A stable climate may require a carbon removal industry twice as big as the one for fossil fuels

We’ll need twice as much to put it back in the ground.
We’ll need twice as much to put it back in the ground.
Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo
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Ernest Moniz, former head of the US Department of Energy under Barack Obama, says we need to pump far more carbon into the ground than we’re currently extracting out of it.

On Sept. 24, Moniz presented a proposal for the US government to fund research that would lead to a carbon removal industry roughly double the size of today’s fossil fuel sector. The $10.7 billion, 10-year R&D plan would be on par with what the US spends on advanced nuclear technologies and energy efficiency. More than a dozen federal agencies would invest in ways to capture and store greenhouse gases.

Moniz, who leads the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, argued carbon removal is no longer optional at an event in the Canadian consulate in New York. He cited research from the National Academy of Sciences suggesting we must pull about 10 gigatons (GT) per year of CO2 by midcentury and twice that by the end of the century (pdf; p 8) to keep warming below 2°C—the threshold climate models (pdf; p 2) suggest would bring even more catastrophic effects.

“Net-zero [emissions] means there is no credible path to get there without carbon removal technologies,” Moniz said at the event. If the world pumped 10 billion tons of CO2 underground every year, it would be roughly double the global production volume of the oil industry. The Energy Futures Initiative estimated that with 10 GT of CO2 converted into a supercritical liquid, the state in which it is stored underground in geologic formations, the total volume would be about 88 billion barrels. Global oil production is roughly 35 billion barrels per year.

Carbon dioxide removal strategies are being trialed around the world. One approach harnesses natural ecosystems: forests, grasslands, and farms can draw carbon dioxide out of the air, and store it in plants and fix it in the soil. Biorefineries can capitalize on the photosynthetic power of algae and terrestrial plants to generate fuel. Direct air capture extracts carbon dioxide from power plants’ flue gas or the ambient air, storing it underground or depositing it as minerals in building materials.

Few of these have proven particularly cheap at scale, but all appear technically feasible.

Steve Oldham, chief executive officer of Carbon Engineering, leads one of three major companies building plants to pull CO2 out of the air. This month, the company announced it would double the size of its new plant (built in partnership with Occidental Petroleum, which has pledged to become carbon-neutral) in order to capture 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Oldham praised increased government research, but says the time to start commercializing is now. “What concerns me is that it could take a long time,” he said on the stage with Moniz. “We’ve done our R&D. We’re ready to go to market.”

But the steep cost declines predicted for carbon removal have not yet been borne out at scale. An affordable, competitive target is $100 per ton of CO2 removed. But the real costs today, estimates Christopher Jones, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are as high as $600 per ton.

That could come down fast as the industry expands. Jones, whose research has been licensed by the carbon removal firm Global Thermostat, argues making those investments today—as the US did with fossil fuel in the 20th century, and wind and solar in the 1970s—is even more important. “The reality is, if you look at the fossil fuel industry it has taken a century to grow and mature to what it is is today,” he said by phone. “We’re talking about growing something at least that size, and maybe two times bigger, in the next 20 to 30 years … It always takes on the order of decades, not a matter of months or years.”

Moniz’s $10 billion R&D plan is a small downpayment on the trillions of dollars needed to remove enough carbon to stabilize the climate. But government balance sheets can shepherd the new technologies to commercialization. Here even Republicans may agree. “This agenda has a big tent in both parties,” argues Moniz. “A $1 billion scale is not out of line” with other R&D heavy initiatives such as advanced nuclear and energy efficiency.

GOP leadership has remained steadfast in rejecting sweeping climate action (about 150 Republicans still deny global warming), but some members have proven open to action when it benefits the fossil fuel industry. In 2018, Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the 45Q tax credit, a $50 per ton credit for carbon capture.

And there’s more movement in that direction. In September, the House advanced a budget tripling funding for ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s moonshot agency backing many climate critical technologies. In March, Lamar Alexandar (R-Tenn.) proposed a “Republican’s response to climate change, a New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.” Sen John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) introduced S.383, the USE-IT Act for direct air capture of carbon dioxide for use and storage, in February.

Despite those recent signs, critics say a few Republicans’ newfound enthusiasm for climate shouldn’t raise hopes. All these, and Moniz’s plan, would have to make it through a gridlocked Congress. In May, Democrats overwhelmingly passed a bill to block funds for the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, the primary international framework to deal with the world’s climate emissions. In the vote, only three Republicans voted in favor.