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An ExxonMobil oil refinery, the second largest in the U.S., is pictured on February 28, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo: Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

Why Carbon Capture Really and Truly Sucks

Too many people can't see the forest for the trees on this mythical, industry-friendly technology.

Simon Whalley

"Finally! Bill Gates and Elon Musk Agree on Something" the headline says. I wonder what they might agree on? Could it be that neoliberal capitalism is the greatest system ever devised by old white men in Europe? Could it be that they both think electric cars are the answer to our transportation problems? Could it be they both think technology can solve any problem that technology creates? No, apparently what the two plutocrats "finally" agree on is that technology that sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is the greatest solution to the climate crisis.

We are being hoodwinked by the billionaires to believe in tech Carbon Capture and Storage so they can profit when the logical and safer solution is diet change, not climate change.

There are many forms of carbon capture technology in the marketplace today and the one that Bill and Elon are most excited about is Direct Air Capture (DAC). Through his global network of billionaire chums, Gates managed to get BlackRock to invest $100 million through its "charitable" arm as well as Microsoft, General Motors, American Airlines, Bank of America and others. In total, the investment amounted to $1 billion. This was all invested through Gates's non-profit Breakthrough Energy. Musk went a different route by offering a $100 million prize to any team that can present a plan to remove a billion tons of CO2 in a year.

So, what's so exciting about Direct Air Capture? Well, it can literally suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and this CO2 can then be buried underground. Magic! It uses fans to suck air into a collector and then the CO2 sticks to a filter. Then some heat is added and the gas dissolves in water before being pumped underground where it will be turned into stone. Abracadabra! Well, not quite. This is the part of the story that Gates, Musk and the fawning billionaire owned media like to repeat on loop.

The first snag we hit is that it is no where near ready yet. Currently, the largest project is in Iceland where Climeworks talks of removing 10 billion tons of CO2 annually by 2050. To remove a single ton of CO2, a DAC plant processes roughly two million cubic meters of air. This is because CO2 accounts for just 0.04% of the atmosphere. Their near term goal is to remove 4,000 tons of CO2 each year and while this may sound ambitious, it is roughly equivalent to the CO2 from a few hundred cars.

The second problem we encounter is cost with DAC technology costing between $500-$600 a ton. Cancelling out a few hundred cars costs between $2 million - $2.4 million. Removing a billion tons will cost half a trillion dollars but costs will come down, potentially as low as $94-$232 a ton. Reaching Climeworks target of 20 billion tons a year will likely cost the future generation in the vicinity of $3 trillion a year. Unfortunately, we are still pouring 40 billion tons into the atmosphere so it is likely the figure will be at least twice this amount. Now, maybe we can see why Gates and Musk are so enamored with DAC. It will make investors extremely rich.

The third problem is scale. In order to remove 30 billion tons, we will need 30,000 large-scale plants and each of these requires temperatures of 900°C (1652°F). In addition to the electricity needs, sodium hydroxide must be produced and this doubles the electricity requirements per ton of C02. If the technology fails, the temperature could overshoot by as much as 0.8°C (1.44°F).

While DAC is seen as a long-term panacea, it is competing in the carbon capture market with other less nascent technologies like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS) and this adds an additional problem, water scarcity. The U.N. predicts that by mid-century a staggering six billion people will suffer from clean water scarcity. Currently, thermal power plants, including coal, gas and oil, use 290km3 of the Earth's fresh water. Research highlights that retrofitting existing coal-fired power-plants (CFPP) with BECCS would result in 43% of them facing water scarcity at least one month a year while 32% would face scarcity for at least five months. Don't worry about water shortages though because I'm sure billionaires are investing in technology to make water from the air that they can then sell to you after the technology they financed and profited from drained the world's finite water supplies. Can you see the pattern emerging here? The people who profit from causing the problem then profit from solving the problem they created in the first place.

There is a much cheaper form of direct air capture than has multitude benefits, but which gets overlooked by Musk and Gates for a simple reason. It makes no profit! The answer is trees, or reforestation to be precise. It's estimated that a ton of CO2 can be removed by trees for just $50 and we don't have to wait decades for the price to come down, we can start planting trees right now. In fact, in a recent research article published in Science, it was found that tropical forest reforestation won't cost a cent. Just leaving land to regrow naturally resulted in forests achieving 78% of their old-growth values in just 20 years. When reading the literature about carbon capture, you see people refer to reforestation as requiring more land than DAC or BECCS, as if having forested land is a negative. Nothing could be more positive. Through reforestation, wild animal populations could rebound, the trees would produce water which will be in short supply in the coming decades and just as importantly for all life on Earth, the forests could sequester the CO2 for free. Now, we can see why Bill and Elon don't talk up the potential of trees. They don't make a profit unless they are being cut down or burned.

This is where the problem begins. In order to reforest this land, we are going to need to use less land for farming so we can allow it to return to nature and suck in all that CO2. This means that humanity needs to change the way it eats, specifically we need to eat more plants and less animal products which are both land and water intensive. This simple change will reduce the pressure on our planet, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve human health, save millions of lives and improve our relationship with our fellow Earthlings. The only thing it won't do is increase profit margins. In fact, food costs will be cut by a third. This is why Bill and Elon don't encourage plant-based diets. The tech billionaires don't want us to use natural solutions to the problems their technology created. They want to profit from the solutions as well as the problems. This is why Gates is investing in synthetic meats company, Memphis Meats after divesting from McDonalds. He's already profited from the problem. Now he wants to profit from the solution.

We are being hoodwinked by the billionaires to believe in tech Carbon Capture and Storage so they can profit when the logical and safer solution is diet change, not climate change.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

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