Today’s headlines might have given readers the mistaken impression that the fossil fuel problem has been solved. “Icelandic Experiment Reports A Climate Change Breakthrough, Turns Carbon Dioxide To Stone,” declares the International Business Times. That’s it, everyone, we did it. We can spin straw into gold. Let’s pack up and go home.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The good news is that, for the first time ever, scientists have figured out a way to store waste carbon dioxide underground forever. The bad news is that this process is still wildly expensive, uses enormous amounts of energy and water, is untested on a large scale, and produces nothing of value. Climate change has never been a technology problem — it’s an economic problem and a policy problem. The solution is not technology on its own, but in policies that force fossil fuel industries to internalize the costs of the climate change they cause.
The true value of carbon capture and storage is in the climate change related costs it avoids: costs associated with rising seas, worsening storms, agricultural losses, and migrations away from the coast, among other things. By one estimate, the annual costs associated with climate change will hit $271 million in the United States by 2021, and $1.9 billion by the end of the century. It’s in this context that ponying up for carbon capture and storage starts to make sense, and governments will see the value in forcing polluting industries to pay for it.
Carbon capture and storage is absolutely a necessary technology if the world is going to achieve its goal of limiting global warming to fewer than 1.5 degrees Celsius. From a human perspective, the consequences of immediately shutting down all fossil fuel burning would be far worse than the consequences of climate change. Fossil fuel burning should and will continue on a large scale as we transition to renewable energy sources — in the meantime, we’re going to have to figure out how to efficiently keep some of that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
There are, unsurprisingly, two parts to carbon capture and storage. The capture part involves pulling carbon dioxide from air, typically out of the smokestacks of fossil fuel plants, although some companies have developed ways to suck it straight from the atmosphere, which neccesarily costs more because concentrations are lower. Global Thermostat claims it can capture carbon dioxide for less than $25 a ton, which is pretty good, but not exactly cheap. The United States emitted the equivalent of 5.6 billion tons of CO2 in 2014 — so that’s a priceteg of $140 billion annually just to clean up America’s current waste and ignoring the mess left behind from past emissions.
And say you had the money and infrastructure and political capital to accomplish this — now you have 5.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide on your hands, and no where to put it. Global Thermostat’s solution is to sell carbon dioxide to industries that use it, including, ironically, the oil and gas industry, which can inject CO2 into wells to stimulate the production of more oil and gas.
This recycling of atmospheric CO2 into industrial products might in some cases be better than nothing, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Whether you use the carbon dioxide in oil and gas production, in soft drinks, or in synthetic fuels, it ultimately ends up back in the atmosphere. And these industrial uses could never come close to consuming all of the world’s CO2 emissions. The necessary next step is storage.
That’s where this new research out of Iceland comes in. Until now, the best we could do in terms of storage was pump CO2 deep underground, in either gas or liquid form, seal up the reservoir, and hope for the best. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this is a permanent solution — at some point in the near or distant future, it’s almost certain that the container will leak, and the carbon will go right back into the atmosphere. This latest experiment proves that there’s another way — if you pump CO2 dissolved in water into porous basalt, it will react with minerals in the rock and form calcite, which contains carbon in a stable, solid form and therefore can hold onto it, on human-relevant timescales, forever.
So it’s possible. Is it feasible? The Iceland experiment used 25 times as much water as carbon dioxide, by weight, to get the soda water underground. Imagine trying to source 140 billion tons of water to dispose of America’s annual carbon emissions. You could probably use sea water, but you’d need more of it. Imagine the infrastructure and energy requirements of an operation of that magnitude. Yes — we have the technology to pull CO2 from the air and store it inside the Earth, it’s just that we can’t afford it.
Technology has a way of getting cheaper over time. But this is not a natural law; it depends on investment. Because the costs of climate change are not automatically paid by those responsible for emissions, it will take government intervention to stimulate investment in world-saving technologies. You’d be hard pressed to find an economist anywhere on the planet who doesn’t agree that a carbon tax is the most efficient way to incentivise a move away from burning fossil fuels.
“Tax” is a dirty word in a lot of circles, but no one who has ever driven on a public road should dismiss its value. A carbon tax can be made revenue neutral, if governments balance the new tax by reducing, say, income taxes. Governments can also use tax revenue to subsidize folks who would be disproportionately impacted — say, people who spend a large portion of their income on home heating.
Even without directed policy, a carbon tax would necessarily stimulate investment in climate change tech, including carbon capture and storage technology. If the government starts charging $50 per ton of CO2 emitted, and a company can figure out how to capture and store carbon for less than that, suddenly they’ve got a licence to print money, and the whole world starts to breathe a little easier.
And that’s when this all starts making a little more sense.