A Climate Change Free Lunch?

A Climate Change Free Lunch?

One of the ideas floating around from time to time about how to deal with prospective catastrophic climate change from greenhouse gas emissions is “air capture,” which is exactly what it sounds like: extracting carbon dioxide from ambient air, and therefore reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. There have been some small-scale technological demonstration projects, but the technology has appeared difficult to scale up because of high cost and very high energy requirements to make it work, which would seem to place an inordinate claim on carbon-free energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear to work.

So there’s a lot of attention right now going to a new study that suggests carbon air capture can be done much more cheaply at large scales than previous estimates. The technical study (no paywall!) is here. The Atlantic has a good article explaining it in lay terms, “Climate Change Can Be Stopped by Turning Air Into Gasoline,” while Nature magazine also offers a good summary article, “Sucking Carbon Dioxide from Air Is Cheaper Than Scientists Thought.”

Count me as mildly skeptical. One of the most typical phenomena in the entire energy domain of the last generation are news stories of potential “breakthrough” technologies that somehow we never hear another thing about again. Because the stories are usually hype, if not utter B.S. This is why I apply a rule to all energy journalism that is seldom followed: is the technology scalable, and at what cost compared to current energy sources? Very very few news stories provide this information, chiefly because the beat journalists are too ignorant and innumerate to ask. The technologies are either resource-limited (example: diesel from recycled fry oil from fast food restaurants—a perfectly reasonable idea, but, contrary to popular opinion, Americans don’t eat enough French fries to provide very much fuel), or simply have unrealistic cost (example: some bio-diesel technologies come in at around $12 a gallon, which obviously won’t cut it, or tidal energy, which is a very expensive way to generate electricity once the full costs of backup and supplementary power is factored in properly).

One reason to credit this new story slightly more is that it at least offers a cost range of $94 – $232 per ton of CO2 removed from the air. That’s still a rather high cost, but much lower than previous estimates of $600 a ton or more. It would supposedly translate to $1 to $2.50 per gallon of gasoline if it was paid for through a carbon levy of some kind on fossil fuel use. This price range still fails any true cost-benefit test that uses a realistic discount rate even assuming the more catastrophic climate damage estimates of the climatistas (more on this key point some other time). But the cost might come down if it was indeed scaled up, and would probably be much cheaper that the current cost-per-ton of current prescriptions and policies, like Germany’s energiewende.

The Atlantic story offers this key takeaway:

“If these costs are real, it is an important result,” said Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “This opens up the possibility that we could stabilize the climate for affordable amounts of money without changing the entire energy system or changing everyone’s behavior.”

But. . . but—that would take all of the fun out of climate change agitation! Which is why I predict the following: if this technology does indeed prove practical, scalable, and cost effective, environmentalists will bitterly oppose it, for the simple reason that it would allow us to use our existing very abundant hydrocarbon energy sources, which are the real target of the climatistas.