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Climate change and energy

Two former Department of Energy staffers warn we’re doing carbon removal all wrong

Sucking down greenhouse gas to cancel out corporate emissions may come at the expense of more pressing public needs.

December 12, 2023
looking up steeply to direct air capture modules and a cloudy sky
These direct air capture modules, developed by Climeworks, are located on the roof of a waste incineration plant.Meinrad Schade/laif/Redux

The carbon removal industry is just starting to take off, but some experts are warning that it’s already headed in the wrong direction. Two former staffers of the US agency responsible for advancing the technology argue that the profit-driven industry’s focus on cleaning up corporate emissions will come at the expense of helping to pull the planet back from dangerous levels of warming.

Numerous studies have found that the world may have to remove tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year by around midcentury to keep global warming in check. These findings have spawned significant investments into startups developing carbon-sucking direct-air-capture factories and companies striving to harness the greenhouse-gas-trapping potential of plants, minerals, and the oceans. 

But a fundamental challenge is that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) isn’t a product that any person or company “needs,” in the traditional market sense. Rather, carrying it out provides a collective societal good, in the way that waste management does, only with larger global stakes. To date, it’s largely been funded by companies that are voluntarily paying for it as a form of corporate climate action in the face of rising investor, customer, employee, or regulatory pressures. That includes purchases of future removal through the $1 billion Frontier effort, started by Stripe and other companies.

There’s also some growing government support in countries including the US, which is funding carbon removal projects, offering a comparatively small amount of money to companies that provide the service and subsidizing those that store away carbon dioxide. 

But in a lengthy and pointed essay published in the journal Carbon Management on December 12, researchers Emily Grubert and Shuchi Talati argue there are rising dangers for the field. Both previously worked for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which drove several of the recent US efforts to develop the industry.

They write that the emergence of a for-profit, growth-focused sector selling a carbon removal product, instead of a publicly funded and coordinated effort more akin to waste management, “presents grave risks for the ability of CDR to enable net zero and net negative targets in general,” including keeping global warming at 1.5 ºC over preindustrial levels or pulling the planet back to that level. 

“If we missallocate our limited CDR resources and end up not having access to the capacity that can help meet the needs we really have, climatically, that’s a problem,” says Grubert, now an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame. “It means we’re never going to get there.”

One of their main concerns is that corporations have come to see carbon removal as a relatively simple and reliable way of canceling out ongoing climate pollution that they have other ways of cleaning up, which the authors refer to as “luxury” removal.

That could significantly increase the total carbon removal the world would need to pull off, and effectively dedicate a large share of a limited resource to things that can be addressed directly. Moreover, it grants a significant slice of the world’s carbon removal capacity to profitable companies in rich nations rather than reserving it for higher-priority public goods, including allowing developing nations more time to reduce emissions; balancing out emissions from sectors we still don’t have ways of cleaning up, like agriculture; and drawing down historic emissions enough to bring global temperatures to safer levels.

“You really need to save it for the stuff you can’t eliminate, not just the stuff that’s expensive to eliminate,” Grubert says. 

That means using carbon removal to address things like the emissions from the fertilizer used to feed populations in poor parts of the world, not for avoiding the hassle and expense of retrofitting a cement plant, she adds.

“CDR cannot succeed at restorative and reparative goals if it is controlled by the same forces that created the problems it is trying to solve,” write Grubert and Talati, executive director of the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering.

Changing opinions

There is evidence that some companies have come to perceive carbon removal in the way that the authors describe. 

Earlier this year, Vicki Hollub, the chief executive of the oil and gas company Occidental, which recently acquired a direct-air-capture company, told the audience at an energy conference: “We believe that our direct-capture technology is going to be the technology that helps to preserve our industry over time. This gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years that I think it’s going to be very much needed.”

Part of the problem, the authors note, is that carbon removal is seen as  “unconstrained,” easily scaled to meet industry goals and climate needs. But in fact, it’s hard and expensive to do reliably. Direct-air-capture machines, for instance, require a lot of land and resources to build and a lot of energy to run, Talati says. That limits how big the sector can become and complicates the question of how much good the facilities do.

Last week, the Global Carbon Project reported that the world’s technology-based carbon removal only sucked down about 10,000 tons this year, “significantly less than one-millionth of our fossil-fuel emissions,” as MIT Technology Review reported.

Other means of carbon removal may be cheaper and more scalable, particularly methods that harness nature to do the job. But some of these approaches, including adding minerals to the oceans or sinking biomass in them, also raise concerns about environmental side effects or create added difficulties in certifying the climate benefits.

Grubert and Talatai fear that growing market pressures, including the demand for low-cost carbon removal at high volume, could undermine how well such efforts are measured, reported, and verified over time. They add that the carbon removal market may simply replicate many of the problems in the traditional carbon offsets space, where researchers have found that efforts to plant trees or prevent deforestation often substantially exaggerate the amount of additional carbon trapped.

Ultimately, the authors argue that the global task of drawing down billions of tons of carbon dioxide should largely be publicly funded, owned, and managed if we hope to achieve the global common good of stabilizing and repairing the climate.

“There’s a role for the private sector, but our argument is that a purely profit-driven industry that’s currently operating with very little governance is going to go badly,” Talati says. “If we want to see this succeed, we can’t count on the self-governance of corporations, which we’ve seen fail over and over again, across every industry. The role of the public sector needs to be broadened and deepened.”

Stripe didn’t respond to an inquiry before press time. But executives there have argued that Frontier is marshaling corporate funds and expertise to help build up an essential industry that will be needed to combat the dangers of climate change, enabling startups to move ahead with early demonstration projects and to test a variety of approaches to carbon removal. Major investors have also said that rising demand among corporations is helping to drive innovation and growth in the field. 

A spokesman for Heirloom, which is part of a team that recently secured Department of Energy funds to move ahead with a major direct-air-capture project in Louisiana, said it recognizes some of the risks that the authors raise and has taken steps to address them by committing to follow a clear set of corporate principles: “We believe decarbonization should be the #1 goal of climate mitigation, and CDR should be used for residual and legacy emissions. We feel strongly that CDR is not used as a fig leaf for emitting industries.”

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