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Serious about climate means serious about carbon

Serious about climate means serious about carbon
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This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report on the feasibility of stabilizing global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming — an ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement.

Spoiler alert: It ain’t pretty.

The Earth has already warmed more than 1 degree. Although there’s uncertainty when we’ll blow past 1.5 degrees, most scholars put the range at 3 to 8 years — before my kids graduate high school. The Mercator Climate Center in Germany believes we already blew past that milestone last month. A climate-stable world might be in the rear-view mirror.

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While earnest advocates work to draw attention to this urgent challenge, one of our best options for addressing this threat has been curiously absent from the conversation: carbon management.

Carbon management goes right to the source to stop emissions, generally through carbon capture and storage (CCS), an innovative technology that scrubs CO2 emissions from industrial sources and injects them deep underground.

This technology has stirred concerns in some corners, but we’ve been doing it for decades at commercial scale. Increasingly, carbon management also includes the conversion of CO2 into useful products like cement, plastics, fuel, and carbon fiber. Recent advancements in the technology also include drawing CO2 from the air and oceans – what’s known as carbon harvesting or carbon removal.

The IPCC report is likely to argue that large-scale carbon management is required to achieve a stable climate, a sentiment reflected by other leading institutions such as the International Energy Agency, the World Economic Forum, MIT,  Stanford, and Columbia University. These institutions argue that a lot of carbon management is needed now to achieve 2 degrees Celsius, and a whole lot will be needed to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But carbon management struggles due to misconceptions, especially CCS, which is often called unsafe and untested. Critics describe it as a failure, with billions in public funding resulting in a handful of unsuccessful projects.

These arguments are essentially untrue. Eighteen large facilities around the world, including two at coal power plants, currently capture and store 30 million tons of CO2 each year, some more having done so for almost two decades.

While some argue that the costs of carbon management are too high, they have dropped by more than 50 percent over the past 10 years, much like the declines enjoyed by renewable energy sources. 

In fact, in many markets, power generation with CCS actually costs less than rooftop or community solar, nuclear, offshore wind, and utility-scale solar with batteries. In the industrial sector, which emits 21 percent of global greenhouse gases, CCS may effectively be the only way to cut emissions.

Carbon management also reduces the costs of climate stabilization by over 50 percent. If fossil fuels remain a part of the energy mix for decades, their emissions could be kept from the air and oceans at a modest cost.

One key approach, direct-air capture, has rightly received a lot of recent attention, including from the IPCC. This technology sucks CO2 out of the air for use or permanent disposal, and has moved from science fiction to science. If we wish to — or have to — rapidly draw down CO2 from the air and oceans, direct air capture could be the solution.

The chief barrier to making carbon management even more affordable is to make it financeable. That’s a policy issue. Today, most carbon management projects can’t make their money back due to lack of market access. Unlike wind and solar, CCS projects haven’t been supported by policies like renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, and investment tax credits. This makes it hard for investors to achieve the returns that will drive investments into the thousands of projects needed to address climate change. 

There are positive signs. This February, Congress expanded tax credits for capturing, using, or storing CO2. In addition, New Jersey, Illinois, and California, recently amended their renewable power standards to be clean-energy standards, allowing CCS projects to compete in power markets. California also finalized rules for carbon management in its low-carbon fuel standards, in a bid to decarbonize its transportation sector. The state included a novel provision that pays companies that use direct air capture, and provides a pathway to certify fuels made directly from CO2.

The U.S. is now the global leader on carbon management policy, and other countries are considering similar measures. But this can only be the start if we’re serious about addressing climate change.

For the sake of our future, it’s time to get serious about carbon management. 

S. Julio Friedmann, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University, where he leads the Carbon Management Research Initiative. He served as principal assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy from 2013-2016.