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May 13, 2022

Climate change: Why we cannot rely on technology to reverse it

Combating climate change is often viewed as a political, rather than scientific, problem.

It is true that scientists have a phenomenal understanding of the causes of climate change. In addition, increasing investment in renewable energy sources is certainly a political conundrum. However, few people are suggesting that we should stop building houses using carbon-intensive materials such as steel and cement or arguing for an end to global trade that is heavily reliant on dirty shipping.

These energy-intensive, dirty industries still require scientific innovation to decarbonize. Carbon capture and storage is a vital component. Therefore, the net-zero transition remains a scientific problem. Viewing it purely as a political issue will lead to unfounded tech optimism.

Carbon capture and storage

The net zero transition will require both the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and the capture of carbon dioxide before it is emitted. In climate change terminology, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is the process of removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves capturing carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere.

CDR techniques are often long-term and include reforestation, wetland restoration, as well as direct air capture. CCS involves a complex engineering process to capture, transport, and store carbon dioxide at large industrial facilities.

Carbon capture and storage is not a silver bullet for climate change

For many, carbon capture and storage is seen as a silver bullet that will enable industries to continue business as usual. It will certainly be necessary to continue producing steel, cement, and certain chemicals. These carbon-intensive industries will struggle to decarbonize in time to limit global warming to below 2°C.

However, industries that can decarbonize now must do so. The electrical grid is one such example. Using CCS as a justification to keep fossil fuel power plants open when clean, financially viable alternatives exist amounts to kicking the can down the road.

Crucially, the idea that technology will save the climate is diminishing the requirement to reduce emissions now. It is too easy to think a tech solution like CCS can be applied everywhere. This will prolong the time in which we emit carbon dioxide and is detracting from renewable energy investment.

Carbon capture may never be profitable

The issues with carbon capture and storage are not confined to purely technological ones. In this sense, there are many parallels to draw between recycling and CCS. The first plastic recycling mill opened in 1972. Since then, we have accelerated our use of plastic. It has remained cheaper for companies to use virgin plastic, rather than invest in plastic recycling themselves.

CCS has also been in operation since 1972. It is also currently not financially viable for heavy industries to use CCS at scale. The technological challenge is to reduce the cost of CCS so that companies can employ it while maintaining a profitable business model.

Governments worldwide have failed to ensure that manufacturers recycle the materials they use. Governments now must increase the incentive for companies to capture the carbon dioxide that they emit at its source. This can be done by using carbon dioxide for other purposes or increasing the value of carbon credits.

Hard, bold decisions await us on climate change

The political issue we face is to convince politicians that science will not provide all the answers. The plethora of challenges means we cannot rely on technology such as CCS to solve climate change. Doing so may have catastrophic consequences.

The Blue Marble image of Earth was also taken by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. Historian Robert Poole wrote that the image shifted thought “towards a model of the Earth as an evolving environment, conditioned by life and alterable by human activity.” We need to make hard, bold decisions in the short term with long-term positives to save this environment.