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Recycling Carbon?

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 May 2016

Guest commentary by Tony Patt, ETH Zürich

This morning I was doing my standard reading of the New York Times, which is generally on the good side with climate reporting, and saw the same old thing: an article about a potential solution, which just got the story wrong, at least incomplete. The particular article was about new technologies for converting CO2 into liquid fuels. These could be important if they are coupled with air capture of CO2, and if the energy that fuels them is renewable: this could be the only realistic way of producing large quantities of liquid fuel with no net CO2 emissions, large enough (for example) to supply the aviation sector. But the article suggested that this technology could make coal-fired power plants sustainable, because it would recycle the carbon. Of course that is wrong: to achieve the 2°C target we need to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy system by 100% in about 50 years, and yet the absolute best that a one-time recycling of carbon can do is to reduce the carbon intensity of the associated systems by 50%.

The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncritical, often misleading media coverage of the technological pathways and government policies for climate mitigation. As with the above story, the most common are those suggesting that approaches that result in a marginal reduction of emissions will solve the problem, and fail to ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%. There are also countless articles suggesting that the one key policy instrument that we need to solve the problem is a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. We know, from two decades of social-science research, that these instruments do work to bring about marginal reductions in emissions, largely by stimulating improvements in efficiency. We also know that, at least so far, they have done virtually nothing to stimulate investment in the more sweeping changes in energy infrastructure that are needed to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels as the backbone of our system, and hence reduce emissions by 100%. We also know that other policy instruments have worked to stimulate these kinds of changes, at least to a limited extent. One thing we don’t know is what combination of policies could work to bring about the changes fast enough in the future. That is why this is an area of vigorous social science research. Just as there are large uncertainties in the climate system, there are large uncertainties in the climate solution system, and misreporting on these uncertainties can easily mislead us.

It’s fantastic that web sites like Real Climate and Climate Feedback re out there to clear some of the popular misconceptions about how the climate system functions. But if we care about actually solving the problem of climate change, then we also need to work continuously to clear the misconceptions, arising every day, about the strategies to take us there.

Anthony Patt is professor at the ETH in Zurich; his research focuses on climate policy

95 Responses to “Recycling Carbon?”

  1. 1
    Omega Centauri says:

    Most of these misunderstanding, such as the fact that using the carbon twice isn’t a solution, don’t exactly require a degree in rocket (er-climate) science. Anyone with an understanding of high school math ought to be able to figure these sorts of things out. Some things which improve carbon efficiency might actually make a permanent solution harder to come by, as first they breed complacency, then potentially dependence on the non-sustainable stop-gap measure.

    Of course there are variations, use twice can morph into use thrice (i.e. recycle the carbon from the second use as well), but you will never get to a leakproof system.

    A variation is capturing smokestack carbon and making some non fuel-like product such as building materials from them. Two long term problems still exist. The most obvious is the eventual fate of the carbon after the useful life of the product. The other is scalability, our current volume of carbon burning is several cubic miles per year, demand for a few specialty products will be orders of magnitude less than this.

    What is really needed, is an “ask a scientist before publishing” service, that they aren’t too embarrassed to consult.

  2. 2
    Dan Miller says:

    While using carbon capture to provide CO2 for liquid fuels is indeed only a marginal solution, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) with the captured CO2 being injected back under ground or turned into an inert solid does provide (nearly) 100% reduction in emissions.

    But it is improper to claim that a carbon tax will not lead to significant carbon capture. Virtually all of the carbon taxes/fees that exist today are less than the ~$100/ton-CO2 that would be need to economically justify current systems. And systems on the horizon will achieve ~$40/ton in-the-ground but they too are too expensive for current (and geographically-limited) carbon fees.

    But if we put a rising fee on the CO2 content of fossil fuels, say starting at $10/ton and rising $10 every year (and provide a credit for certified sequestration) we will provide incentives for development and deployment of CCS and, eventually, “air capture” systems. Such a carbon fee will also drive investment, development, and deployment of clean energy systems and energy efficiency systems.

