“The current annual cost to extract all of the annual emissions [of CO2] is of the order of $1,000 per person per year in developed countries, about $600/person/year on global average. Extracting all current emissions is a realistic approximation of the need, as the allowed carbon budget to keep warming in the range specified by the Paris accord is nearly exhausted.”
– James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, “Cost of Carbon Capture: Can Young People Bear the Burden?” Joule, August 15, 2018.
What Al Gore called “the central organizing principle of civilization” marches on. Premised on population, affluence, and technology (PAT) as the scourge of the natural environment, anti-industrial activists effortlessly jump from alleged market failure to recommended government correction, program by new program.
What is the latest public policy push regarding global warming? According to scientist/activist James Hansen, the time has come to construct new-technology industrial plants to generate “negative” carbon emissions to “stabilize” global climate. Versus carbon-dioxide tax proposals around $40 per metric ton, this new program would cost between $150 and $200 per metric ton.
James Hansen is a force for climate activism. Not only did his 1988 Congressional testimony launch the global-warming scare, his carbon tax (“fee and dividend”) advocacy is the policy centerpiece of the national lobby group Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Hansen has long warned of a shrinking timetable for significantly reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Back in 2006, he announced a ten-year window to “alter fundamentally the trajectory of global warming emissions.” In 2009, he reported that “the dangerous threshold of greenhouse gases is actually lower than what we told you a few years ago.” He added: “If the world does not make a dramatic shift in energy policies over the next few years, we may well pass the point of no return.”
Game, set, and match fossil fuels. The steady growth of natural gas, coal, and oil has busted beyond Hansen’s “point of no return.” With a US-led global boom in oil and gas extraction, business-as-usual is being redefined upwards for hydrocarbons worldwide.
“Global energy demand grew by 2.1% in 2017, and carbon emissions rose for the first time since 2014,” reported the International Energy Agency in its latest Global Energy and CO2 Status Report. More than two-thirds of this increase was met by fossil fuels, IEA added, with increasing usage of coal (1 percent), oil (1.6 percent), and natural gas (3 percent). “Fossil fuels accounted for 81% of total energy demand in 2017,” IEA’s press release ended, “a level that has remained stable for more than three decades.”
Continued growth in fossil fuels is the base forecast for all of the major forecasting agencies (IEA, EIA, BP, ExxonMobil). Predictions of Peak Demand have grown about as quiet as talk of Peak Supply.
Meanwhile, the great hope of (politically correct) renewable energies hangs by government threads. With subsidy fatigue growing around the world, the bubble industries of industrial wind and on-grid solar could burst. And nuclear? The environmentalist civil war over the one large-scale carbon-free electricity source has been joined by the costly failure of new operational designs (such as Georgia’s Plant Vogtle).
Renewables: “Grossly Inadequate”
With the Paris climate accord going the way of the Kyoto Protocol (both described by Hansen and Kharecha as “precatory agreements, wishful thinking, which do almost nothing to address the fundamental problem”), the economic/political reality would seem to be free-market adaptation to the human influence on climate.
After all, Hansen himself decried the renewables movement as hopelessly unrealistic. “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole,” he stated, “is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”
But no. The new plan is a grand leap into the technologically controversial, no-not-what-cost world of carbon capture and storage to create, in effect, carbon-neutral hydrocarbons fuels.
The New Imperative
Hansen and Kharecha premise their case on certain knowledge, absolute grounds:
“In view of our long-standing knowledge of the threat posed by climate change, we find it morally repugnant and reprehensible that we, the older generations, have not developed, tested, and costed the known technological options for addressing climate change, so that today’s young people and future generations will have viable options for addressing climate change.”
If nuclear power was Plan A for low-carbon energy given the limitations of wind and solar, negative emissions is Plan B for the failure of CO2 emissions mitigation. We already owe money in this regard, according to Hansen and Kharecha: “The average citizen in developed countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, has a debt of over $100,000 to remove their country’s contribution to climate change via fossil fuel burning.”
Hansen and Kharecha do not have the answers. They simply report the results of a new paper estimating the cost of negative emissions via direct air capture by an industrial plant. In “A Process for Capturing CO2 from the Atmosphere” (Joule: August 15, 2018), authors David Keith et al. report:
“We describe a process for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere in an industrial plant. The design captures ~1 Mt-CO2/year in a continuous process using an aqueous KOH sorbent coupled to a calcium caustic recovery loop…We report results from a pilot plant that provides data on performance of the major unit operations…Depending on financial assumptions, energy costs, and the specific choice of inputs and outputs, the levelized cost per ton CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranges from 94 to 232 $/t-CO2.”
Versus a wide estimated range of CO2 capture between $50 and $1,000 per metric ton, this paper reports the results from an actual (pilot) project.
But the mid-point of the above estimate, $163 per metric ton of CO2 captured (storage would add $10–$20/tCO2 more), is three times the Obama-decreed social cost of carbon of $42 per metric ton. And as a pilot project, the authors rightly caution about its results “prior to its widespread deployment.”
Boondoggle, Cronyism Alert
“Estimated costs, exceeding $100 per ton of CO2 without including the cost of CO2 storage, are lower than some prior estimates, yet are so high as to strongly support the need for rapid reduction of fossil fuel emissions,” state Hansen and Kharecha. But this window of opportunity has all but closed with the clash of economics versus politics being won by energy economics.
Remember the U.S. Synthetic Fuel Corporation (1980–86)? Remember the Kemper County carbon capture and storage project most recently? The latest from carbon capture should be treated with great caution, certainly guilty-until-proven-innocent.
Expect pushback for having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too from environmentalists who just don’t like cake.
And expect an upsurge of corporate cronyism. In fact, with the recent formation of the Carbon Capture Coalition, and ExxonMobil’s big talk (greenwashing to critics) about fuel-cell CO2 capture, taxpayers are put on notice.
When it comes to man-versus-nature, there seems to be no cost too high to pay according to the scientist emperors. The last word belongs to Nathan Confas, et al. who recently wrote in American Sociologist:
“There is a strong possibility that conservatives are not opposed to, or skeptical of, science per se. Rather, they lack trust in impact scientists whom they see as seeking to influence policy in a liberal direction.”
The Malthusian litany of false alarms justifies such skepticism.