Why Carbon Capture is Not Enough


Climate Change is a Waste Management Problem

The world hasn’t been very successful at dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions with existing technologies, so what could be wrong with a proposal to reframe climate change in order to make carbon capture a more feasible solution? In fact, investing in a broad suite of technologies to mitigate climate change is critical. But the reframing of the problem proposed by Klaus S. Lackner and Christophe Jospe in “Climate Change is a Waste Management Problem” (Issues, Spring 2017) highlights a serious misunderstanding of the reasons why stopping climate change has been so difficult.

Their main argument is that framing carbon emissions as a waste management problem akin to trash or sewage disposal, rather than as a typical pollution problem, will cut some Gordian knot. But it’s precisely because carbon dioxide is not like a typical waste problem that people have not been more motivated to find solutions.

With a waste problem such as garbage or sewage, the impact on your personal well-being and health is immediate and very tangible. If your home has trash and raw sewage piling up, you will be affected by the sight and smell very quickly, as well as face an increased risk of getting sick. But regarding carbon dioxide, we exhale it 24 hours a day, it cannot be seen or felt, and in reality it doesn’t have any immediate effect on public health or personal well-being. Even for the longer-term effects of climate change, most people won’t viscerally feel them. For example, a recent poll by Yale Climate Opinion Maps found that roughly 60% of people in the United States were concerned about global warming, but only 40% thought it would harm them personally. Moreover, we don’t know how many of those 40% would be willing to pay to prevent harm, with economic surveys suggesting that most US residents aren’t willing to pay the full social cost of carbon.

More important, paying to reduce your own personal carbon emissions doesn’t actually prevent you from bearing the effects of climate change, since it’s a global problem. If you want to pay to protect yourself from direct effects, you might buy homeowners insurance or move out of areas prone to natural disasters. But unlike with sewage treatment, you cannot pay for local climate mitigation that will clearly benefit you.

While Lackner and Jospe give some rough estimates of the cost for carbon air-capture technology and make optimistic promises that the cost will come down, they give no estimate of the cost or feasibility of storing the carbon. They do note that all storage technologies besides geologic storage are too expensive or impractical. Yet large-scale geologic storage has begun to be used at only a few sites and only in the past two to three years. Will the carbon stay underground? Is the technology safe? Is it affordable? Will the public trust it? We have no idea.

The authors repeatedly insist that a major benefit of the waste framework is that it “does not require top-down coordination and management.” But in most developed countries, all other disposal systems, such as for trash and sewage, are run entirely by the state and are affordable only because they are mandatory.

They also state that “Nobody can buy a house today without a sanctioned method for sewage handling, and household garbage must be properly disposed of.” This ignores the fact that 60% of the global population lacks access to flush toilets or proper sewage disposal. Even though the immediate benefits of sewage systems are clear, they are still unaffordable to a majority of the world’s population.

All solutions to climate change have their shortcomings. Most important, air capture of carbon dioxide doesn’t solve all of the other detrimental effects of energy production on public health and the environment, such as land use change and air and water pollution. Air capture may eventually be an affordable way to remove carbon dioxide (and maybe other greenhouse gases) from the atmosphere, but it does nothing to keep heavy metals, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, or coal ash produced during the energy-production cycle from entering air and water supplies. Developing and expanding clean energy sources such as nuclear and renewables, improving energy efficiency, and driving electric vehicles do reduce these other environmental impacts, which are in many ways much more tangible and immediate concerns to the public.

For carbon capture to work, it will need a better business model than relying on wealthy elites to voluntarily pay for their waste streams. The authors hint that there may be ways to make money from using the carbon, and that seems like a more feasible commercialization pathway for carbon air-capture technology.

We will almost certainly need carbon capture and storage as part of the solution to deep decarbonization. But as long as we’re reframing climate change, we should do so in a way that actually makes the solutions more feasible, not less.

Director of Energy

Communications Director

The Breakthrough Institute

Oakland, California

Cite this Article

“Why Carbon Capture is Not Enough.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (Summer 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer 2017