At last year’s COP26 climate crisis conference in Glasgow, US envoy and former US Secretary of State John Kerry said a solution to the climate crisis would involve “Technology we don’t have yetBut it is said to be on the way. Kerry’s optimism comes directly from the scientists. You can read about these beliefs in the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Integrated Assessment Models created by the researchers. These models provide insights into reducing carbon emissions. pathways that could allow us to keep climate change below 2 degrees C. They rely heavily on technologies that do not yet exist, such as ways to store carbon underground safely, permanently and economically.
Stop and think about it. Science—that is, European and American science—has long been regarded as our rational model. Scientists often accuse those who reject their findings of being unreasonable. However, relying on technology that does not yet exist is unreasonable and magical thinking. That is a developmental stage where children are expected to grow up. Imagine if I said I planned to build a house or a civilization on Mars out of materials that haven’t been invented yet, without first figuring out how to get a human there. You might think I’m irrational, maybe delusional. However, this thinking runs through future decarbonization plans.
For example, IPCC models rely heavily on carbon capture and storage, also known as carbon capture and storage (either way, CCS).Some advocates, including companies such as ExxonMobil, say CCS is a mature technology Because for years, industry has pumped carbon dioxide or other substances into oil fields to flush more fossil fuels out of the ground. But carbon dioxide doesn’t necessarily stay in rocks and soil. It may migrate along cracks, faults and fissures before returning to the atmosphere. Keeping the extracted carbon underground—in other words, achieving net negative emissions—is much harder. Globally, there are only a handful of places to do so. None of them are commercially viable.
One such location is the Orca plant in Iceland, which is touted as the largest carbon removal plant in the world. Carbon dioxide captured in the air mixes with water and is pumped into the ground, where it reacts with the basalt to form stable carbonate minerals. That’s great. But the cost is astronomical—$600 to $1,000 per ton—and the scale is small: about 4,000 tons per year. By contrast, just one company, tech giant Microsoft (which has pledged to offset all of its emissions), will generate nearly 14 million tonnes of carbon in 2021. Or look at the carbon capture at the Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant in Illinois, which has controlled carbon since 2017 at a cost to US taxpayers of $281 million (more than half of the total project cost); meanwhile, the plant total emissions have increased. What is the total number of people employed in the project? eleven. At the same time, many CCS plants have failed. In 2016, MIT shut down its carbon capture and storage technology program after all 43 projects it was involved in were cancelled, put on hold or converted to other projects.
It’s easy to see why ExxonMobil and Archer Daniels Midland are pushing CCS. It makes them look good and they can make taxpayers pay. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed last year, contains more than $10 billion in funding to develop carbon capture technologies. By comparison, the bill contains only $420 million for renewable energy — water, wind, geothermal and solar.
Scaling up solar and wind power costs money and requires effective public policy support. The big question is, why can’t we get these programs? One reason is the continued impediment to activity in the fossil fuel industry. But why do scientists embrace this waving? My guess is that with elected officials unable to overcome political hurdles, the researchers think bypassing technical hurdles will become less difficult. They might be right. But by the time we know if they exist, it may be too late.