Capturing Carbon With Machines Is a Failure—So Why Are We Subsidizing It?

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Yves here. Predictably, policy-makers prefer the climate change version of wunderwaffen to traditional approaches with less NGO-busying and producer-enriching. And that before getting to the fact that lower tech works better.  And cutting energy use, as in radical conservation, works best!

By Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. Produced by , a project of the Independent Media Institute

Human activity—mostly the burning of fossil fuels—has raised Earth’s atmospheric carbon content by 50 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 420 ppm. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve released approximately 950 billion metric tons of carbon into the air. Every year, humans emit more than 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, as of 2021 measurements. Even if we stop burning fossil fuels now, the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere will cause Earth’s climate to continue warming for decades, triggering heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels, and extreme weather.

Climate scientists warn that if we want to avert catastrophe, a significant amount of excess atmospheric CO2 must be captured and sequestered. The process is called carbon dioxide removal (CDR), and it has been receiving more attention as nations, states, and industries strive to meet their climate goals. But how should we go about doing it?

There are two broad strategies: biological and mechanical. Nature already absorbs and emits about 100 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year through the natural processes in the biosphere—including plant growth—an amount 2.5 times humanity’s annual carbon output. So, according to advocates for biological carbon removal, our best bet is simply to help the planet do a little more of what it is already doing to absorb carbon. We could accomplish this through reforestation, soil-building agricultural practices, and encouraging kelp growth in oceans.

On the other hand, advocates for mechanical carbon removal point to technologies that successfully capture CO2 in the laboratory; if these machines were scaled up, those advocates tell us, we could create an enormous new industry with plenty of jobs while removing atmospheric carbon and reducing climate risk. Scientists are exploring several chemical pathways for direct air capture (DAC) of carbon and ways to sequester CO2 in porous rock formations. Revenue streams come from government subsidies or from the use of captured CO2 in enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

So, which pathway—nature or machines—holds more promise?

In its sixth assessment report, released in March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that regularly assesses the current state of climate science, points out that “biological CDR methods like reforestation, improved forest management, soil carbon sequestration, peatland restoration[,] and coastal blue carbon management can enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions, employment[,] and local livelihoods.”

On the other hand, notes the IPCC, the implementation of mechanical DAC along with underground sequestration of CO2 “currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological-environmental and socio-cultural barriers.” Further, the current global rates of mechanical carbon capture and storage “are far below those in modeled pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C to 2°C.”

In a study published in the journal PLOS Climate in February 2023, a team of American scientists analyzed the benefits and downsides of the two pathways in detail. They used three criteria: effectiveness (“[d]oes the process achieve a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere” once all inputs and outputs are accounted for?), efficiency (“[a]t a climate-relevant scale… [of a billion metric tons of CO2 per year], how much energy and land are required?”), and impacts (“[w]hat are the significant co-benefits or adverse impacts [on nature and society]?”).

The team gathered data and crunched the numbers. The lead author, June Sekera, a carbon researcher and visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York, concluded:

“[B]iological sequestration methods, including restoration of forests, grasslands, and wetlands and regenerative agriculture, are both more effective and more resource efficient in achieving a climate-relevant scale of CO2 removal than are techno-mechanical methods—which use machinery and chemicals to capture CO2. Additionally, the co-impacts of biological methods are largely positive, while those of technical/mechanical methods are negative. Biological methods are also far less expensive.”

In this comparative study, the scores for natural versus mechanical carbon removal methods were not close: Natural methods won in every category—and by a significant margin. The problem with machine-based carbon removal is not just that current technologies are immature (with the hope of getting better with more research and investment), but also that using machines is inherently inefficient, costly, and risky. On the other hand, removing carbon by restoring nature costs less, is more effective at reducing atmospheric carbon, and offers numerous side benefits.