    Of course the public will not be happy with a $100/ton carbon tax if the money collected goes to the government or is used to reduce corporate taxes (that would be very regressive too). But they would support a high carbon fee if all the money collected is distributed to every legal resident on an equal basis. Most people, except the rich who produce more than their share of CO2, would make money on that deal!

    Here is my TEDx talk on this “Fee and Dividend” policy:

    Just like an incremental approach to carbon emissions won’t help us avoid catastrophe, an incremental approach to carbon fees (with a $10 to $20/ton fee) won’t cut it either. We need a carbon fee that goes to $100/ton and keeps climbing until fossil fuels become completely non-competitive (or until air capture can completely offset their use).

  3. 3
    patrick says:

    Thank you for weighing in with this timely and important post. I hope you will do more like this. Thanks for your expertise and leadership and the close attention you give to matters like this (among others). The sanity, balance, cautions, and context you give are exemplary. The writer of the article in question has no particular expertise as a writer on climate science, I think.

  4. 4
    Nemesis says:

    ” converting CO2 into liquid fuels”

    Hahaha, while they can’t/want even manage to reduce CO2 emissions on a grand scale, they dream of techno-fixes all days, to keep the fatal ride going at any cost.

    ” The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncritical, often misleading media coverage of the technological pathways and government policies for climate mitigation. As with the above story, the most common are those suggesting that approaches that result in a marginal reduction of emissions will solve the problem, and fail to ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%.”

    Yes, that’s exactly the way it is. The capitalist dream of “anything goes” will finally turn out as a nightmare. Well, here’s another techno-joke, China wants a fleet of floating nuclear power plants:

  5. 5
    Mitch says:

    Besides the failure to achieve the actual amount of carbon reduction needed it is clear that carbon capture isn’t really economically feasible without some cost being placed on carbon emissions. Ironically, such a cost would add to the cost of a coal plant with carbon capture because the cost of emission will always be positive, since not all carbon can be captured.

  6. 6
    Hank Roberts says:

    … ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%

    Bravo. Thank you.

  7. 7
    Russell says:

    Acme Products reports its new Alberta Cartoon Capture R&D center was destroyed yesterday when a forest fire ignited its protective tar sand berms.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Scott says:

    Not sure I agree it even needs to be 100%, not to mention getting to 100% is significantly more difficult. Stocks of an active system are determined by both current stocks and the net fluxes in addition to both reinforcing feedbacks and stabilizing feedbacks.

    You seem to be describing a simple system not a complex system. Like filling a bucket with water that has no drain.

    The carbon cycle on the planet has both sinks and sources. You can in fact put a drain on that bucket and still have a certain amount of water filling it. Likewise we don’t necessarily have to reduce emissions 100%, unless we do nothing to sequester carbon.

    Since the soils of the planet are in horrible shape generally, and need a large amount of carbon added to them long term to restore soil health, I think instead 1/2 the effort and resources committed to reducing emissions should be put into restoring this sink.

    That actually is doable with todays technology levels IMHO.

  10. 10
    Michael Sweet says:

    It is clear that replacing coal with natural gas will never get us to zero emissions. That is a good point.

    I would like to see an expanded post on successful strategies for replacing fossil fuels with renewable ones. Dan Miller’s post above makes sense to me, but the OP seems to dislike a carbon tax. I would like to see an expanded post that has time to address the weaknesses of a raising carbon tax and suggests other strategies that might be more successful. From a policy standpoint which possible roads look most promising?

    Real CLimate posts are always a relief to read since they often add clarity to the mass of opinion available on the internet.

  11. 11
    Greg Simpson says:

    Floating nuclear reactors by China are potentially an excellent idea. Those states deemed too unstable to own reactors could buy their power from China long term. Since this would not emit carbon dioxide it would be a good target for subsidies.

