Fighting climate change by sucking carbon dioxide out of the air with giant blowers seems like a brilliant idea. Why knock yourself out trying to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions when you can continue to produce the emissions and then snatch them back from the atmosphere? That solution reminds me of the little red vehicle with robotic arms that the Cat in the Hat uses to clean up the house that he, Thing One and Thing Two have just trashed. “Have no fear of this mess,” the Cat in the Hat tells the children. “I always pick up all my playthings.”
But direct air capture of carbon, as the nascent technology is called, is not as reliable as Dr. Seuss’s three-wheeled deus ex machina. And it’s coming in for heavy criticism at COP28, the United Nations climate summit that’s happening in the desert city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “It’s incredibly dangerous for the fossil fuel industry and its enablers in government to promote the idea that they can keep burning fossil fuels while pulling carbon out of the air or out of the smokestacks with technologies that consistently fail to deliver,” Collin Rees, the U.S. program manager at Oil Change International, wrote in an email.
Direct air capture of carbon isn’t a completely bad idea. In fact, it’s going to have to be part of the solution to climate change eventually. That’s because in some sectors of the economy, it’s impossible or extremely costly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions all the way to zero. Jet aviation and cement production are two examples that people sometimes mention (although technological breakthroughs may change that). In such sectors, it’s more cost-effective to get to net zero by allowing a little carbon to dribble out and then cleaning it up through direct air capture.
So it makes sense to invest in research on the technology for the long run. I’m glad that the Biden administration is spending $3.5 billion to develop four regional hubs — the first two in Texas and Louisiana — to accelerate the development and deployment of direct air capture. Approaches differ, but the general idea is to push air through some kind of filter that separates out the carbon dioxide, then bury it in the ground or use it in manufacturing. The plan is to keep the energy-intensive process green by using electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind. “The science says we cannot get to net zero 2050” without some use of carbon capture, John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said on Wednesday.
The problem comes when direct air capture is seen as partly an alternative to vigorous efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The president of this year’s climate summit, Sultan Al Jaber, seems to lean in that direction. Al Jaber, who is the head of the United Arab Emirates national oil company, Adnoc, said last month that there was “no science” behind the idea that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures would require ending fossil fuel production.
Adnoc is working on direct air capture with Occidental Petroleum. Oxy, as it calls itself, broke ground in April on a $1.3 billion plant in Texas that will suck carbon dioxide out of the air. It intends to inject the carbon dioxide into the ground to force more oil to the surface. So it’s part of a strategy to extend the life of the oil business. “This gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed,” Vicki Hollub, Oxy’s chief executive, said at a conference.
That kind of talk worries climate scientists and activists. Even the International Energy Agency, which is hardly radical on environmental issues, warned recently against “excessive expectations and reliance” on carbon capture as a solution. The carbon capture the agency refers to includes direct air capture, namely pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (very expensive), as well as pulling carbon dioxide from smokestacks, where it’s highly concentrated (less expensive).
It would take an “inconceivable” amount of carbon capture to keep the planet’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius “if oil and natural gas consumption were to evolve as projected under today’s policy settings,” the agency wrote. The electricity required to capture that much carbon as of 2050 would be more than the entire globe’s use of electricity in 2022, it added.
Joseph Romm, a senior research fellow at the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media, sent me an article he wrote before the climate summit that called direct air capture a “trap” that “distracts from reducing CO2 emissions.” Direct air capture makes some sense in the long run, when all efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been taken to their fullest, he wrote to me in an email. But for decades to come, he wrote, “direct air capture will be a costly misallocation of renewables.”
So is direct air capture a savior or a snare? I conclude that it’s a savior in the long run but a snare in the short run. The right combination is to spend money researching and developing the technology for when it’s eventually necessary but put the bulk of our effort into cutting emissions drastically. The Cat in the Hat won’t save us now.
The Readers Write
Thank you, Peter, for your piece on Charlie Munger and investing. I, like many millions, will miss his wit and wisdom.
You ask, “Who ever said magazines need to be ink on paper?” I did and still do. I can’t stand trying to read lengthy articles on the tiny cellphone screen or not much bigger tablet or the desktop (on which I spend too much time already). I get considerable enjoyment by reading The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic in my favorite chair with a glass of single malt.
Fernandina Beach, Fla.
Concerning your newsletter about Elon Musk, another theory is that he has adopted the approach that “I can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support.” Memories are short, and Twitter/X is used by so many.
Quote of the Day
“Members of other ethnic groups will forever be convinced that a Harvard man, no matter how fierce his revolutionary rhetoric, how wild his beard, how bizarre his dress, is still at root a Harvard man.”
— Andrew Greeley, “Intellectuals as an ‘Ethnic Group,’” The New York Times (July 12, 1970)