Jun 25 2019

More Ways to Capture Carbon

One of the most frustrating things about the climate change debate is that we already have viable solutions either at hand or nearly so, and we just need the vision and political will to prioritize the changes necessary to decarbonize our civilization. Some of the resistance is pure protectionism for vested interests, like the fossil fuel industry. However, studies find that much of the rank-and-file resistance is due to “solution aversion.” Just read the comments here to any article in which climate change is mentioned, someone will be warning about socialists taking over the economy.

I have often said that the more productive response from the right should not be to deny the science, and make any ridiculous argument that results in the conclusion to do nothing. Rather, they could spend their time proposing solutions they think will work and that are more compatible with their world view. What is particularly frustrating is that I personally think these are the types of solutions that are most likely to work. I don’t think we need governments to institute huge top-down programs that essentially take control of vast sectors of the economy. Adjusting market forces to properly account for the externalized costs of releasing carbon, while subsidizing emerging clean industries (and ending subsidies for fossil fuel) and investing in green research and infrastructure can probably do the job. We certainly are no where near maximizing these free-market approaches.

Coal, for example, is already dying. We should put it in hospice and ease its passing. Use grants and subsidies to bring new industries into coal country and retrain workers. Make their lives better, while easing the transition to cleaner technology. Economists have already figured out that pretty much anything effective we do to mitigate pollution and climate change is a cost-effective investment. Remember – the health care costs of pollution alone are worth the investment, even if you don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. This is an economic no-brainer.

Carbon Capture

One type of emerging technology that can make a huge difference is capturing carbon and then using it in industry. The bigger concept here is to design a circular economy – where the waste of one process becomes the raw material of the next process. This type of thing develops naturally, as there is a financial incentive to limit waste. The change here is to consider carbon dioxide a waste product (because it is) and to develop technology that can use that CO2 as raw material, rather than just releasing it into the atmosphere.

There are two pieces to this puzzle. The first is how to capture the carbon in the first place. There are functioning technologies for this, and this is an area that can benefit from investment and research. But once we capture that carbon, what do we do with it? That’s the second part of the puzzle. As the BBC reports:

Carbon dioxide is already being used in novel ways to create fuels, polymers, fertilisers, proteins, foams and building blocks.

We don’t have to just capture the carbon and bury it. We can build stuff out of it. Some of these processes represent temporary storage, such as making fuel. That fuel will be burned and re-release the CO2. So these processes, at best, are carbon neutral. But replacing a carbon-releasing process with a carbon-neutral process is a very good thing. Even better, however, is using the carbon to make something that will hold that carbon for a very long time.

For example, there is Carbon8 Aggregates in the UK.  They take a “wide range of thermal wastes” (such as fly ash from coal burning) and infuse it with captured CO2. The waste absorbs large amounts of the CO2, and essentially becomes artificial limestone. That stone is formed into pellets, which can then be used in concrete or formed into blocks or similar building material. This building material is essentially permanent storage of CO2, but it’s not just buried. It has market value as a building material.

There is also Calera Corp in the US – they are also making cement from captured CO2. You just need a source of alkilinity and a source of calcium, both of which can be sourced from existing industrial waste. For background – concrete is the product of aggregate (stone and sand) with a paste made from cement and water. Carbon8 makes aggregate which can be used in concrete, while Calera makes cement. So theoretically both components of concrete can be made with captured carbon.

These processes are carbon negative and result in long term storage. But there is also another benefit. The concrete industry is itself a huge source of released CO2. The process of making cement is responsible for about 8% of global CO2 emissions. Imagine if instead of releasing CO2 the process captures CO2.

Not to be left out there is also an Australian company, GreenMag Group, using a similar process to put captured carbon into a mineral resulting in a stone that can be used, for example, as part of road pavement.

I don’t know which of these companies, or perhaps others, will end up being successful. We don’t have to know. The point is that there is currently working technology for capturing CO2 and making stuff out of it, displacing other materials that are themselves carbon emitters. If we put a proper market value on removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it, along with putting a proper cost on emitting CO2, this will facilitate market forces that will encourage these emerging industries. Maybe we need some direct subsidies for a limited time to help bootstrap these technologies. We need to do something, see if it works, and then make adjustments, until we have the closed-loop economy we need that is carbon neutral to carbon negative.

Remember – it’s pretty clear that such investments are likely to save money in the long run and improve the economy. Often the deniers frame the debate as the environment vs the economy, but that is a false choice. Global warming will actually harm the economy and cost us trillions. Investing now makes economic sense.

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