Can Carbon Capture Solve Climate Change?

July 24, 2012
  • Melanie Janin

    Former Managing Director, Communications, BSR

GreenBiz senior writer and Fortune magazine contributing editor Marc Gunther's new ebook, Suck It Up, explores carbon capture and storage (CCS), technology that attempts to suck carbon dioxide out of the air in order to reverse the atmospheric buildup that causes climate change. "It would take a lot of time and cost a lot of money but, in theory, could eventually get CO2 concentrations back to where we want them," he says. He spoke with us about the market opportunity in CCS—which, he writes, is equivalent to US$10 trillion of oil—and about his views on the technological, political, and behavioral barriers to solving climate change.

What's your message for business leaders on the subject of carbon capture? What should they take away from your book?

I'd like to see business, as well as government, take a closer look at capturing CO2 from the air. I think it's a tool we will want to have at our disposal, particularly if there is not a radical downturn in greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade or two. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening.

You write about the enormous market opportunity in capturing CO2—100 billion barrels of U.S. oil, or US$10 trillion of oil, which equals 14 years of U.S. oil independence. With this much potential gain at stake, why aren't more companies investing carbon capture?

Direct air capture of CO2 is a new idea. And it appears to be very costly at this point. But there are at least four startup companies that think they can bring the costs down to the point where they have a real business. Their plan is to suck CO2 out of the air, turn it into a liquid, and then inject it into the ground to extract stranded oil. This would finance the scaling up of the technology—after which it could be used to focus directly on the climate problem. Eventually—and this is admittedly a long-term vision—these companies would like to recycle CO2 to make renewable, low-carbon transportation fuels. The goal would be to capture CO2 from the air, extract hydrogen from water, and combine them to make fuels, in a process powered by solar energy. Every country in the world could produce its own oil and burn it. The CO2 would be recycled, like a newspaper or an aluminum can.

You note a number of promising technologies and techniques for carbon capture in the book. Which one do you think holds the most promise overall and gives you a real sense of optimism?

I'm not in a position to judge which of the three startups—Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat, and Kilimanjaro Energy—has the best technology. But each one was started by scientists with great credentials and impressive track records. Bill Gates has invested in Carbon Engineering, which tells you something.

At BSR, we've been having an internal conversation about climate issues, and we'd like to pose the same question to you that we've been discussing: What do you see as the key barriers or enablers to progress on climate change? Are they primarily technological, political, or behavioral?

I think all three are barriers. Technology: Clean energy is still too expensive, relative to cheap natural gas. So investments are needed there. Political: Definitely. The most important things business leaders can do is talk loudly and forcefully and repeatedly about the need to address the climate crisis. Behavioral: Yes, because all of us (meaning well-to-do people in the Western world) should try to consume less, or at least consume in more sustainable ways.

In your book, you describe the United States' refusal to address the climate problem as a case study in the "tragedy of the commons," and our continued dependence on fossil fuels as an "epidemic failure by many Americans to delay gratification." When do you think we will start paying attention to the risks of climate change?

It will take a climate disaster to wake people up, although the extreme weather we've seen in recent years hasn't done so. I can also envision a scenario in which political leaders do what leaders are supposed to do—explain to people why this matters and what needs to be done about it, even if that requires short-term sacrifices. It's also possible that a breakthrough technology—say, very cheap solar panels—could come to the rescue.

At the end of the book, you describe a clear path forward for addressing climate change on a global scale: Reduce subsidies for fossil-fuel production, put a price on carbon, government investment in research around cleaner energy (not just solar and wind), and government investment in geoengineering research. If you could make one of these happen in the next five years, which would you choose?

Put a price on carbon. That would get us on the right path.

This is BSR's 20-year anniversary, and we're exploring how far we have come, and how far we still need to go, to create a sustainable world. What's your take on this: Has everything changed in 20 years, or has nothing changed?

Nothing has changed on a scale that matters. Attitudes have certainly changed. Behavior, not so much—not corporate behavior and certainly not individual behavior. We've seen incremental change. What's needed is transformational change.

If you could get corporate behavior to change, what would you have business do?

Speak about the urgency of the climate crisis, in an effort to change the political dialogue, and refuse to support candidates who deny the reality of climate change.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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