  12. 12
    AIC says:

    These schemes for re-using CO2 are akin to perpetual motion machines. Is the CO2 going to be endlessly re-used?
    A small amount of CO2 could be utilized for synthesizing useful organic compounds, but beyond that it is a fantasy. Energy spent powering this endothermic reaction could be better spent generating electricity for use directly.

  13. 13
    Tyj says:

    “…carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. We know, from two decades of social-science research, that these instruments do work to bring about marginal reductions in emissions, largely by stimulating improvements in efficiency.” This is due to the fact that a carbon tax would only effect those who couldn’t afford it, and not those that could. Other than that, your post was very well written. And it’s no surprise to anyone that the media can often be misleading.

  14. 14
    John Monro says:

    Thank you for your post to this site. The NY Times article seems contains quite a collection of the memes of techno triumphalism. The regenerative process of converting water and CO2 to plant and woody mass and then burning it is humanity’s original energy cycle. The likelihood of being able to scrub atmospheric CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it to some sort of burnable fuel more efficiently than forests already do seems remote. But in any case, it doesn’t solve the problem, as long as we keep burning fossil fuels we will continue to increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere, whether “re-use” some of it or indeed all of it (unless we can extract CO2 at source and bury it away underground for millions of years).

    The give-away for me is the explanation that lots of “renewable energy” will be required to make the process work. I think the writer needs some lessons in the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

    The serious dysfunction in energy matters is not in the science or technology, but in the in the collective consciousness of humanity. As for instance, a country like Australia, with it’s inexhaustible supplies of solar energy, still burning coal and gas for 90% of its electricity generation, or my country, New Zealand, with it’s small population and it’s plentiful hydro, geothermal, wind and solar resources, that says it can’t generate 100% of its power by renewables, yet Norway and Iceland already nearly do this . In the UK where insulation standards for new buildings are pitiful, or again in NZ where we’re spending humungous amounts of money on new motorways, or the USA where spending on railways is derisory, and where several trillion dollars of “quantitive easing” has produced no economic gain whatsoever, whereas 0.5 trillion dollars could have constructed a solar facility in the south-west which could supply 80% of your power needs…….

    As Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything” posits, the triumphant political and economic dogma of “neoliberalism” has been the biggest stumbling block of all as wealth allied to power and self-interest continues to demolish science and concern.

    We will only begin to deal with global warming when we change our politics and our economics and begin to approach the problem with the same urgency and spirit of community as was harnessed in fighting Nazism and Japanese imperialism in the Second World War. But it seems it’s harder to envisage this than it is to envisage a working thirty billion tonne CO2 to energy machine.

  15. 15
    David B. Benson says:

    As I have mentioned several times previously, a sure way to capture carbon dioxide is to grow lots of trees. One proposal is to use irrigation to afforest the Sahara Desert, most of it, and much of the Australian outback
    Len Ornstein is the first author on a peer reviewed paper considering this possibility.

  16. 16
    Omega Centauri says:

    These sorts of schemes, such as using the carbon twice, create a lot of scope for carbon accounting tricks. The organization using the recycled carbon can claim to have zero emissions, because the first use was responsible for making the CO2, while the first user (the power plant), can claim the CO2 isn’t their fault because they captured it for another use. Humans are really bad at recognizing systems level effects, but are very good at rationalizing their own innocence.

  17. 17

    This is due to the fact that a carbon tax would only effect those who couldn’t afford it, and not those that could.

    No. Sensitivity to price does not magically stop at some arbitrary level of ‘can afford it.’ Even billionaires like a ‘deal’–and dislike ‘losing’ on price, even if the scale of their expenditures is vastly inflated by normal standards.

    The marginal effects of carbon taxes/fees/markets so far have been largely due to timidity in setting the levels at which they were imposed. The EU carbon market set allowances way too high, so carbon prices collapsed–or at least, that’s my opinion. Apparently, there’s debate:

  18. 18
    Peter Papesch, AIA says:

    At a meeting with David Cash, former Undersecretary of Massachusetts EOEEA and current Dean of the UMassBoston McCormack Grad. School of Policy and Global Studies, David pointed to the difficulties but also successes of getting a “cow power” plant authorized in Massachusetts. What emerged from the ensuing discussion was the fact that public utilities regulations (a major set of hurdles for “cow power”) represent a major hurdle for the permissions needed by any such plant (or similar renewable energy plants).

