the BART drones: an unproven, technological ‘fix’ that distracts us from the common goal and from pursuing more reliable solutions. Reducing carbon emissions sooner rather than later would have a much larger impact, with less negative side effects on the environment, than waiting for this magic bullet to finally scale enough to handle the issue – and there’s no guarantee it ever will. And even if it would eventually become viable, atmospheric carbon extraction runs into the same conundrum as electric vehicles: they require large power sources, and if that power comes from burning fossil fuels, we’re back at square one…

All you need to know about Elon Musk’s Carbon Capture Prize

Artificial carbon removal is largely a sideshow to addressing climate change for the foreseeable future. It’s too small, will arrive too late, and is too big a distraction. It’s certainly not worth the hype it’s receiving now. Even generous estimates suggest that it’s only going to be a few percent of the climate solutions we need during the coming decades.

To be fair, there may be a few legitimate cases for using artificial carbon removal. For example, we may want to use carbon removal machines to make “net-zero” cement, steel, aviation fuel, or plastic. These are going to be hard things to decarbonize, and limited carbon removal might make sense. And it’s possible we may want significant levels of carbon removal in the second half of the century, once emissions are near zero, to help remove some of our historic emissions. But, no matter what, carbon removal should never be used to keep burning fossil fuels or delay climate action.

But let’s be honest. The hype isn’t about stopping climate change. It’s about money. Or letting the fossil fuel industry drill a bit longer, with trillions of dollars at stake. We’d be foolish to continue the charade.

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