A ‘catch’ in carbon catching

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is telling us that to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the warming ceiling should be no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5°C) and that carbon entering the atmosphere through anthropogenic causes, not only can this not continue, but much if not all of that which is in the air already, at the very least, needs to be removed. Since pre-industrial times world mean surface air temp has increased 1°C.

Part of the prescription for achieving the 1.5°C target is through employment of carbon removal (CR). This also goes by the name: carbon capture or CC.

The IPCC supports the removal of atmospheric carbon and in no uncertain terms points this out in its recent IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C, an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty report and, as a matter of fact, such is so referenced in the Oct. 8, 2018 IPCC “Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments,” press release.

In fact, speaking to this, here (in the release) is what the IPCC had to say. “The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.”

The IPCC went on to state: “Allowing the global temperature to temporarily exceed or ‘overshoot’ 1.5°C would mean a greater reliance on techniques that remove CO2 from the air to return global temperature to below 1.5°C by 2100. The effectiveness of such techniques are [sic] unproven at large scale and some may carry significant risks for sustainable development, the report notes.”

So, assuming large-scale carbon removal techniques do pan out at some point, what we’re talking here is super large-scale, this then begs the question: Wouldn’t embracing such CO2 air-cleaning approaches be messing with nature in a way that could have catastrophic consequences? In other words, if adopted, what would be the likelihood of such upsetting, possibly, irreparably, world climate stability?

This in a moment, unless, of course, you wish to jump to “The carbon ‘catch’” section below.

Fossil-fuel-burning basics

The backstory here is that via the burning of fossil fuels, as a result of this process, carbon is released into the air.

The carbon, in so doing, bonds with oxygen forming CO2 gas which is otherwise known as carbon dioxide. It isn’t just CO2; it is waste CO2. And, that makes all the difference in the world.

Okay, so, this waste CO2 has to go somewhere. What doesn’t remain in the atmosphere is absorbed by soil, flora and other sinks like oceans and the like, though the bulk of it is atmosphere-based, this, of course, being the most concerning. The part from the air entering oceans is approximately 25 percent by volume.

While CO2 entering oceans does take some of the pressure off of that which is in the air, what is absorbed by the oceans is having an acidifying effect. And, the reality is that the oceans are becoming more acidic. It is through the combination of carbon dioxide and hydrogen that results in the formation of carbonic acid and it is this acid that is increasing and as such, such is a clear-and-present threat to ocean-ecosystem and sea-life health.

Meanwhile, the waste carbon in the atmosphere traps and retains heat and has resulted in the 1°C mean surface air temperature rise since pre-industrial times.

The carbon ‘catch’

At first glance, capturing and storing or capturing and using waste carbon in the atmosphere sounds like a fantastic idea.

And, it is if that carbon is captured at the source; for example, like when such is released at power plants. It isn’t as attractive in my opinion if carbon is extracted from air.

Why this is has to do with limits.

Say, for instance, a method is created for catching the carbon released at a coal-fired power plant where coal is burned to create electricity and/or heat. Where feasible such captured carbon is stored in pits in the ground. Or where practicable, such captured carbon can be utilized, let’s say, in the formation of pharmaceuticals, plastics, polymers, etc. See related story here. It is nothing if not interesting.

However, drawing carbon out of the air well after its point of release may not, in my view, be so grand an idea after all and, here’s why.

Okay, so let’s say the goal is to try to lower the amount of waste carbon dioxide in the air so as to prevent so-called global-surface-temperature-rise runaway and avoid the most damaging effects of global warming and climate change. Provided this can ever be scaled up enough to make the difference to, in effect, save the day, as it were, the $64 million question is: where does the bit having to do with atmospheric carbon-extraction end?

Does it end when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air falls to 350 parts per billion (ppb), a level deemed by scientists to be at the upper extreme of what’s considered safe? Would that be good enough or does one go farther, say, to 300 ppb or even 275 ppb, that’s the approximate air concentration of carbon dioxide appearing at introduction of the Industrial Revolution? Do we stop there or dare try to best that even? And, if so, by how much and who gets to decide how far this carbon-catching is allowed to go and for how long?

Difficult questions with no easy answers.

The point is, if such went on without there being any checks and balances, some serious damage could be done. Think global warming in reverse, in this case, global cooling.

And therein lies the carbon ‘catch’.

Maybe a point that should be given some serious consideration at the next world climate-change conference coming up next month in Poland.

At the very least such would make for substantive conversation.

Image above: NASA

This post was last revised on Dec. 20, 2020 @ 7:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

– Alan Kandel