    When we consider that power demand represents such a huge portion of any economy worldwide, addressing utility regulations becomes a formidable lever to reach Tony Patt’s 100% CO2 reduction goal. More on the subject in Dr. Patt’s “Transforming Energy”, where he emphasizes policy formulations as the primary such lever.

  19. 19
    Scott Strough says:

    Michael @ 10 said,
    “I would like to see an expanded post that has time to address the weaknesses of a raising carbon tax and suggests other strategies that might be more successful. From a policy standpoint which possible roads look most promising?”

    David @ 15 said,
    “As I have mentioned several times previously, a sure way to capture carbon dioxide is to grow lots of trees. One proposal is to use irrigation to afforest the Sahara Desert, most of it, and much of the Australian outback”

    Your alternative solution David seems to parallel Freeman Dyson’s geoengineering “solution” of just plant more trees.There are many reasons this won’t work, but the basic one is that planting trees increases stocks, but doesn’t stabilize fluxes. Using the bucket analogy I posted above @9, you have a created a bigger bucket, but still a bucket with no drain. It helps temporarily … until the new bigger bucket gets full. We call that Saturation. It’s a temporary fix that helps, but it is not a long term solution.

    However, maybe even accidently, You & Dyson might have stumbled onto something that can solve AGW to the benefit of all.

    It comes down to the carbon cycle and the CO2 fertilization effect. Dyson is correct BTW that there is more carbon in the soil than in biomass and atmosphere combined. Also correct about the fertilization effect on plant growth. This is what is called a stabilizing feedback. The debunkers of Dyson are also correct about the increasing emissions from the labile fraction of soil carbon as temperature increases. Called a reinforcing feedback.

    Here is where it gets interesting. BOTH You and Dyson AND the vast majority of the Dyson debunking sources have focused on the wrong biome. It is NOT the forest plants that have the capability to mitigate AGW. It’s the grassland/savanna biome that actually can be a forcing for global cooling, and counter the current global warming trend.

    In a forest, the stabilizing feedbacks and the reinforcing feedbacks largely counter each other, and little is done long term to mitigate rising CO2 levels. Once you reach that saturation point you are done. But grasslands sequester carbon very differently than forests. Most grassland carbon is not sequestered in biomass, nor labile carbon in the top O horizon of the soil, but rather the newly discovered liquid carbon pathway.

    Most terrestrial biosphere carbon storage is in grassland (mollic) soils. Where trees store most their products of photosynthesis in woody biomass, grasslands instead of producing a woody tree truck, secrete excess products of photosynthesis (exudates) to feed the soil food web, especially mycorrhizal fungi. Those fungi (AMF) in turn secrete a newly discovered compound called glomalin deep in the soil profile. Glomalin itself has a 1/2 life of 7–42 years if left undisturbed. The deepest deposits even longer with a 1/2 life of 300 years or more in the right conditions. Then when it does degrade a large % forms humic polymers that tightly bind to the soil mineral substrate and can last thousands of years undisturbed. Together they all form what is called a mollic epipedon. That’s your really good deep fertile soils of the world and they contain far more carbon, even in their highly degraded state currently, than all the terrestrial biomass and atmospheric CO2 put together. This LCP is what built those famously deep and fertile midwest soils.

    Even though wood is resistant to decay, the biomass of forests is still considered part of the active carbon cycle (labile carbon) That litter layer on the forest floor is relatively shallow, and most that decay ends up back in the atmosphere, unless locked in some kind of peat bog or permafrost. Not much of either in the Sahara or the Outback. Tightly bound soil carbon in a mollic epipedon is considered differently than the labile carbon pool. It is the stable fraction of soil carbon, and grassland biomes pump 30% or more of their total products of photosynthesis into this liquid carbon pathway.

