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It went into the ground

24 Apr 2024 | OP ED Watch

Given that reducing the use of life-sustaining energy turns out not to be a very practical or popular plan, there’s a lot of hype about “carbon removal”, the bit where we suck a trace gas out of the air and stuff it into the dirt and it doesn’t come back. Alas, it turns out that the settled science and economics here are a hoorah’s nest of uncertainty and error. As Heatmap says, “Money seems to be pouring into the field of carbon removal from every direction” although actually it’s always from the government. The reason is that “It will be impossible to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, either at the national or global level, without removing carbon from the atmosphere. But how much carbon removal will we need, and how do we make sure we’re ready to deploy it?” Oh. That.

Their concern is bracingly pseudo-practical. They fret that:

“When we talk about cutting carbon emissions from buildings or transportation, experts are relatively confident in the set of solutions and the scale of the task — they know how many buildings and cars there are and can make reasonable estimates of growth rates. But carbon removal is a moving target.”

And why? Because:

“We know how much we’re removing today – roughly 5 million metric tons, mostly from nature-based solutions like planting trees. Based on current policies, Rhodium estimates we could scale that up to about 50 million metric tons by 2035. But figuring out how much we need depends entirely on how successful we are at decarbonizing everything else. Even if we know we need to electrify all our cars, for example, no one can say whether that will happen by 2050, or at least not with any meaningful degree of certainty.”

Note that virtually every word we just quoted is wrong, except the bit about lacking certainty. We, or “experts”, are not confident in the set of solutions for decarbonizing transportation, except to the extent that they haven’t the slightest clue how little they know. (See the debacle on estimating energy needs in this week’s blog items.) Nor do we know how many more buildings and cars there will be in 2050, or of what sort, any more than we knew in 1998 where things would stand, or roll, today.

We also don’t know “how much we’re removing today”. We do not know what would be happening if we were not planting trees, nor how many more trees we are planting because we became scared of plant food in the air than we would have otherwise, nor what those trees are doing, nor even who is planting them. Does this author seriously think they know how many shrubs, vegetables and ornamental or fruit trees Americans are planting, and the resulting net absorption of carbon, especially given that like all flesh, all plants die and release their constituents back into the air on varying schedules?

We’re not mocking science when we say that it’s not an exact science. On the contrary, it’s a continuous process of hypothesis, measurement, bafflement or wonder, revision and humility about outcomes. Except when alarmist politicians, journalists and some blustery scientists barge in. In the real world, “Climate Change: Side effects of widescale forestation could reduce the net carbon removal benefit according to a Sheffield and Leeds university study”. So we literally don’t know what planting even one tree does, depending where, in what setting, what kind of tree and whether squirrels chew up its roots.

The same is true of the more artificial efforts. We don’t know what industrial processes will do today, or might tomorrow. Thus “Vanadium Peroxides: Advancing the Capture Carbon from the Air” could herald a major breakthrough, or a major disappointment.

Also, when you read something like, also from Heatmap, “This Carbon Removal Startup Is Eyeing a Major Price Milestone/ With its Orchard One project in Wyoming, Spiritus thinks it can capture carbon from the air for less than $100 per ton” you realize we have no idea what the putative solutions would cost either. What companies looking to capture subsidies from the government “think” they can do and what they end up being capable of do not always align with precision.

Sure, “Avnos raises $36M to pull CO2 – and water – from the sky”. But does it pull them from the sky, or just subsidies from taxpayers’ wallets? Wait and see. And when you read “Businesses across Yorkshire and the North of England are in pole position to take advantage of Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS). This technology can capture carbon dioxide from factories and power plants before it reaches the atmosphere” you should not be surprised that this entirely objective assessment comes from… uh… the “CEO of the Carbon Capture & Storage Association”. Money in the bank… for them. So totally disinterested.

Also, an outfit called Clean Prosperity in Canada gushes that “Canada’s first carbon contract for difference unlocks low-carbon growth” because:

“Last month’s offtake agreement between the Canada Growth Fund and Calgary-based carbon capture company Entropy Inc. marked an important first for stimulating low-carbon economic growth in Canada. Increasing certainty in Canada’s carbon markets through contracts for difference and offtake agreements can be the tipping point for a range of low-carbon projects. These instruments can give Canada the boost it needs to compete with the US for new low-carbon investment. We encourage the federal government and the Canada Growth Fund to progress quickly from bespoke agreements to a broad-based contracts for difference program that’s accessible to emitters across the Canadian economy. In the coming month, Clean Prosperity will release new research that shows how carbon contracts for difference are the key to unlocking up to 33 megatonnes of emissions reductions by 2030.”

Canada Growth Fund being, of course, a bloated “arms-length”, as in unaccountable, fund with $15 billion to spend on shiny objects related to the fabled green energy transition.

Actually, as Robert Lyman has observed, these “contracts for difference” are guarantees that if some future government changes the policy structure around carbon capture, it will have to keep paying out in accordance with the previous policy. But it’s all a bargain, right?

Well, no. The Guardian, rather unexpectedly, says “Drax gets go-ahead for carbon capture project at estimated £40bn cost to bill-payers/ Scheme to convert biomass units could become one of world’s most expensive energy projects, experts say”.

Oh my. That’s a lot of money. What happened? Well, the government likes “carbon capture” and it controls energy bills so Bob’s your uncle:

“Drax has received permission from the government to fit carbon capture technology to its wood-burning power plant, in a project that could cost bill-payers more than £40bn. The energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, on Tuesday approved the project to convert two of its biomass units to use the technology. Analysts have predicted that the revamp of the North Yorkshire site could be one of the most expensive energy projects in the world.”

