Are carbon capture and other geoengineering technologies inevitable?
Much of the world now realizes that we need to reach net zero emissions in order to hold global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The author of a new book argues that meeting those thresholds will not be the end of the climate struggle but only “the end of the beginning.” That’s because, for centuries thereafter, temperatures will remain elevated, climate damages will continue to accrue, and sea levels will continue to rise. Think, if you will, if Greta Thunberg came of age in the Net Zero year rather than in the aughts — what do you imagine she would demand? What would every roughly 20-year-old demand? Would they insist that the world repair the ruined climate that they inherited?
Those of us with media gigs are bombarded with press releases and public relations queries everyday. Most go to my trash. Some have potential for our CleanTechnica readers, so I do a close reading and some preliminary research for those. Last week, I received an intriguing press invitation to review a book, Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention. I like to read and review books (here, here, here, here, and here). I checked out the author’s premise that massive carbon capture and sequestration within the umbrella category of geoengineering is necessary “to repair the ruined climate and avoid unacceptable climate damages.”
I lost initial interest and shared with a CleanTechnica editor that I would pass on the article.
Then I received a follow-up from Wake Smith, the book’s author, who noted that he was “intrigued” to hear that I was the first journalist covering the book who had taken an interest in his course syllabus. Smith lectures at Yale on the topics contained in the book. Smith is also a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, writing scholarly articles on costs, aeronautics, and governance of solar geoengineering. He was curious why the syllabus was of interest to me, and we began a conversation.
As a result, I decided to write up the article after all. I revealed to Smith in our correspondence that I was not a fan of carbon capture. ” I feel it’s an excuse to circumvent the problem,” I explained. “But I want to read your stuff and see different perspectives.” My acquiescence was partially the result of a Studs Terek (1912-2008) quote: “I want people to talk to one another no matter what their difference of opinion might be.”
Let it be said here first that CleanTechnica authors are, as a general rule, not proponents of carbon capture.
- Steve Hanley unpacked a claim by the UK about removing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2030, with scaled up and market ready technology available in 2 years. Saying recent government press release announced “somewhat breathlessly” determined that these technologies will enable net zero flights by 2023, Hanley referred to the counterargument of Mark Taylor, deputy director of energy innovation at the Department for Business, who commented that carbon capture is “very, very expensive.”
- Michael Barnard wrote a 2-part article about carbon capture’s “dirty secret.” Barnard describes the failures to address the CO2 sequestration problems of magnitude of emissions, the physics of underground storage at scale, and the resultant costs as a combination that “is truly a policy failure of staggering proportion” and “willful blindness.”
- Jennifer Sensiba was a little more open to the idea of SpaceX and carbon capture, saying the whole launch cycle can be made carbon-neutral by pulling CO2 back out of the atmosphere to make rocket fuel again. Sensiba also acknowledges that all current methods to remove the CO2 from air share the problem of costs and, if used at large scale, “more CO2 might be emitted moving stuff around than was originally removed.”
- Our Fearless Leader Zachary Shahan notes that folks concerned about the climate crisis would “love for some form of carbon capture and storage to work wonders.” The technology would avert crisis by carbon capture and re-burying or store it in some energy-efficient, cost-efficient way. This “magical thinking” simply doesn’t work as we imagine it should in our minds, Shahan concludes.
NPR and Bloomberg, among others, have interviewed Smith about his vision for “both the hopes and hazards of some of humanity’s most controversial technologies” (source = Smith’s press release).
And, while I continue to be skeptical of carbon capture, I thought it would be important to give Smith a chance to share his research and theoretical framing. Here goes.
Smith states that even the urgent and utterly essential task of reaching net zero cannot be achieved rapidly by emissions reductions alone. To hasten the process, he says we will also need massive carbon removal and storage — and probably even need to reduce incoming solar radiation in order to lower unacceptably high temperatures. Acknowledging that such “unproven and potentially risky climate interventions raise mind-blowing questions of governance and ethics,” Smith wrote Pandora’s Toolbox to offer a road map to “both the hopes and hazards of some of humanity’s most controversial technologies, which may nevertheless provide the key to saving our world.”
He reveals that the worst part is that, after Net Zero, temperatures merely plateau at their peak value — for centuries.
Smith’s bullet points move as follows.
- Why the transition to net zero emissions will be difficult, expensive, and, therefore, slow
- Why a slow transition to net zero will be a problem, and why net zero will not be the end of the climate problem
- What continuing climate problems we will likely have after reaching net zero
- What kinds of tools we will need to address our “post net zero” climate problems, and where we stand in terms of developing them
- The ethical, political, and economic problems all this will force upon future generations
- What the invasion of Ukraine means for reaching global climate goals
Let’s look at 3 different ways to unpack Smith’s premise about the importance of carbon capture and other geoengineering methods.
