Congress has prioritized scrubbing the atmosphere of carbon dioxide as a way to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, earmarking $447 million for carbon removal research and development in the stimulus bill signed into law.
But climate scientists and decarbonization advocates disagree about the need for such a program, and the extent to which the money Congress appropriated for it will make a difference for scaling up carbon capture technology.
“The gigaton-scale of carbon removal doesn’t really make sense until emissions have been squished down toward zero,” said David Keith, a Harvard University applied physics professor who has studied carbon capture technology. “The first thing you should do is stop emitting.”
Starting with $175 million in fiscal 2021, the new law requires the Energy Department to spend the money over the next five years to establish a research and development program “to test, validate, or improve technologies and strategies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale.”
The law also creates an Energy Department task force to determine how much carbon dioxide needs to be sucked out of the air in order for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to stabilize the climate—the incoming Biden administration’s primary climate goal.
“I think the provisions of this bill represent the most significant action on carbon removal in the United States to date,” said Shuchi Talati, senior policy for Carbon180, a carbon-removal advocacy group. “This is just a huge step forward.”
The science underlying the Paris Agreement suggests that atmospheric carbon removal, or “negative emissions,” may be required to achieve the global pact’s most ambitious climate goal and avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change.
No one’s ever scrubbed the atmosphere of carbon on a scale large enough to make a difference for the climate, and it’s expected to take many years before it can be done effectively. Some recent research shows it may not even be necessary.
Scientists are researching dozens of methods to scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, including using giant fans to suck it directly from the ambient air and stashing it safely underground forever, a process known as direct air capture and storage.
The law requires the Energy Department to focus on direct air capture technology plus harnessing the carbon storage power of forests, trees and farms; exploring how to use rocks to store carbon and new ways to capture carbon from bioenergy.
The program specifically excludes carbon capture technology used by the oil and gas industry to assist in producing fossil fuels.
Atmospheric carbon removal research and development has bipartisan support in Congress.
“Carbon removal technologies have significant promise and could someday present an opportunity to substantially reduce net levels of global greenhouse gas emissions,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a July statement supporting the separate CREATE Act (S.4341), introduced in July by Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.)
The bill would establish a federal carbon removal initiative and a committee of federal officials who would create a national carbon removal strategy as a way to address climate change. The provisions of that bill weren’t included in the stimulus package.
“The science from the world’s top experts, including our own National Academies, shows that carbon removal from the oceans, atmosphere, and land will likely be needed to meet our climate goals,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in the July statement.
As part of the stimulus package, the Energy Department will use air capture prize competitions and grants, and provide support for carbon removal testing centers to spur research teams to develop new atmospheric decarbonization technology, according to the law.
Energy Department officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The program is no panacea, but it’ll help scale-up carbon-capture technologies, improve them and make them cheaper, said Volker Sick, director of the Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan.
If countries were to stop burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide today, sucking it from the air probably wouldn’t be necessary, but it’s going to take a long time for them to wind down their fossil fuel consumption even as they continue to emit by producing steel and cement, Sick said.
“So we need to have a way of dealing with that so the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is stable,” Sick said, calling the program an “admirable start.”
No ‘Magic Solution’
The fact that Congress included a new carbon removal program in the stimulus bill shouldn’t be mistaken for any meaningful focus on addressing climate change, said Keith, the Harvard professor who’s a co-founder and board member of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian firm developing direct air capture technology.
The program Congress created is too small to make a difference when the U.S. should be spending 1% of its GDP annually on cutting emissions to zero, Keith said. He said there’s “overexcitement” about carbon removal and doesn’t believe it’s a “magic solution” to climate change.
“Increasing R&D is what you do in this political world when there is a significant appetite for climate action but not the level of appetite to really do the big stuff to cut emissions,” Keith said.
Some of the country’s most prominent climate scientists say they agree.
“I personally don’t see carbon removal as a cost-effective ‘climate solution’,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State University climate scientist.
Carbon removal can potentially be counterproductive, Mann said, to the extent that it can crowd out support for more meaningful policy such as carbon pricing and incentives for renewables.
But carbon capture can play a crucial role in any response to climate change if it’s part of a much broader decarbonization plan, said Katherine Mach, a marine and atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami.
An ambitious climate response requires “careful attention to the full picture of heat-trapping emissions, making sure carbon capture doesn’t enable continued pollution, but rather supports an American economy heading towards deep decarbonization,” she said.