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Can Carbon Capture Be A part of the Climate Solution?


That is the ultimate installment within the Visionaries series, which looks at figures who are attempting to rework the way in which we live.

Every yr, humans pump around 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In accordance with quite a few successive and increasingly forceful reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet, that number must fall to zero by 2050.

But after a long time of inaction within the face of this scientific consensus, emissions have grown so high that reductions from things like increasing energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable electricity will only get us to this point. “We all know the best way to do 40 gigatons,” said Julio Friedmann of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “Which means you would like 10 gigatons of removal.”

He was referring to carbon capture and storage, referred to as C.C.S. — essentially sucking the carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, or from its emissions source, and locking it away somewhere.

Nearly 20 years ago, Jennifer Wilcox realized that removal can be key to attending to net-zero emissions. As a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University, Dr. Wilcox recognized that nature-based solutions — planting trees and rehabilitating wetlands, each of that are really good at absorbing carbon dioxide — could only achieve this much: Carbon would also have to be captured from the air. So, in 2012, she wrote the textbook on the way it’s done. The National Academies of Science got here around to Dr. Wilcox’s perspective in 2018, reporting that technologies would have to be developed and advanced to remove the quantity needed.

Ms. Wilcox, 45, now has a number one role within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, where she is charged with doing just that. But directing $10 billion to investments in carbon capture and storage is just a part of the job. Proven technologies should be made cheaply and at scale, and in some cases integrated with other systems. They have to be deployed each at sources of carbon dioxide, akin to power plants and factories, and within the wild, through systems referred to as direct air capture. And places should be found where the captured gas could be stored for hundreds of years, which may get tricky. Dr. Wilcox “has described every aspect of this work path,” said Dr. Friedmann, who has known her for a long time. “She wakes up every single day considering how can we deploy clean energy technology.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s holding back carbon capture and storage today? Is it the technology?

Varieties of carbon capture are sometimes conflated with one another. There’s point source carbon capture, which is retrofitting an existing facility and avoiding emissions from entering the atmosphere. Then there’s carbon dioxide removal — direct air capture. Technology for each approaches exists.

But then there’s the query of, what do you do with all of the CO2? The one approach that scales is the depleted oil and gas reservoirs: injecting it deep underground. So to me, it’s absolutely not the technology.

Is underground storage protected, achievable and cost-effective in the long run?

Deep underground storage of CO2 will not be latest — the oil industry has been doing it for nearly 40 years through enhanced oil production, which is a commercial-scale activity today. Through this industry, we have now gained expertise in protected and secure storage, and the identical skills, work force, and expertise will apply for dedicated CO2 storage projects. Similar trapping mechanisms that allowed oil and gas to be formed over tens of millions of years deep underground will ultimately trap CO2 as we work toward reversing the flow of carbon back underground, and we’re working to construct out the infrastructure.

Where do you’re thinking that carbon capture and storage will probably be in 10 years? Do you see point source systems being in place by then?

I see C.C.S. in a decade being deployed on industrial point sources which are hard to decarbonize today — cement, primarily, and in some cases, steel. Carbon capture on a cement plant really helps to drive down the carbon intensity of that product. And we’re pulp and paper as well.

Do customers wish to purchase low-carbon paper?

Yes. Apple, Amazon — anybody that uses a variety of paper. They’re willing to pay for low-carbon supply chains, but those don’t exist today. In order that they need to pay for very high-priced carbon removal.

And my point is: How about financing the low-carbon cement, low-carbon steel, low-carbon paper by adding C.C.S. to their production? It’s so much cheaper to avoid the emissions than taking it back out afterward. I don’t think those sectors are hard to decarbonize today.

I absolutely don’t see carbon capture because the tool to offset emissions that we all know the best way to decarbonize. But asking the query of who’s willing to pay for these projects will help drive a few of them, and the bipartisan infrastructure law that President Biden signed in November will support at the least two demonstrations.

Once we spoke a yr and a half ago, you said, “There must be government spending and incentives and investments related to putting an economic profit to putting more carbon within the earth than products produced after we use them.” Now, that’s actually your job description.

Understand the Latest News on Climate Change

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Great Salt Lake. Local politicians and scientists are warning that climate change and rapid population growth are shrinking the lake, making a bowl of toxic dust that would poison the air around Salt Lake City. But there aren’t any easy solutions to avert that consequence.

Carbon dioxide levels. The quantity of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere hit its highest level ever, scientists said. Humans pumped 36 billion tons of the planet-warming gas into the atmosphere in 2021, greater than in any previous yr.

Poor U.S. performance. The Environmental Performance Index, published every two years by researchers at Yale and Columbia, found that the US’ performance on combating climate change had declined in relation to other countries — largely because of this of Trump-era policies.

Extreme heat. Global warming has made the severe heat wave in Pakistan and India hotter and rather more more likely to occur in the long run, based on scientists. The researchers said that the possibilities of a heat wave in South Asia like this one have increased by at the least 30 times since preindustrial times.

Can you think it? Thanks for reminding me of that. Because truthfully, this can be a hard job. But every single day, I’m so thankful that I got to be chosen to be on this position. My work previously has provided just model extrapolations of what costs could possibly be, but the truth is we’d like the funding to really construct them. And it must be transparent in order that the policies are priced right for the private sector to then take it the remaining of the way in which. The Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management’s work can construct the more costly first-of-its-kind demonstrations.

How do you execute your vision through government bureaucracy?

We flipped the mission the wrong way up. The Office of Fossil Energy’s previous mission was to extend the production of fossil fuels domestically. Now it’s centered around investing in approaches and technologies that minimize climate and environmental impacts of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

What do you see because the challenges that carbon capture and storage faces for widespread deployment on the size essential to realize 10 gigatons of removal a yr?

The shortage of education and effective communication. An example that I actually have in my textbook is that the identical chemistry that captures CO2 also captures the acid rain gases, sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, which also affect human health. The primary stage of carbon capture is definitely cleansing up the particulate matter. In some communities where this technology could possibly be deployed, there are air pollution concerns, so it’s really essential to grasp those points. And a part of what we’re doing on this administration is being very thoughtful about citing projects and ensuring that we make it very clear that there are advantages that the communities will see.

One possible use for the CO2 that’s captured through C.C.S. is to inject it into oil wells to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. What do you say to critics who argue that carbon capture and storage generally is a license for oil and gas firms to pollute and that it’s a dangerous strategy given the necessity to deal with emissions reduction?

I say they’re right. It could possibly be that. But this administration is about putting guardrails in place, is about valuing other metrics like advantages to health, advantages to communities, reducing air pollution. But when we’re distracted within the near term, and considering that utilization for fossil fuel extraction is the one consequence of those investments, then we’re frozen, we’re paralyzed, and we aren’t acting, and that’s more harmful.

You raise chickens, you grow vegetables, you’ve gotten solar panels on your own home. Are individual efforts to cut back one’s carbon footprint going to be enough? Do you’re thinking that perhaps that point can be higher spent pressuring governments and corporations to hasten the energy transition and to stop deforestation, since those are much greater drivers of climate change?

I feel all the above. But I feel that folks’s individual decisions are a mode of communication. In case your neighbor sees you set solar panels up, you discuss it. And I feel that sending a message by example is a very critical element. So efforts that start with people’s individual decisions ultimately have an effect.

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