Highlights of a College Syllabus on Geoengineering
A college syllabus is generally reviewed by a department chair for accuracy, evidence, and credibility. It is an outline that sequentially establishes an argument through course readings and student inquiry. Unlike social media narratives, which are largely opinion-based, academia is grounded on peer-reviewed, scholarly research; I know — I completed a research-based PhD in education.*
Smith’s Yale course, titled “Geoengineering in Response to Climate Change,” studies technologies other than emissions reductions to intervene in the global climate system to countervail climate change or its impacts. The seminar establishes relevant climate crisis background information by reviewing climate change status, physics, economics, and negotiations. Interestingly, Smith chooses to mostly bypass “the essential but much more widely studied necessity of emissions reductions.” Instead, he focuses on what he refers to as “the toolbox of potential interventions intended to cope with such climate change as proves unavoidable:”
- carbon dioxide removal and sequestration by both natural and industrial means
- solar radiation management via stratospheric aerosols, cloud modifications, and other ways to increase earth’s reflectivity
The course uses a module approach that moves from an introduction to climate science and policy, responses to climate change, and geoengineering and society. The syllabus is filled with must-read articles and research; I’m going to track some of them down for my own further climate crisis activism education.
Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention — Main Ideas
The first half of Pandora’s Toolbox leads to the scenario that, if we peak at +3C in 2100, the entire 22nd/23rd/24th centuries will have to survive in that much hotter world. The aggregate climate damages in the century after Net Zero will be considerably worse than those in the century before. “As someone who thinks a lot about climate,” Smith says, “I find that realization absolutely stunning.” He expects a whole new climate battle will unfold.
Here’s the book’s chapters in summary.
- Climate Introduction: Where Do We Stand on Climate Change? Climate Science 101. What’s So Bad about Climate Change? Climate Negotiations. Climate Economics.
- Responses to Climate Change: The Energy Transition. Other Mitigation. Adaptation. Our Descendants Will Demand Climate Intervention.
- Carbon Dioxide Removal: Natural Climate Solutions. Carbon Capture and Sequestration. Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration.
- Solar Radiation Management: Solar Radiation Management Alternatives. Stratospheric Aerosol Injection. SAI Deployment.
- Social Ramifications of Climate Intervention: Governance of Carbon Removal. Governance of SRM and SAI. Ethics. Public Perception.
- The Path Forward: The Path Forward for Carbon Removal. The Path Forward for Solar Radiation Management
Does Smith write cogently, with scaffolding of his premises? Yes.
I found the first part of the book, which explains the difficult truths about how industrialization has harmed the planet, a bit general; then again, writing about the climate crisis is my niche, and the author’s audience is undergraduates who have not yet had much chance to delve into carbon emissions.
The second part of the book works from the “place to focus is carbon dioxide” (175) to looking at biomass that “would be harvested and burned in an electric plant, creating (somewhat) renewable bioenergy” (181), to “direct air capture diverges from flue capture” (211), to a solution to “turn down the level of energy coming from the Sun” (224) which could include the plan to “either remove or refreeze the film of liquid water on which many glaciers glide” (229) to getting “clouds to reflect away a percent or two more incoming sunlight” (231) and to “using space-based assets to intercept some sunlight before it even gets to the top of our atmosphere” (236).
This latter part of the book was supposed to convince me about carbon capture merits. However, I found it more of a literature review — a curation of research on a particular topic — than established climate action practices developed through academic research and analysis. The thing about doing research is that sometimes your heartfelt hypothesis isn’t proven with data collection and analysis. It’s happened to all of us who have done research. I would’ve liked to have seen a lot more research and solid conclusions about the efficacy of carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.
What Smith Says about Carbon Capture & Geoengineering
In email communications, Smith expressed the rationale behind carbon capture and geoengineering in general. Some of the premises converge with climate crisis activism. Others, however, veer in different directions.
Smith outlines his reasons why it is unlikely we will get to Net Zero Emissions in time to avoid very serious climate damages.
- Despite the impressive growth of wind and solar, they remain about 3% of our global primary energy supply.
- Fossil fuels still comprise more than 80% of the world’s primary energy supply — a fraction that has not budged in a century.
- As world population heads from the current 7.6 billion to 10 or 11 billion by 2100, demand for energy will rise correspondingly, at least.
- Moreover, the global south (where nearly all that population will be added) desperately wants to join the energy riot lifestyle currently enjoyed by the global north. Their primary energy priority is not decarbonization, but getting more energy.
- Moving wind and solar from 3% to 30% of primary energy supply will take huge effort, but getting it much beyond that will require huge additional investments in distribution and unpredictable technological breakthroughs in energy storage. None of that is moving at anything like the pace that is required.
“I think they are controversial,” Smith shares, “mostly because of the climate destination that would require their use. We all hope that we don’t get there.”
Want to do your own research into Smith’s academic writing and theory? Check out these sources.
Harvard course 2019
International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering
Radio Ecoshock interview
Smith’s academic letter about Stratospheric aerosol injection tactics
Updated and outdated reservations about research into stratospheric aerosol injection
* Note: Carolyn has a PhD in education from the University of Rhode Island. Their dissertation is titled, “Making Waves with Critical Literacy,” which drew upon qualitative methodology through media literacy, narrative inquiry, and sociocultural lenses.
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