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A Titanic policy

14 Jun 2023 | OP ED Watch

As we’ve noted, some of the zealots trying to force a total change in lifestyle and mindset dislike carbon capture because if it actually worked, we could keep owning things, using cheap fossil fuel and being happy. Others with a more practical focus see it more positively. If only there was some evidence it worked. But when Canary Media asks via email “Should we sink CO2 into the sea?” our confident answer is no, you should not. How would you?

Well, according to the actual article, with the slightly more modest headline “Can we fight climate change by sinking carbon into the sea?”, it seems that:

“Two Israeli companies are betting that by trapping biomass deep underwater, they can keep gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.”

We don’t just understand their enthusiasm, we applaud it. With one hand like a Zen monk. Because we hear a lot of perky boosterism about how carbon capture is about to become feasible. But as Alison Takemura explains in that Canary piece:

“Here’s an inconvenient truth: We’ve polluted the atmosphere with so many gigatons of greenhouse gases that just slashing emissions – which we still absolutely have to do – will no longer be enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change. We’ll also need to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by 2050, even assuming steep emissions cuts in the next few decades (and emissions have been rising, not falling), we’ll need to take out something like 5 to 10 gigatons of CO2-equivalent each year. The problem is, no one knows yet how to remove carbon from the atmosphere at anywhere close to that scale.”

Now there’s a lot wrong with that passage. For instance if we can no longer avert the “worst impacts of climate change” which, to hear some tell it, means the atmosphere catches fire but our cities don’t burn because they’re 100 feet under water, and hurricanes blow the corpses of the extinct biosphere about among the soggy ashes, well, we might as well party like it’s 1999. And taking out 5 to 10 gigatons is unlikely to convince the Earth not to ignite if it was going to. But she’s quite right that nobody knows how to do it.

Including, we’re betting, these Israeli entrepreneurs. And here’s why. The sea is very big. Not as big as the Earth we vainly think we can adjust to suit our needs or whims as easily as we can twiddle the rec room thermostat. But very big, and mysterious and sort of sloshy.

See it has huge complicated currents nobody understands, least of all climate modellers. It has cycles not just of temperature but also of carbon absorption that very possibly operate on a scale of centuries or longer. (The famous 800-year lag between temperature changes and atmospheric CO2 that Al Gore got embarrassingly backward in An Inconvenient Truth might well be driven by what the oceans are doing.) According to Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, it is the many tens of millions of years during which “calcifying” creatures have been combining dissolved CO2 with calcium to create calcium carbonate (CaCO3, so they snag another oxygen atom from somewhere as well) shells that, once they die, sink to the sea-bottom that has created the perilous carbon famine Earth is now experiencing.

Yes, folks, famine. We’re not choking on carbon pollution. On the contrary, at 150 ppm most plant life would die, and then you’d see a real tipping point. And during the boringly named Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years ago, atmospheric CO2 dipped to a distinctly non-boring 180 while ice covered a quarter of the land. Unless something is done to boost CO2, and fast and long-lasting, the next glaciation may bring down the curtain on life on this planet, or at least cause a Sixth Mass Extinction from which a rebound would be most unlikely.

Speaking of betting, Bloomberg wrote a story “Trudeau Bets $9 Billion on Plan to Clean Up World’s Dirtiest Oil” that the Financial Post converted to Canadian dollars and some welcome skepticism with “Trudeau is betting $12 billion on a plan to clean up the oilsands that critics say is ‘deeply and fundamentally flawed’”. And we agree, starting with the fact that normally you bet your own money and just throw other people’s away.

Here’s where they’re throwing it:

“Under pressure to neutralize carbon emissions by mid-century while also supporting the domestic oil industry, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has so far pledged $12.4 billion in tax credits for building carbon capture systems. That includes a massive project that aims to suck up an annual 10 million metric tons of carbon emissions produced by the massive equipment at oilsands sites by 2030. By 2050, after billions more in investment, the system is expected to capture as much as 40 million metric tons of carbon annually, enough to zero out the emissions of Sweden and salvage an industry that accounts for 7 per cent of Canada’s economy and more than a fifth of goods exports.”

Now hang on. Last time we looked, Canada’s total human GHG emissions were guesstimated at 672,354 kilotonnes. We say “guesstimated” because this six-decimal-place pseudo-number is a model kluge in which “The basis for these greenhouse gas (GHG) estimates are Statistics Canada’s physical flow accounts (PFA), which record the annual flows of selected natural resources, products and residuals between the Canadian economy and the environment.” And they guess how much carbon gets produced along the way. But even if they’re roughly right and somehow we get “as much as 40 million metric tons of carbon annually” it’s still only one seventeenth of our output. Blast. (How Sweden with a quarter of our population has only a sixteenth of our emissions is anyone’s guess. And we do mean guess.)

Still, they’re probably not right. The Canadian government has missed every emissions target it ever set, so we doubt they’d hit the next one even if they somehow guessed right on what our emissions were which is not the sort of thing they typically do anyway.

Despite all these obstacles, carbon capture is big with the alarmist crowd nowadays. And Heatmap is into the craze. In a piece “Oil Companies’ Great Green Rush Has Begun”, Matthew Zeitlin or his headline writer says “The era of greenwashing is ending. Here’s what’s coming next.” And what’s coming next, Zeitlin says, is that they’ve abandoned BP becoming “Beyond Petroleum” and Exxon getting into algae-based fuels, while they’re giving green shareholder resolutions a resolute smek. But they’re making serious investments in carbon capture. They assure you.

