Should environmentalists support carbon capture?

Should environmentalists support carbon capture?
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When the Waxman-Markey bill — the most notable congressional attempt to establish a national cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions — was introduced in 2009, it received opposition from both sides of the aisle.

On the left, there was surprising pushback from some environmental groups who argued the bill didn’t go far enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions. After extended hearings and debate, the bill died in Congress.

If the success of EPA’s cap-and-trade programs for reducing other pollutants under the Clean Air Act is any indication, we know that carbon emissions would be lower today had Waxman-Markey passed. The failure of environmentalists to fully support Waxman-Markey illustrates how perfection can be the enemy of the good — a lesson that has serious implications in the ongoing fight against climate change.


Almost 10 years since Waxman-Markey, carbon capture and utilization — which refers to a suite of technologies that capture and either store or utilize carbon emissions from power plants and industrial processes — is the latest climate strategy to receive pushback.

Some environmentalists decry carbon capture and utilization, arguing it’s a pretext for continued coal use and that it undermines the ability to achieve climate goals by locking-in coal plants for decades to come. By examining some of the underlying assumptions of this perspective, it becomes clear that carbon capture and utilization isn’t counterproductive to achieving climate goals — it is crucial to achieving them.

The primary end-use for coal in the United states is electricity production, and some argue that because coal has supplied a declining portion of U.S. electricity needs that there is no need for carbon capture. While coal has faced fierce competition from an influx of cheap natural gas and renewable energy in the United States, global energy demand is expected to rise 30 percent by 2040 and developing economies will continue to build coal plants to meet rising energy needs. This is among many reasons why most projections indicate coal will remain a significant part of the global energy mix well in to the 2040 timeframe and beyond, with India and countries in Asia and the Middle East planning to build new coal plants.

It also helps explain why U.S. coal exports increased by 61 percent in 2017. For the foreseeable future, which coincides with the timeline when action will be needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, coal is here to stay.

Carbon capture will be critical for reducing emissions not only from coal, but also from industrial processes such as steel and cement production where, unlike generating electricity, there are no alternatives for switching to a lower-emitting fuel like solar or wind. This is a key reason the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests it will be nearly impossible to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, as agreed to under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, without widespread deployment of carbon capture and utilization.

The argument that other countries should replace coal with renewable energy fails to address how to make needed emissions reductions if coal plants stay online, which is most likely, or how to reduce emissions from heavy industry.

The evidence is clear: Deploying carbon capture in the power sector and in industry is a crucial climate strategy and environmentalists owe it to themselves and the planet to use every tool at their disposal.

Beyond the emissions benefits, carbon capture and utilization also makes sense from a business opportunity lens. Analyses suggest limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius will require significant deployment of carbon capture and utilization technology. Given the global appetite for reducing emissions following the Paris Agreement, it’s not hard to see the sizable market opportunity — valued to be roughly $8.75 billion globally by 2025 — of developing and deploying this technology.

While cynics might argue the economic benefits are insignificant compared to the threat of climate change, the fact remains that climate isn’t the top priority for every group. It’s important to acknowledge and communicate the cross-cutting benefits of carbon capture and utilization to build a coalition large enough to develop and deploy the technology at scale in time to make needed emissions reductions.  

The commercial operation of the Quest project in Canada and the Petra Nova facility in the United States prove that carbon capture and utilization technology is feasible, but costs must come down for it to be deployed more broadly. Given its role in achieving climate goals, there are efforts around the world to improve efficiencies and lower costs. The United States is conducting research and development (R&D) in this vein and recently expanded the 45Q tax credit, which is projected to stimulate nearly $1 billion in investment in carbon capture projects over the next six years. While these are positive steps, U.S. federal energy R&D funding has stagnated in recent years, and data shows the private sector underinvests in the kind of capital- and time-intensive R&D projects necessary to advance carbon capture technology. This includes game changing breakthroughs such as direct air capture, which can remove carbon dioxide directly from ambient air.

Without significant increases in federal energy research investments, the United States risks losing economic opportunities in this industry and undermines its ability to reduce emissions and remain a global technology leader.

Limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius will only get harder. Given the scale of the challenge, environmentalists cannot afford to let perfection remain the enemy of the good and must support carbon capture and utilization as a climate strategy. Despite the global market shift in favor of low-carbon energy, coal and other fossil fuels are expected to remain a significant part of the global energy mix for decades. This means strategies to reduce emissions from coal and heavy industry must be part of the solution. While carbon capture and utilization won’t solve climate change on its own, it nonetheless will be a pivotal tool — but only if we choose to use it.

Erin Smith is a fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and works as an energy policy analyst for the Bipartisan Policy Center.