The American study also noted that its findings “that biological methods exhibit superior effectiveness in comparison to DAC are consistent with data reported in the 2022 IPCC study.” It added in plain terms: “According to the IPCC, not only are biological methods of CDR more effective than DAC…, but their effectiveness is projected to increase significantly over time.”

As if to underscore that conclusion, a separate study published in March 2023 in the journal Nature Climate Change concluded that the protection and rewilding of even a small targeted group of wildlife species would help facilitate the capture and storage of enough carbon to keep the global temperature below the tipping point of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

You might expect, therefore, that policymakers would currently be directing all of their support toward natural carbon removal methods. But you’d be wrong. Government policy support in the form of subsidies is being shoveled mostly into mechanical carbon removal.

In the U.S., the primary subsidy for mechanical CDR is the federal 45Q tax credit, introduced in 2008, which offers $10 to $20 per metric ton of CO2 captured and stored. But there are also carbon offset credit programs (including the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard), subsidies for building CO2 pipelines, and subsidies for the production of alternative fuels (including ethanol and hydrogen) that rely on carbon capture technology to be considered “low-carbon.” The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 significantly increased the number of credits in 45Q and broadened eligibility, and included federal subsidies for oil producers who pump CO2 underground to make it easier to extract trapped petroleum—which is by far the most common way of using captured CO2.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Biden signed in November 2021, included billions in federal funding for carbon capture projects. In the Midwest, as a result, there has been a rush to build thousands of miles of CO2 pipelines for carbon sequestration—a frenzy that has set off regulatory chaos and is pitting farmers and Native Americans against biofuel plant operators and venture capitalists. Researchers continue to spend time and money finding new chemical pathways to mechanical CO2 capture—resources that could instead be diverted to biological CO2 removal methods. Even AI is being enlisted in mechanical carbon capture efforts.

There are also subsidies that, in effect, promote nature-based CDR methods, including soil conservation and wetlands restoration programs, but these programs were not initially intended for carbon capture and sequestration, and they are not optimized for that purpose. In November 2022, at the global COP27 climate summit in Cairo, the Biden administration announced the “Nature-Based Solutions Roadmap,” an outline of strategic recommendations to put America on a path to “unlock the full potential of nature-based solutions” to address “climate change, nature loss, and inequity.” The roadmap calls for updating policies, providing funding, training a nature-based solutions workforce, and prioritizing research, innovation, knowledge, and adaptive learning to advance nature-based solutions. However, the roadmap remains, for the most part, in the realm of good intentions.

There’s only so much funding available for climate solutions, and the total amount is woefully inadequate. Only strategic investment will obtain significant results for the dollars spent, and it is now clear which path will get results.

Given the clear superiority of nature-based solutions, why is so much support still going toward mechanical carbon capture? Poor judgments in the past have created funding streams and projects with a momentum of their own. Most of the gold-rush fever surrounding mechanical carbon capture can be attributed simply to the lure of subsidies for building new DAC plants and pipelines.

In a 2018 article published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Justin Adams—who at the time was the managing director for global lands at the U.S.-based environmental nonprofit Nature Conservancy—urged the European Union to take the lead on using nature-based solutions in the climate crisis fight. “Many economists and policy advisors ignore the potential of natural climate solutions at our peril,” warned Adams’s article, calling a 2018 report by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) “short-sighted” for downplaying the potential of nature-based climate solutions.

“Natural climate solutions are in fact the world’s oldest negative emissions technology,” Adams wrote. “By managing carbon dioxide-hungry forests and agricultural lands better, we can remove vast quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and store them in trees and soils.”​​

The science tells us that policymakers and investors have so far been wrong to advocate so strongly for mechanical CDR solutions to the detriment of biological ones. The fate of future generations is at stake, and we cannot afford to waste both time and money on techno-fixes that are ineffective at achieving our climate goals. The clear path forward to addressing the looming catastrophic effects of climate change is to restore nature.

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  1. lyman alpha blob

    The fix is a biological one, but not the ones on offer in this article. The planet doesn’t need our help with reforestation for example, it needs us to stop cutting down all the trees.