    The importance of this recent discovery of the Liquid Carbon Pathway (photosynthesis-root exudates-mycorrhizal fungi-glomalin-humic polymers-mollic epipedon) to climate science AND agriculture can not be stressed enough.

    So while specifically Dyson was wrong, he has identified in the most general terms the pathway forward. “Plants” is too general. Forests is categorically wrong, although we still need them for their rapid buffering capability on climate as well as many other important ecosystem services, not to mention lumber. But the forcing of CO2 mitigation long term comes from the grassland biome, now largely under agricultural management and that is plants after all. You got the wrong plants and the wrong soils, but you did hit on the right concept.

    The real question is can this mitigation strategy work within the conservative ideals Michael asked about so that a political coalition between both liberals and conservatives can be made to devise a plan acceptable to both? it is pretty obvious that a carbon tax has and will continue to meet with opposition.

    I believe it is possible, yes. But certain areas will take dramatic change for that to happen. Most importantly energy and agriculture. Right now both those sectors have already overgrown what can be sustained. Quite predictable since they were never really sustainable since the industrial revolution anyway. Just took a while for people to realise it.

    For it to happen though, agriculture production models will need to be changed to regenerative systems, energy will need technological fixes like solar and nuclear etc. and overall since population has already exceeded environmental capacity, a large amount of ecosystem recovery projects will be needed as well. So yeah, reforesting can be a part where appropriate. All of these are possible, however I personally believe they are unlikely to happen given social and institutional inertia.

    My focus is on agriculture. Having studied it quite intensely for years, I believe we currently have the ability to fix that one. Only a few minor gaps remain. I can only hope others committed to the other two big ones meet with similar success. But then comes the hard part, actually doing what we know how to do before these unsustainable systems currently in effect start failing world wide, collapsing even our ability to do what we know how to do! That’s the actual tricky part. It looks like the people here at RealClimate have the other two well in hand.

    For example, if agriculture fails before we fully institute regenerative models and the infrastructure changes needed, civilization collapses. Not much going to be done about it then. AGW will see to it that all three will fail if changes are not done soon enough. Once again with the potential to collapse civilization, or at least many nations including ours. Again making it near impossible to implement what we already know how to do.

    So how do we institute the changes needed in a free market economic base beneficial to mitigating AGW?

    The other experts on this site have the energy and ecosystem down pretty good actually. That leaves the most important leg, agriculture. The answer may be more simple than you think. The rise of “king corn” can be seen as a direct result of a series of changes in agriculture instituted by Earl Lauer Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Most important to this policy change was the Buffer stock scheme (ever full granary) combined with urgings to farmers to “get big or get out”. Which happened by the way. Now there is actually a crisis from too few family farmers, average age being 60. That lead to huge surpluses which we then were able to successfully use for many purposes, including major grain sales to Russia and China and many humanitarian aid projects.

    Something has changed though. Now China has opened up beef sales. This is a value added commodity over grain. It makes more sense to drop the buffer stock scheme on grain, and instead I propose a buffer stock scheme on grass fed beef instead. You can do this on the same amount of subsidies that we currently use for grain, and instead put them on restoring the great prairies/steppes/savannas of the world….raising beef. This would positively affect carbon sequestration, pesticide use, erosion, seasonal dead zones in our productive coastal waters, biodiversity, energy budget, economic growth, international trade balance, rural economic development, etc… AND if done properly, as many case studies at the USDA-SARE & USDA-NRCS clearly show, even increase total yields of food for humans.

    So to fully answer Michael, instead of adding a carbon tax, one way to solve this is simply change what we subsidize. No need for new taxes. In agriculture instead of a buffer stock scheme on king corn, a buffer stock scheme on carbon being sequestered in soils. Just redirect the same amount of funds away from one to the other. Same goes for energy. Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies worldwide amounted to $493 billion in 2014, with subsidies to oil products representing over half of the total. Those subsidies were over four-times the value of subsidies to renewable energy. Simply redirect the subsidies for fossil fuels over to renewables. Doesn’t need to cost one penny more.

