Can carbon capture compare to a carbon fee?

carbon capture

Some people hold out hope for a technological fix to climate change. Can carbon capture serve our needs?

Can carbon capture compare to a carbon fee?

By Emma Dickinson

The air that humans breathe in 2017 is packed with carbon dioxide molecules—totaling over 400 parts-per-million—a level that has steadily climbed due to human activity. We deposit 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year into the earth’s atmosphere, which drives climate change by warming the earth like a blanket. So what do we do about all this extra carbon dioxide?

Many people who acknowledge the challenge of climate change are hoping for some powerful technology to develop—perhaps something that could reverse the imbalances we’ve created by removing the extra carbon dioxide. That’s an idea known as carbon capture, and lately, it’s had some key developments.

Trying for a technological fix

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee discovered that guanidine—used to make plastics—also reacts with carbon in the air, forming small carbonate salt crystals. Carbonate salts, like carbonic acid in oceans, result from the reaction between carbon dioxide gas in the air and water and are a naturally-occurring organic molecule. The carbon dioxide that is bound in the crystals can easily be released by heating up the crystals at temperatures that range from 80-120 degrees Celsius. The aqueous guanidine solution can be used up to three times and requires a small input of energy and minimal amounts of chemicals, making the prospect of such an efficient technology enticing. The storage capabilities of the salt crystal allow easy transport of the captured carbon and reduce the cost and energy used to store sequestered carbon. The study “CO2 Capture from Ambient Air by Crystallization with a Guanidine Sorbent,” can be read in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

A different material, resin, could provide another way to grab carbon out of the air. Researchers at Arizona State University discovered that a resin when attached to a plastic strip—frequently used to purify water—greedily sucks up carbon dioxide when put into an enclosed tank. The team took the material’s properties a step forward and created a tree-like plastic plant that sits on top of an ASU building, gathering carbon dioxide like a photosynthetic plant. This is promising technology, though it’s not yet ready to roll out at scale.

Another consideration is what happens to the captured carbon. Take the newly built carbon-capture facility in Texas, for example. Drawing 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from 240 megawatts, Petra Nova in Houston pumps carbon dioxide emissions from the coal power plant to nearby West Ranch oil fields. This system reuses the carbon to pump additional oil from the ground. The carbon that is captured totals to about 1.6 million tons year—the same amount is equivalent to driving 3.5 million miles or electricity generation for 214,338 households. But since the carbon is then used to retrieve more fossil fuels, more climate changing emissions will inevitably result.

Efficient & effective

Despite the attractive idea that technology can provide a sophisticated, effective fix for our excess emissions, today’s developments aren’t quite ready to address the problem on the scale or at the speed necessary. One day they may get there, which could give us a useful arsenal of tools to get back down to a more stable carbon dioxide level.

Until then, we can make some legislative changes to lower the emissions we’re putting in the atmosphere in the first place. Citizens’ Climate Lobby advocates for a carbon fee and dividend, which would:

  • Place an initial fee of $15 per ton on the CO2 equivalent emissions of fossil fuels, escalating $10 per ton per year.
  • Give 100% of the net fees back to households each month.

According to Regional Economic Models, Inc., a system like this would reduce CO2 emissions 52% below 1990 levels in 20 years. The dividend portion of the plan would act as a stimulus, giving people more money to spend and adding in an extra 2.8 million jobs to the economy. This approach doesn’t require technology beyond what we already have, and it would quickly have the desired effect: fewer climate changing emissions. Plus, the monthly dividend check brings an added bonus to Americans’ daily lives that carbon capture never would. A concerted effort toward carbon fee and dividend legislation would drive the U.S. toward a future with more jobs and less carbon dioxide in the air.

Emma Dickinson is a high school senior living and volunteering for CCL in Atlanta, Ga. After high school, she plans to study ecology, sustainability, and French horn performance at university.