    The carbon in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution because the human population has as well. But somehow reducing the human population never seems to be one of the solutions. In fact we often get the opposite argument, with claims of workers shortages [when in fact we might have a business surplus – just how many fast food joints are necessary after all?] and the need for more immigration to deal with declining birth rates, as if that decline were a bad thing and not the solution to the problem.

    1. Boatwright

      When I was born in 1947, the world population was about 2 billion. Today, it is 8. There were real wilderness areas all over the world largely untouched by human technology. There were vast herds of animals on the African savannah. It was a better world then.

      Capitalism is a system that demands growth and an ever expanding exploitation of resources in order to generate profit. When I took economics in college over 50 years ago it was a given that new resources would always be found, and that rapacious growth could continue forever. It takes only a moment of serious thinking to see that this is simply foolish. We are talking about exponential growth, with world energy consumption now doubling every 14 years and no sign that this is going to change as long as we expect to continue with business as usual. All of the electric cars, solar panels, and veggie burgers are not going to have any effect on the brutal reality we face.

      Our only hope, and it is a slim one, is to put a painful bit in the mouth of this runaway and drastically change the way we live. Sadly, right now we are thinking about how we can tune up the machine so we can rocket off the planet and move to Mars.

  2. mrsyk

    “Given the clear superiority of nature-based solutions, why is so much support still going toward mechanical carbon capture?” Ha ha, because markets silly rabbit. Someone hasn’t read the rules of neoliberalism.

    1. ChrisFromGA

      I call it the Big Bezzle.

      Mechanical solutions provide Wall St with investment opportunities in companies that will burn more CO2 to produce the machines that capture CO2.

      IPO, skim, then profit again when said companies go bankrupt, by either shorting them or offering “restructuring services.”

      Brought to you by the firm of Skim, Grift, and Bezzle.

      1. Felix_47

        Is that the firm that donates to whatever political party controls the government and hires retired lawmakers to have lunch and party with their colleagues in Washington and even hires them for its executive ranks? We spent 16 billion on the 2020 election and for many it was money well worth spending. Giving is often more rewarding than receiving, I guess. Without massive campaign finance reform the chances of holding to the global warming limits are essentially less than 0.

        1. some guy

          And the Soopreem Kort has already decided that campaign finance reform is unconstitutional. So either we find a different battlespace in which to forcibly engage the “system” or the chances of holding to global warming limits are less than zero just as you say.

        2. BeliTsari

          Yep. That sums it up. They’ve NO incentive to stifle Catastrophe Capitalism’s feeding frenzies. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste! If we’re going to coup Peru, or infect sero-naive Chinese workers for Tesla, Apple, Gates, Bezos or pick proxy wars to save fracking, cracking, bitumen Ponzi schemes; it’s none of OUR business if we’re paying for it? Heck, they basically stopped counting excess deaths & disappeared PASC this time last year (as we got our 3rd infection, despite MILD Omicron’s SUPER Immunity?) Senile kleptocrats can’t even be bothered to LIE about the whole Powell Memo, Resistance, Lincoln Project coup protection scheme progression when we’ve absolutely NO say & media’s sneeringly brainwashed PMC bosses, landlords & creditors to believe they’re in with The IN Crowd; that the choppers for Gault’s Gulch haven’t already left them behind?

    2. ChrisPacific

      Yeah, if we are leaving it up to markets then the question is not “which pathway holds more promise” but “which pathway offers more potential for grifting.” The answer to that one seems pretty obvious.