    The idea that we are still subsidizing AGW, while trying to find solutions to AGW is quite frankly ridiculous. Goes to the wise old saying, “A house divided against itself can not stand.”

    PS Apologies to some here that have seen a portion of this on other threads. Not trying to repeat myself too much, but the relevant parts of my posts that apply here I have stated on other threads. Just needed some context so as to not lose the logic train of thought. Some might not have visited the other threads and wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

  20. 20
    Nemesis says:

    @Greg Simpson, #11

    ” Floating nuclear reactors by China are potentially an excellent idea. Those states deemed too unstable to own reactors could buy their power from China long term. Since this would not emit carbon dioxide it would be a good target for subsidies.”

    Ha, the nuclear ghost again!^^ I live in Germany. As you might know, Germany decided to get out of the nulear mess. Why? Well, ugly Fukushima was the initial incidence. But there are several more reasons:

    The nuclear industry is widely connected to the fossil fuel industry and it is even connected to the Mafia:

    Nuclear energy had been greatly subsidized by billions of dollars in Germany, The nuclear industry took all that happy big money, while leaving the mess to the citizens of Germany. Now Germay has to pay for decommission of the nuclear power plants and it has to pay for all the nuclear waste as well. What a “fine” heritage for the next tens of thousands of years (hundreds of thousands?). The nuclear industry made one million dollar profit per day and plant and leaves all the sick mess to Germany. Well, that’s funny capitalism, hahaha.

    Uhm, btw, did you know, what happened to all the nuclear waste after worldwar II until recently? Well, it just has been dumped into the oceans:

    Oh, and btw, very much of that nuclear mess has been dumped into the arctic ocean as well:

    It will be very interesting, what will happen to all that nuclear toxic waste in a rapidly warming arctic^^ Soon. And I am sure, the nuclear industry will NOT pay a single funny cent for that nightmare of a mess. So, if you like, make more money with nuclear energy, let China build fleeting nuclear plants on the ocean. I don’t have any descendants, who could be affected by that nuclear nightmare :-)

  21. 21
    JCH says:

    David Benson – trees are slow and require a lot of space, and they are susceptible to disease and they die of old age, and they like to kill each other (they’re territorial and violent); irrigation requires a great deal of energy.

    Why not grow carbon in a way that uses less energy and space? For example, bone? How much energy is require to grow bone from stem cells? Is there any limit to the size of a lab-grown bone? Can the shape be controlled? What has more carbon, a square inch of bone or a square inch of pine?

  22. 22
    SecularAnimist says:

    Recommended reading:

    Almost Everything You Know About Climate Change Solutions Is Outdated, Part 1
    By Joe Romm
    May 10, 2016


    Almost everything you know about climate change solutions is outdated, for several reasons.

    First, climate science and climate politics have been moving unexpectedly quickly toward a broad consensus that we need to keep total human-caused global warming as far as possible below 2°C (3.6°F) — and ideally to no more than 1.5°C. This has truly revolutionary implications for climate solutions policy.

    Second, key climate solutions — renewables, efficiency, electric cars, and storage — have been advancing considerably faster than anyone expected, much faster than the academic literature anticipated. The synergistic effect of all these light-speed changes is only now beginning to become clear (see, for instance, my recent post, “Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable”.

    Third, the media and commentariat have simply not kept up with all these changes and their utterly game-changing implications. As a result we end up with recent articles in such prestige publications as Foreign Affairs and the New York Times that are literally out-of-date the instant they are published, as I’ll discuss below.

  23. 23
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Why not grow carbon in a way that uses less energy and space? For example, bone?

    Restore the pre-whaling population of big whales, and you get back the whole ocean ecosystem regulated by those top predators — and whale drop delivers the harvested carbon to the deep ocean where it’s recycled slowly.

    And all we have to do for the oceans to recover is — less damage.

