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Can We Turn Back The Clock on Climate Change?

Illustration by Jo Kim

In 1989, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke to the UN General Assembly on a topic that, while seemingly pedantic at the time, was of grave concern to her and scientists around the world. “Change in the future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto,” she warned. Thirty years later we have all seen just how fundamental this change truly is. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher today than at any point in recorded human history, global temperatures have steadily increased since the industrial revolution, and weather patterns have been stronger and more erratic in recent years. The impacts of climate change are no longer a menacing challenge in our future, they’re here today and are affecting the lives of everyone on this planet. Climate scientists believe that limiting our collective impact on global temperatures to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius could mitigate some of the most adverse effects of global warming, including the severity of heat waves and the strength of tropical cyclones. To achieve this goal, however, will require net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050, a challenge which will test our collective technological and economic willpower. While moves to renewable energy and increased energy efficiency can help us reduce our future emissions, we’ve reached a point where we must actively correct the mistakes of the past and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Enter carbon capture and storage, or CCS. Though the technology has been around for decades, large-scale CCS facilities are a recent development in the fight against climate change. The premise behind CCS is to remove CO₂ directly from the atmosphere, isolate and condense the gas, and then inject it underground for permanent storage. More recently, CCS facilities have experimented with repurposing CO₂ for commercial and industrial purposes, further reducing anthropogenic impact and endowing CCS with a revenue-generating function. It sounds promising, but if CCS is going to become widely practiced it will need to overcome its biggest challenge: cost. Like many other climate change mitigation projects, CCS is extremely expensive, with current estimates putting the price tag of removing a year’s worth of human carbon emissions at 16.4 trillion dollars. With such an astronomically high cost, the prospect of CCS as a solution to global warming can seem like a pipe dream. Yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sees the technology as a necessity in preventing a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. Thus, we must find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere quickly, and in a cost effective manner. 

The economic practicality of carbon capture is difficult, but not impossible. Storing captured carbon underground is relatively simple but represents a completely sunk cost, one that cannot be recovered, which is why most climate economists have focused their attention to the industrial and commercial uses of sequestered CO₂. Currently, very few of these applications are profitable given the high costs of carbon capture, and those that have achieved profitability operate on slim margins that are difficult to upscale. Enhanced oil recovery and beverage carbonation are two promising uses for CO₂, and models project that our CCS capacity in 2030 will allow for even more applications. 

These projections are, of course, a bit presumptuous. If we want to implement CCS on a global scale to offset our carbon impact, as the IPCC suggests we must to avoid catastrophe, governments, international organizations, and private companies will have to collaborate. The US Department of Energy has indicated their support for the “research and development of tools to assess the environmental fitness and safety of proposed geologic storage sites,” while the UK has pledged to spend over 200 million pounds on CCS facilities over the next ten years. Government scientists are clearly in support of implementing CCS on a larger scale, especially given its favored status as a climate change mitigation effort by oil companies, but the needed expansion in CCS technology and proliferation will require not just support, but prioritization from government. 

In the spring of 2021, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced the Storing CO₂ And Lowering Emissions (SCALE) Act, and proclaimed it the “first comprehensive CO₂ infrastructure package to be introduced in Congress.” The bill stalled, like most major spending bills in our highly polarized legislature, but maintains strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate. If passed, the SCALE Act would provide federal funding for the transportation and storage of sequestered CO₂, allow for increased CO₂ deposition permits in depleted oil reserves, and support the development and sale of CO₂ derived commercial products. Implementing this legislation would bring the United States up to speed with other developed nations in terms of carbon capture infrastructure, and would send a powerful message to the international community about our commitment to reducing atmospheric CO₂. While the CCS effort must ultimately be international, the United States has an opportunity today to establish the technology as a staple of the future.