What the debate around air capture’s economic potential says about the way we deal with mitigation
While there is widespread agreement that the priority to fight climate change should be to decrease greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, the world is currently on a path to largely overshoot concentration targets that would yield acceptable probabilities to limit global warming to sustainable levels. Trajectories put forward by various reports are starting to include “negative emissions” in their scenarios 2,3, which is a testament to our incapacity to act, as no option concerning negative emissions has so far proven its large scale feasibility.
There is a risk of letting society think that mitigation efforts can be avoided by putting forward such strategies: this is a true “Moral Hazard”, and has led some advocate for such technologies to stay at the bottom of the research funding scale 4,5. Nonetheless, there could also be a risk in not advancing the research agenda for some of these options, and in not regulating this research to avoid potentially dangerous alternatives to come on top.
Here we focus on the case of one such option: air capture, i.e. the industrial segregation of dilute CO2 initially present at a few hundred ppms in air, and its regeneration in a form that is “easily manageable” (either for further concentration, compression to a level acceptable for use as feedstock for making synthetic gas, or for storage).
Since the idea gained momentum, debates regarding the relevance of pursuing research on the topic have emerged.
In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, a vast body of literature focusing on the potential economics of air capture was published 6–16. In particular, a 2011 highly publicized report from the American Physical Society (APS) estimated costs would be at the very least $600/tCO2 17. It became widely cited (103 in peer-reviewed journals quoting it to date according to Google Scholar, and even more by the media) and led to responses 4,18–21 pointing to the fact that only one, very energy-intensive process was assessed, and that the design proposed was not a good one. However the rather dismissive message, coming from such a respected authority, became widely distributed.
The release of recent results, especially by teams from Carbon Engineering 22 and Climeworks 23–26, have led to new science popularization articles 27–30. Reported prices are already close to the $600 /tCO2 or even below31.
Thereafter, some early critics, including members of the APS committee provided positive remarks for instance 32–34.
Others have stayed very critical, with high levels of doubts expressed regarding the costs of this technology27–30. They often argue that until investments to completely eradicate emissions are made, air capture research should not be prioritized, as it “provides false hope” 29,35–37.
In a presentation about new technology assessment drawing on the experience of the APS report 38, the head of the APS committee explained that the goal of the 2011 report was to create a new genre and a replicable process of an impartial assessment of pre-commercial technologies. This presentation acknowledges that such a goal was not attained, and discusses challenges including passionate advocates, nay-sayers, and the potential to “squash enthusiasm and suffocate the innovative spirit”.
Debates about new technologies are often heated. At a time when competition for research grants is exacerbated, and with the threats of climate change becoming more real, coming up with impartial ways to assess promising research domains that should be prioritized, is a noble goal. However, it is an extremely difficult task.
One of the main reasons is that it is hard to gather panels that have both sufficient knowledge and lno “skin in the game” due to their involvement in competing fields. The scientific integrity of the people cited is by no means questioned, but, even for scientists, it can be difficult to not let our biases influence us.
In the wake of the APS report, public funding for air capture research has remained low 36. However, as Venture Capital money is at an all-time high 39, and as start-ups linked to research laboratories have developed, entities with different business plans and processes have emerged. Many of them were significantly supported by one large donor. For instance, Carbon Engineering, which has been running a pilot operation since 2015, and is planning on a commercial validation phase for the coming years 40–42 has famously attracted large support from Bill Gates and Murray Edwards (a Canadian Oil Sands investor). Another example of unconventional financing option is the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25M prize sponsored by Richard Branson for a scalable option to remove CO2 from the air 43.
The purpose of this post is not to defend air capture, but to highlight a strange fact: the dissonance between the display of ambition regarding emission reduction at the political level, the inclusion of negative emissions in many prospective scenarios due to failure to act in the last decade, and the fact that the scientific community working on these questions is tearing itself apart as funding is scarce.
Lumping air capture and all negative emission techniques with hard geo-engineering (such as launching aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunshine, or feeding algae growth in the oceans with fertilizers), and largely leaving this space to private investment may not be ideal. At this point, it is extremely hard to know if air capture could one day be part of the solution to fight climate change. Prices are likely to remain high, energy consumption to be an issue, and the storage question, which might be even more problematic than the capture one, has not even been evoked.
Nevertheless, the lack of public research funding could also be seen as a manifestation of the lack of ambition. Low public funding for renewable energy and other mitigation technologies has already been identified as slowing down the transition. What is happening to technologies like air capture may be understood as another example of our difficulty to take concrete steps towards change. The ambition of impartial assessment for pre-commercial technologies should not be abandoned. In this context developing an international agency in charge of evaluating, prioritizing, framing, and regulating research in this field seems crucial. Medical research is supervised in this way and, for an ailing global environment, a similar approach might help to -hopefully- better cure the patient...
Luc Bonnafous, Senior Climate & Energy Analyst
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