  3. BeliTsari

    By the time, they’d switched to the: Oops, it’s simply TOO LATE to implement all that hippy-dippy eco-terrorist malarkey that shot NASDAQ back up after the COVID crash; that ordinary folks were installing & already showed successful on the open Market & was showing mitigation, well before any “lockdown?” The entire climate denial sector switched VERBATIM to: well, THAT didn’t work. Let us TRY to save your doomed GRANDCHILDREN with Geo-engineering, GE Monoculture, Carbon sequestration, 60yr old fission reactors, bio-mass & algae based diesel, CLEAN coal & Obama’s bridge fuels! Unless, you’re FOR Putin & Trump? Well, ARE you, punk?

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    I’m going to take the liberty of repeating a comment I left a few weeks back in response to an article in Links about a carbon capture project in Canada because the comment is also relevant to Heinberg’s article. In short, I believe these technologies, which require an enormous amount of electricity, are being pushed because the oil and gas industry hope to replace naturally occurring CO2 deposits that have been used for tertiary recovery for 40 years when those deposits are depleted. The tax benefits are so great from the combination of the tax breaks Heinberg discusses, Biden’s “Inflation Reduction Act,” and the 40+ year-old tax breaks for tertiary recovery. The original comment:

    Carbon capture (or is it society capture?)–

    It’s nice to see a realistic article about carbon capture. Not only do we learn that the technology really hasn’t made much progress since the 70s, but we also find out why this technology keeps getting hauled out like it’s a magic solution.

    The article explains what happens to the captured carbon:

    The destination for all that captured carbon dioxide isn’t particularly green. Three-quarters of it is pumped underground to squeeze more oil out of a field 36 miles away operated by a different company—a solution that only adds to the problem of global greenhouse emissions.

    In the Permian Basin that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border, oil was first recovered using the natural pressure in the formation, the most dramatic example of which is the “gusher.” As the oil is recovered, the natural pressure drops, eventually to the point where this initial stage ends. At that point, roughly 90% of the oil remains. Oil companies then employ secondary recovery which injects water at high pressure into the formation to “wash” more of the oil out. The success of this process depends on many factors, but it’s a decent rule-of-thumb that water flood gets another 20% of the oil out, leaving 70% in the formation.

    At this point, tertiary recovery using CO2 under high pressure is injected into the wells. This was first done in the Permian basin using CO2 from a carbon capture project on natural gas power plants located right in the Permian Basin, but the amount of CO2 available was only enough for pilot projects. Shell and Mobil (remember them?) located and acquired the largest naturally occurring CO2 deposit called the McElmo Dome located in the Four Corners near Cortez, CO. In 1981, I was conducting litigation to acquire right-of-way for the billion-dollar Cortez Pipeline that brought the CO2 under high pressure from the Four Corners diagonally across New Mexico to Denver City, Texas in the middle of the Permian Basin. The pipeline was completed in 1982 (thanks to my stellar representation ;) ), and has been used for tertiary recovery ever since. By a very rough rule of thumb, somewhere between 40% and 50% of the CO2 originally contained in the McElmo Dome has been used. There are several other natural CO2 domes used in the United States, including the Bravo Dome, developed by Amoco in the 1980s and located closer to the Permian Basin than McElmo. All have been in use since the 80s and are in various states of depletion.

    So while carbon capture is being sold as “green” and a way to cut carbon emissions, it has been and continues to be a process that produces CO2 useful for already heavily tax favored tertiary recovery. As the article linked by Lambert notes, supporters of carbon capture are happy about some new tax breaks for the carbon capture process itself:

    Supporters say the rules, along with new federal tax credits, will help speed up the progress of carbon capture. Electric utilities have been reluctant to adopt the technology because it costs too much, not because it doesn’t work, according to Jay Duffy, litigation director for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental and research organization.

    So the real plan is to bribe utilities with tax credits to employ inefficient, energy intensive carbon capture so they can produce carbon to sell to oil companies to use in the ever-expanding tertiary recovery efforts in old oil fields as the naturally “captured” CO2 in McElemo and other domes is depleted.

    So guess what’s in Biden’s “Inflation Reduction Act,” the most wonderfulest, greenest legislation evah?

