‘Hopelessly Flawed’ Carbon Capture Still ‘Essential’
The idea that humanity can suck back out of the atmosphere—or even from our own emissions—enough carbon to bring the Earth’s climate back into a stable equilibrium is “hopelessly flawed,” according to CBC business columnist Don Pittis. It’s also “essential.”
While some kinds of carbon capture and storage are cheap but impermanent, others are effectively permanent but prohibitively expensive for most applications, Pittis writes.
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While “storing carbon in biological systems such as forests” is “appealing,” he adds, “it doesn’t last. In most cases, carbon trapped in organic systems gets back into the atmosphere within as little as 100 years.”
But “the biggest barrier to carbon sequestration” in biological systems, he says, “is simply the huge volume of carbon humans release by burning fossil fuels, estimated at 36 billion tonnes in 2016. There aren’t enough old growth forests to make a dent in a number like that.”
North America’s only operating industrial carbon capture and sequestration facility is Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam plant.
Citing Rick Chalaturnyk, an expert on the geological storage of greenhouse gases at the University of Alberta, Pittis says that “from a technical point of view, [chemical and mechanical carbon capture] has been proven.” The trouble is a prohibitive price. “Carbon taxes would have to rise to between $50 and $100 a tonne to change that.” (In fact, Canada’s planned national floor price would reach the low end of that range by 2022.)
But Pittis says industrial carbon capture will still find a market. “There are some processes where, so far, fossil fuels are indispensable,” he argues. “Heating rock to make concrete is estimated to produce about 5% of all the carbon dioxide humans release. So far, we have no practical alternative. Fertilizer is also a place where carbon capture and storage will be essential.”
That means CCS could begin to pay off “as technology brings costs down, and carbon taxes push the cost of greenhouse gases up,” he concludes. “But it’s hard to imagine it will ever be cheap enough to allow us to keep producing the amounts of carbon we are generating today.”