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Chasing the Rainbow: Carbon Capture is Magic Thinking

by Emma Bast, Staff Attorney

There’s been a lot of discussion and excitement about the idea of carbon capture and storage technology.  Unfortunately, the excitement about the potential far outstrips the reality of the technology.

There is no doubt that we are living through climate change. It isn’t a question of whether it’s coming, it’s a question of—pardon the pun—degree. We all see and experience the changing weather patterns, the increasing storms. Our parents’ stories of skiing and sledding throughout the winter in Philadelphia when they were children is nearly unimaginable now. The future is uncertain and often scary. In these dramatic circumstances, it’s natural for us to reach for hope and to reach for dramatic solutions.

Carbon capture, also known more formally as “carbon capture utilization and storage” (and it’s accompanying acronym “CCUS”), looks on its surface like exactly the hero we need. The idea behind it is tantalizingly simple: develop technology and systems that takes the carbon we’re putting into the air with fossil fuels and simply puts it back into the ground where it came from. In theory, there are different ways to do this, ranging from startups that could develop bold new technologies, to simply identifying and accelerating natural processes that already happen, like planting trees. Carbon capture holds universal appeal: environmentalists see it as a way to restore the planet to sustainable CO2 levels, fossil fuel proponents see it as a way to continue their business without major disruption, and even non-experts can get behind the idea of something that gives us the best of all worlds.

Sadly, this is all magical thinking. Magical thinking is dangerous, because it lets us avoid the real, immediate challenges we are facing in favor of a solution that may never materialize. As a global society, we absolutely need to develop new technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, not only is carbon capture not a silver bullet, it is distracting us from the technology we already have. 

We already have proven technology that is competitive on the free market: For instance, we know that solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources can work wonderfully as part of a portfolio of energy sources. Battery technology has improved almost beyond imagination in a short time, with energy storage costs declining 72% between 2015 and 2019, and energy storage systems increasing 27% from 2018 to 2019 alone. These are real tools that we are already successfully using worldwide and that the USA is playing an important part in expanding.

By contrast, carbon capture is a technology that overpromises and underdelivers. Despite decades of development efforts, carbon capture remains both extremely expensive, unproven to be able to work at the necessary scale, and largely unable to meet its own projections of success. For one example, we could look at hydrogen as “clean” energy. What we really know is that hydrogen as a fuel source is really just a rebranding of an old frenemy, the oil and gas industry. So-called “green” or “blue” hydrogen is advertised as a new energy solution, better for the climate. In reality, the carbon capture systems at hydrogen plants have been shown to fall dramatically short, with terrible consequences. First of all, it’s critical to know that hydrogen must have highly successful carbon capture—90% or more!—to be “clean.” However, recent studies have found that hydrogen plants that utilize carbon capture only have a success rate ranging from 48% to 77%. 

Even if (and it is a big “if”) carbon capture has a breakthrough, the better use for that technology would be to reduce our global carbon levels back down to more sustainable levels. The global temperature is rising: this technology should be used to mitigate the problems, not to try and put a band-aid over a bullet hole. But until that time, we have the ability to start work using the tools that are already at hand: strengthening our environmental protections, working with other states in the country and region to fundamentally reduce greenhouse gas release (such as through joining RGGI), and accelerating our use of renewable power. 

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