Rex Tillerson, past CEO of ExxonMobil and past Secretary of State for Trump’s White House, once stated that climate change is “an engineering problem”. Geoengineering is a term that refers to various plans to halt or slow down the effects of the climate crisis. The most talked about idea, and the one favored in the Trump administration, is that once the world has become so overheated people are begging for any relief, the military would spray masses of sulphate particles into the atmosphere, worldwide, causing some of the sun’s energy to be deflected away from the planet. Problem solved. This seems to be the future we are now blundering towards. Effects would be impossible to predict. Some simulations indicate a further depletion of the ozone layer and that millions, and possibly billions, of people in third world countries would suffer and starve as rain fall patterns change. One thing for sure: this would be catastrophic for the oceans. The only way to limit or reduce acidification in the oceans is to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, and spraying sulphates would be a license to keep on burning fossils and spewing GHGs. This is the magic solution of the fossil fuel corporations: deny, deny, deny. Then spray.
Negative Emission Technologies
The IPCC says that in addition to reducing fossil fuel use, changing diets, planting trees and other conventional responses to climate change we will have to start actively pulling CO2 from the air by mid-century in order to keep temperatures rising less than 2 deg.C. This is called negative emissions technologies (NET) and is quite different from geoengineering techniques that aim to reduce solar energy by spraying the atmosphere or seeding the oceans with iron to promote CO2 absorption. Some of the techniques suggested by the IPCC are “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS) which would require unrealistically large amounts of precious forest land and “soil carbon sequestration” which would depend on farmers around the world planting extra crops in the off season. Another possibility was considered by the IPCC but was considered too technologically challenging. This may be changing. Direct Air Capture (DAC) involves capturing CO2 directly from the air. It is a topic that is talked about in hushed tones, almost like a forbidden fruit, because we cannot rely on it instead of reducing our use of fossil fuels. IPCC studies indicate we must do everything possible to reduce our use of fossil fuels and change how we live but this won’t be enough to meet climate targets. There are only two companies currently involved in DAC. Climeworks is based in Zurich, Switzerland and removes CO2 from the air and sells it to greenhouse growers. The other company is Carbon Engineering, founded by Harvard University physics professor, David Keith, based originally in Calgary and now in Squamish, B.C., where it has an operating demonstration plant. It uses readily available and scalable technology to draw CO2 from the air and hydrogen from electrolysis, powered by renewables, and combines them to make ultra-low-carbon fuels for cars, ships or aircraft. They call it “air to fuel”, or A2F. The company is planning on building a plant above the Permian Basin capable of capturing one million metric tons of CO2 per year starting in 2021. The fuel will help California reach its low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS). Credits for LCFS are now trading for about $150 per ton of carbon and Carbon Engineering states that with its industrial scale plant it can get its costs down to around $100/ton. Carbon neutral fuels: this is exciting. Imagine if short range airplanes were powered with electric batteries and longer range with A2Fs. This could become reality if the carbon in fossil fuels were priced properly. Yes, flying would become more expensive. But before you, reader, complain, consider this: 80% of the people on this planet have never flown. Those of us who have are the lucky 20%, and we’re the ones responsible for the climate crisis.
Carbon neutral fuels do not qualify as negative emissions. For that to happen the CO2 captured from the atmosphere must be put back into the ground, where it came from. There are plans in the longer term to do this. However, the price in California today for carbon is only about $15 a ton. Sequestering carbon will not be commercially viable until the costs of companies such as Carbon Engineering come down and the carbon credit for sequestering carbon goes up. An analysis by industry expert The Brattle Group foresees prices reaching $55/ton in 2030 and climbing to $130/ton by 2050. Unfortunately, this isn’t fast enough to prevent disastrous climate change and ocean acidification. We need to more, sooner. If that does happen and we as global citizens manage to hugely reduce our emissions, perhaps we can minimize or even reverse the worst damage to our home planet. We have to try.