Mar 27, 2016 by



This is the 3rd in a four-part post on using ecosystems to store carbon. Part 1 was about the need to bring the Earth’s carbon cycle back into balance. Part 2 discussed how restoring carbon sinks is a necessary part of America’s climate action plan. In this part, I describe why we should not always choose a technical fix to solve environmental problems.


The late American critic Lawrence Clark Powell noted, “We are the children of the technological age”. He might have added that like children, we run to technology when we have a problem. We want a technical fix.

A technical fix has appeal because it allows people to continue business as usual without the usual consequences — to keep doing what we’ve always done, but with less cost or damage. Technical fixes are especially attractive to special interests that want to preserve the status quo and to elected leaders who would rather avoid telling supporters that their behaviors must change.

That has been the case with global warming. The solution is simple in concept: Stop putting CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and remove some of the CO2 that’s already there. The question is whether these are best accomplished with technical fixes or with behavioral fixes.

The obvious way to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere, for example, is to stop burning fossil fuels. Instead, the federal government and the coal industry have spent years of research and billions of taxpayer dollars trying to develop a technical fix that would keep the coal industry alive in a carbon-constrained world. The fix is known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or CCS. It is probably one of the reasons we have not developed an off-ramp from our dependence on the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

If there were no cleaner ways to generate electricity, then continuing investments in coal might be the price we have to pay for progress. But there are benign alternatives that allow us to produce power without the pollution that causes climate change. The money and talent we are investing in CCS could be used to expedite the word’s conversion to clean power. Instead, we are spending it to help the coal industry continue doing what it has always done but with less damage.

Let’s step back and look at this more closely. In theory, coal plants equipped with CCS would trap CO2 before it escapes into the air (this is the capture part), then transport it to a place with suitable geology and bury the gas underground, hopefully forever (the storage part). The expectation is that CCS would eliminate as much as 90% of the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. When the coal industry uses the oxymoronic term “clean coal”, it means CCS combined with the industry’s compliance with other pollution limits required by law.

Many energy analysts and planners are bullish about this fix. Billions of the world’s people still have no electricity; getting them access to power is considered essential to ending poverty. One recent assessment reported by McKinsey & Company predicts that coal will still provide a third of the world’s electricity by 2040, while renewable resources will contribute only 17%.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) projections are about the same. It calculates that CCS could take care of 14% of the reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions necessary to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That’s the minimum goal codified in the international climate agreement reached in Paris last December.

But what will the price of “clean coal” be? Despite the years of research and spending, CCS is not yet ready for large-scale commercialization. So, part of the price is further delays in the urgent job of cutting emissions. Electric customers will pay a significant price: Researchers say that CCS would add between 35% and 80% to consumer electric bills initially, and only slightly less in the long term.

Power plants equipped with CCS would increase water withdrawals by 83% to 91% depending on the type of technology used to generate electricity. That makes CCS problematic in arid and drought-affected places and in places where power production must compete with agriculture and city water consumption.

Then there’s the problem of permanently sequestering the CO2, which is toxic in high concentrations. The plan is to inject the gas into sprawling underground storage sites. That would not be without controversy. Rather than NIMBY (not in my backyard) there would be NUMBY (not under my back yard). CCS could be to coal what Yucca Mountain is to nuclear power: dangerous wastes without a home.

Even if that barrier could be overcome, coal burning produces other dangerous wastes including the slurry left from washing coal and the ash left from burning it. And there are still the multiple environmental damages of coal-mining processes such as “mountain top removal” in Appalachia.

The cost-benefit analysis becomes even more clear when “clean coal” is compared to the alternatives that do not have these complications. Coal is naturally dirty; solar and wind power are pollution free. Coal slurry and ash have been responsible for disastrous accidents; but as one slogan puts it, a solar spill is called a sunny day. Coal reserves aren’t easy to reach; solar and wind power are ubiquitous and there for the taking.

Although there are still large underground coal reserves, we may not be able to use them even with CCS if we need a zero-carbon energy mix to fend off catastrophic global warming. So coal supplies are finite, but renewable resources last forever. Then there’s the cost issue. Will more expensive coal-fired electricity be able to compete with solar and wind power, which are rapidly becoming less expensive than even conventional coal power. And how will the world’s poor afford electricity from big power plants with transmission systems and the water consumption of CCS?

The most fundamental question is this: Should we continue investing time and money in a limited and expensive technical fix that still does not eliminate carbon pollution? Or should we go all-in for energy efficiency and zero-carbon renewable energy, permanent ways to confront climate change that will not require another disruptive energy transition in the future? It is a $48 trillion question – the amount of money the IEA says we will need to spend on global energy development by 2035.

Similar questions come up in regard to the other part of formula for reducing the risks of climate change: restoring the Earth’s carbon balance by removing some of the carbon dioxide that already is in the atmosphere. Bringing the carbon cycle back into balance is a big task, but the international community has agreed to accomplish it in the second half of this century.

Predictably, the conversation has turned to a technical fix called geo-engineering, defined as the “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change”.

One of the largest geo-engineering experiments related to carbon storage was conducted in 2009, when researchers from India and Germany dumped six tons of an iron solution into the South Atlantic to encourage the growth of phytoplankton, tiny plants that absorb carbon like other vegetation does. The experience had limited success.

We do not know what the consequences would be from this “large scale intervention in the earth’s natural systems”. What we do know is that nature already has ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it – the soils, forests, grasslands and wetlands called “carbon sinks”. While there is more to learn about the performance of these systems, we know they work. They have been thoroughly tested over billions of years.

Unfortunately, many of the sinks have been degraded or destroyed by human development. It makes sense to restore them to their full carbon-storing potential before we engage in geo-engineering, especially because the natural carbon sinks provide an enormous array of additional ecosystem services. Ecosystem restoration offers us the chance to prove we can be as good at creating positive externalities as we have been at creating negative ones.

But allowing ecosystems to store carbon will require changes in our behaviors and practices. It will require that we be good stewards. Farmers would have to manage soils differently; ranchers would have to change their livestock’s grazing practices; cities would have to plant more trees and create more green spaces. The good news is that in addition to the long-term payoff of greater climate stability, these changes have short-term payoffs ranging from less fuel and fertilizer use to healthier pasturelands and animals, to cooler summers in cities.

Before the word “luddite” comes up, I want to be clear: A technical fix can be the best approach to confronting a challenge. But whenever possible, it should be used in partnership with rather than in place of natural systems. All it requires is the willingness to change some of our behaviors and the humility to acknowledge that nature may be able to do a better job.

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