The Economist is also dizzy on carbon capture. Their “Environment editor” Catherine Brahic, who “grew up in France and has a background in neuroscience” and “studied biology at Columbia University and science journalism at Imperial College”, which is a lot better than most people on this beat, wrote a somewhat scattered piece on how “the world was going to miss its 1.5°C climate target”. Not that the world has targets anyway although we do hope it continues to hit its standard orbit around the sun. But never mind. Everyone agrees with her, or at least everyone she talks to. And they’re fretful because if we get over 1.5C “above pre-industrial averages”, a term here apparently meaning the average for the 18th century not the Holocene as a whole, it:

“will land us in ‘overshoot’ territory. Theoretically, an overshoot could be reversed. Doing so would require removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, either by relying on ecosystems that naturally mop up the gas through photosynthesis and other natural means – a slow process that is only reliable if the ecosystems are preserved – or through other ‘innovative’ carbon-removal options.”

Kudos for recognizing the fact that more CO2 means more plants means less CO2. But then we get:

“Of these options, the most discussed is direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS). You may have heard it described as ‘artificial trees’. The idea is to build vast banks of filtering stations that remove carbon dioxide from the air and then permanently store it, generally underground.”

Right. You squirt gas into the soil and tell it to stay there and it does. No dang microbe or plant gets at it. No geological process lets it leach back out. Besides, “I visited one of these stations last year: Orca, in Iceland, which captures 4,000 tonnes of carbon every year – for now a world record… the volumes are still insignificant. Within the next few decades these nascent industries will need to remove billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.”

Um how many of those would it take to capture a billion tonnes? Why yes, 250,000. Makes a wind farm’s “footprint” look positively benign.

To its credit, the Canary piece says:

“organic carbon sequestration is notoriously difficult to measure, so it will be hard to independently verify the claims Rewind and BlueGreen make. And both startups employ methods that could be stymied by hard-to-predict interactions with microbes.”

Gosh. Ya think? Nature operating in complex dynamic cycles hard to dominate with an electric switch and some hubris? If more CO2 could feed aquatic plants they wouldn’t wait for us to ring the dinner bell? And if we were (as Rewind intends) to ship biomass to the Black Sea and then dump it somewhere so deep it’s anaerobic and shipwrecks don’t decompose, some dang thing might decide to eat it and bubble out CO2? Or worse bubble out the dreaded methane, “a greenhouse gas that is shorter-lived than CO2 but 84 times more potent over a 20-year timeframe”? Yes. Aaargh.

Anyway it’s all quite silly. Nature is bigger than us and notoriously recalcitrant. Still, we at CDN do have a carbon capture plan of our own, involving biomass, whose only real drawback is the difficulty monetizing it. Our eminently practical scheme is as follows: First, have nature create plants that use CO2 as food and they spread over the Earth’s surface. Then if atmospheric CO2 rises, for whatever reason, more will plants grow better and absorb more CO2. Thus over the last 40 years the Earth has greened considerably, and a lot fewer people have starved. Should the maniacs get their way and suck CO2 out of the air, many of these plants will die (as will the people hoping to eat them) and then they will decompose and oh dear is that CO2 coming out of the bodies?

7 comments on “A Titanic policy”

  1. The easiest way to bury CO2 is to pump it underground under pressure into, say, depleted oil wells and there hopefully it will stay. Of course, if it does leak out again we might have a Lake Nyos-style disaster:
    in which naturally occuring CO2 at the bottom of Lake Nyos in Cameroon vented into the atmosphere in 1986 and killed 1746 people and about 3500 cattle by suffocation. If we have enough carbon sequestration projects going on, would anyone like to bet that such a disaster would not happen again?

  2. It's been suggested that if we could sink a pipe to the deepest parts of the ocean, and pump CO2 all the way down there, the cold and pressure would cause it to solidify and sink to the ocean floor and stay there. Totally unnecessary of course, but makes more sense than the ridiculous idea of sinking biomass to the bottom.

  3. Or, we could just stop wasting hydrocarbons on wind and solar and convert to nuclear power over the next century and let the biosphere use the C02 produced over the anthropogenic extended million years of life on the planet.

  4. I am a subscriber to The Economist. 90% of its articles are interesting and well-researched. But when it reports on climate, it turns into a babbling idiot. No facts, no research, just opinion based on something it heard 30 years ago. I smile indulgently, turn the page, and get back to the good stuff.

  5. Roger, the methane that was in those formations was there for millions of years. There is no reason to expect CO2 to leak out. There is no reason to expect wells to “blow out” other than very gross human error, and the technology for bringing such incidents under control is satisfactorily successful.

  6. Sinking biomass to the bottom of the ocean isn’t “ridiculous” ….that’s one of the ways by which mother nature eliminates CO2 from our atmosphere. Dead algae and plankton sinking to the ocean depths. From several thousand ppm 400 million years ago to 200 ppm before the last glaciation only 30,000 years ago….very close to the 150 ppm level at which many plants and trees would cease to exist, with animal life ceasing shortly therafter.
    I don’t know how big these German companies think their equipment has to be, but its certainly not going to sink more biomass than the world’s oceans already do.

  7. The author spoke of "a Sixth Mass Extinction from which a rebound would be most unlikely." C'mon! If life could rebound from the other 5 mass extinctions. If life could survive multiple snowball earth events, I see no reason life could not rebound from low CO2. It might not be easy and it sure as the world won't be quick but my money is on life surviving. We, OTOH, will likely join the dodo and the wooly mammoth. Wonder what an evolved rodent would think of us. Would they come up with their own silurian hypothesis?

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