One of the most expensive in the world? Some green energy transition this is turning into. And speaking of Bob being your uncle, or in this case Jean-Pierre being your dad, Climate Home News reports that a big promoter of carbon offset markets is Eve Bazaiba, environment minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But for some reason:

“a carbon offset company in the DRC is owned by the grown-up children of the leader of her political party – controversial defence minister Jean-Pierre Bemba.”

Controversial being a word here referring to war crimes charges and corruption.

Then there’s this item also from Climate Home News, further muddying the math:

“Stories of big polluters hiding their climate credentials behind dodgy carbon credits are nothing new. They usually go like this: company X buys offsets, experts say they’re junk, company X replies ‘hey, this top certifier assures us they are great’. Rinse and repeat. This week we’ve written about something worse. On January 9, Shell quietly used over a million offsets despite knowing that the certifier doubts them.”

And we’re not done.

Finally the original piece gets to not knowing whether we will “electrify all our cars” by 2050. For our part we know, or are willing to bet, that we won’t. We also don’t know that we “need” to electrify our cars, a hyped-up word that implies that someone somewhere understands that if 10% of American cars still ran on gasoline it would be the margin between victory and defeat in the fight to save Earth from spontaneous combustion.

Nor do they know how much CO2 China will be producing in 2050. Or anything. It’s a bunch of hooey.

They also don’t know what would happen to the weather if they did suck out all the CO2 the US has added to the atmosphere since 1950, or 1988, or 2024 or whatever. Or all the CO2 everyone has, if that’s the plan. (If not, then it won’t matter what the U.S. does any more than what Switzerland does.) They don’t know how the temperature will change, or the weather, because their models are useless at prediction.

So now the “Rhodium group” comes along and saves the day. See it has this report that:

“attempts to narrow the range of this uncertainty so that policymakers can better attack the problem. The authors looked at a handful of different decarbonization roadmaps for the U.S. and found that the minimum amount of carbon removal needed to compensate for residual emissions in 2050 is 1 gigaton, which is the same as one billion metric tons, or a 20x increase from where current policies will get us. It’s also equal to about 20% of the carbon that the U.S. emitted last year. ‘There’s a very likely scenario where we need a lot more than that,’ said Larsen. ‘There’s scenarios where we need less. But most of the studies out there say at least a gigaton.’”

And no sum is too high to pay for that kind of precision. Seriously:

“Even if it’s only a rough estimate, landing on a number is useful, he told me. Rhodium Group spends a lot of time answering questions about, for example, what some new policy means for achieving Biden’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030. ‘I don’t know if we’d get those questions if there wasn’t a 50% target to shoot for,’ he said. ‘So I think this way, people can be like, what does this next wave of policy support for CDR do for getting the U.S. on track for a gigaton?’”

They can be like that. And we can be like dude who knows? “On track for a gigaton.” This word salad is the precise state of U.S. climate science and economics. Apparently it will all cost $100 billion, including the set-aside for toe of frog.

5 comments on “It went into the ground”

  1. I'm no believer in the need for net zero, and recent research by Roy Spenser et al is another nail in that "climate crisis mantra" coffin. However there are credible attempts by IEA, Shell scenarios, my own calculations (credible you say?) that indicate the need for some 7-10 Gt/annum. Mind you, that assumes the radical transition to about 20% fossil fuel for energy (versus 80+% today) by 2050, itself practially impossible in that time-frame. Such projections are of course also rife with some Rose-coloured views of the carbon footprint of the "greener" energy sources. By example, BC uses the IPCC approved CO2E emission factor of 0.024 kg/kWh for hydro, wheras a study of 1600 hydro dams worldwide put it at an average of 0.177 due to Hydro's dirty little secret....methane emissions. It's all statistical roulette.

  2. It amazes me that anyone not on the green payroll sees one iota of credibility in any of this carbon capture and sequester nonsense. Here in corn country, we have knuckleheads trying to build CO2 pipelines from ethanol plants (an early-stage surefire cure for carbon dioxide) to....wait for it.....transport the CO2 to the oil pumping operations in the Dakotas to pressurize the wells so they can pump more oil?!?! I have spoken to these....people.... they want to charge the ethanol plants $.025 per pound and receive $.05 per pound subsidies from "the government" to transport the CO2 to the oil fields where they will give it to the oil companies?!?! I suggested that they instead sell that CO2 to the industrial gas industries who would happily build purification and liquefaction plants by the Mississippi River where the CO2 is needed. They refused, when I pointed out that the CO2 that is pumped into the oil fields does not stay in the oil fields because, you know, the drills put holes in the rock they answered that the ethanol plants will not be fined for CO2 emissions. Sheesh! Please John, tell me again how this is not a fraud!

  3. Carbon sequestering is uncertainies piled on top of uncertainties,as this article shows.And is the same green subsidy game that we've been seeing
    for years with renewables,at the expense of the taxpayer.And even some oil companies are joining the fray,in an attempt to somehow appease the
    Climate Industrial Complex.Try to look like they're "doing something" to reduce carbon emissions.But the Eco-Thugs still want us to practically
    revert to Stone Age living standards,and shut down fossil fuels,no matter what that industry does.

  4. I rather thought the whole point of converting Drax to burn wood chips was that its CO2 emissions didn't then count. if they are going to capture CO2, they might as well burn coal, and save all the non-renewable CO2 emissions involved in making and transporting woodchips across the Atlantic!

  5. Thank you Ian. Splendid logic that had not yet passed between my ears. I am still struggling with the earlier piece where a commenter stated that the earth has warmed a deg over a given time so of course the OLR is 2% more and the CO2 theory states that OLR will decrease and cause the warming! Regret my between ear space is again challenged.

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