    The main policy encouraging carbon capture is called the 45Q tax credit. Mahmoud Abouelnaga, solutions fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said it’s had a limited effect. However, he said, the Inflation Reduction Act’s boost to the tax credit is changing that.

    “After the enhancement of 45Q, we have seen the announcement of so many projects all across the country,” he said, adding that carbon capture can work at scale if the infrastructure to move and store the carbon is there.

    Something’s been captured, but I don’t think it’s carbon.

  5. JonnyJames

    Yeah, a thoroughly corrupt US gov, and their corrupt puppet-masters will “save the planet”. Hooray, and we can make a killing by “saving the planet” – it’s a win-win! (sarcasm). What great investment opportunities!

    Congress Kleptocrats will steal what is left of public resources, and then subsidize the oligarchy as usual, that’s their job. No one really gives a toss about mitigating environmental disaster, but it sounds good for the Greenwash PR.

    We need unlimited economic growth and unlimited growth of debt bubbles, that way wealth/power can be further concentrated and the economy further polarized. Let’s party, like there’s no tomorrow, before the inevitable collapse: the market for cocaine, champagne and hookers will be a growth sector, for a while at least.

  6. Synoia

    Let us be blunt:

    We are generating an Extinction Event. As we can all see intelligence (and greed) as we practice them are and generating a Life Extinguishing Event.

    A prime example of our behavior is demonstrated by the OIL Cartel.Where their mechanism is to foster uncertainty about global warming, because profits prevail.

    It probably is somewhere between 20 and 50 years for a major famine on this Globe. A population reduction of 75 to 90% would go far to extinguish out civilization, end our behavior and let nature take its course.

    With our elites trying to survive the devastation and failing miserably because of the scope of the devastation.

    The birds and small mammals may survived the downfall of the Dinosaurs, and will probably succeed again.

    The key to life appears to be a temperatures range where cool liquid water is possible.

    It is interesting that Greed as we practice it appears unique to Humans. We know of no other Animals which exhibit the same level of greed as our Kings (Politicians) and nobles (Million or Billionaires).

    1. Raymond Oliver

      Dr. Guy McPherson would say you are way too early on your 20 + time frame. Given all the feedback loops that are occuring.

  7. p fitzsimon

    I think it’s needed by Bill Gates, John Kerry, Mike Bloomberg and the like. They can continue to commute in private jets and still feel good about helping the climate by buying offsets.

  8. Felix_47

    16 billion was spent on the 2020 election and for many it was money well worth spending. Without massive campaign finance reform the chances of holding to the global warming limits are less than 0. And the chances for massive campaign finance reform are just as low, sadly.

  9. GM

    Basic thermodynamics intuitively tells you that it is absurd to even think about scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere — you are trying to remove a dilute gas from a gigantic volume, and that is going to cost you big time no matter the exact technical details.

    People have done the explicit calculation too, and it confirms that intuition.

    But we live in a world detached from physical reality, so nobody pays attention.

    1. Michaelmas

      GM: you are trying to remove a dilute gas from a gigantic volume, and that is going to cost you big time

      Agreed. It’s fatuous. Especially as there’s an existing technology, cyanobacteria, that did the carbon capture that created the Earth’s current atmosphere as it is —

      Calcifying cyanobacteria—the potential of biomineralization for carbon capture and storage

        1. synoia

          If money was valued at the weight of Carbon removed from the atmosphere , we would see a startling change in Carbon Capture.

          Let’s call this the Carbon standard..

  10. Ignacio

    This sounds familiar: let’s go with the F16 here with industrial carbon capture there… are we seeking for solutions or is it just business?

    1. some guy

      It is just business. The business of extending and pretending and keeping the coal and oil business strongly dominant and profitable for decades at least.

  11. R.P.

    Why are we worrying about carbon in the first place? The hype about carbon being a problem has come from the same people that are causing all the other scams and crapification of the planet. if we are going to get rid of people why not try getting rid of them first!

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