  24. 24
    Thomas says:

    2 Dan Miller says: “Here is my TEDx talk on this “Fee and Dividend” policy:”

    Dan did they use “Fee and Dividend” policy to stop using Lead in petrol/gasoline? No.

    Did they use a “Fee and Dividend” policy to stop using DDT? No.

    Did they use a “Fee and Dividend” policy to make safer cars post-Nader? No.

    Did they use a “Fee and Dividend” policy to stop using Ozone destroying chemicals? No.

    Did they use a “Fee and Dividend” policy to stop using anything, ever, on this Earth? No.

    Dangerous things get Regulated or Outlawed out of existence Dan. No need to reinvent the wheel. fwiw consider the implications and the simplicity and the history of behavior changes in society and changes to different modes of technology.

    Rising Income Taxes and Company Taxes never stopped people from wanting to make more and more money. To learn “How Brains Think”

  25. 25
    Taylor says:

    I agree that using this technology to capture enough of the carbon in the very short time frame is unrealistic. If you add in the fact that the economic cost to do this would be massive and would never actually get past the theoretical stage

  26. 26
    David B. Benson says:

    Scott Strough & JCH — The tree plantations are to be managed for maximum growth. When each tree is felled the wood is turned into biochar. Biochar in the soil improves it and lasts a long time. A certain percentage of the biochar is compressed into coal and buried deep underground. There is nothing about this scheme which is not well understood. Other biomass methods could be used at the same time.

  27. 27
    Omega Centauri says:

    Scott @9. Sure soils can store some carbon, and therefore represent a possible geoengineering solution (or part of a solution). However the optimal fraction of the overall effort is not determined by the logic alone, the fraction could be anywhere from zero to one. Only analysis of the cost benefit details of this versus competing schemes can determine what fraction of the effort should be allocated to the differing strategies.

  28. 28
    Omega Centauri says:

    One advantage of floating N plants, is that in the event of an accident, the plant could be towed far away from any population. So a case could be made that safety concerns and the cost of meeting a given level of safety could be relaxed. I suspect there are huge political obstacles to doing this however. Its probably not going to be profitable to spend too many resources on this because the cost and time of overcoming political objections are likely very high.

  29. 29
    Edward Greisch says:

    20 Nemesis: Do you know how much uranium is dissolved in the oceans already? Or why we stopped dumping spent fuel in the oceans?

  30. 30
    Dan Miller says:

    #23 Thomas: I’m all for regulating fossil fuels out of existence but I don’t see that happening within the time allotted (which is not much). Fee and Dividend can get the process started and can re-orient the economy towards clean energy, all while creating millions of jobs and growing the economy. F&D reduces emissions by about 50% over 20 years. We will still need regulations to eliminate the other 50%.

    I can imagine conservatives introducing F&D legislation since it does not grow government at all, uses market forces to fix the problem, and does not pick winners and losers. It’s hard to imagine broad support for draconian fossil fuel regulations (until s&*t hits the fan), but I would support them.

  31. 31
    Scott Strough says:

    @ Omega Centauri #27

    As I said, it need not cost a penny more. If fact it can be actually more profitable. Livestock is a value added product over grain. Which means the new buffer stock scheme on carbon sequestering grasslands restoration raising beef instead of a buffer stock scheme on grain raising beef would actually show a net increase in total profits for both the farmer and the commodity markets as long as yields per acre remain comparable. In case studies they are actually improved. So it’s a win win. There is a transition period of course. But all the more reason to start sooner rather than later.

    Here is just one example, in this case with sheep and small grains:

    Here is one example of a case study, in this case with dairy:

    Here is another case study from the USDA on beef and corn, but better stated in a video presentation, since it is easier to explain being radically different than conventional methods.

    The common thread in all three is increased carbon in the soil, increased yields per acre, increased profits, and integration of pasture and forage into a conventional cropping system, taking advantage of the newly discovered liquid carbon pathway. This transition because it is more profitable will probably happen anyway. But if policy makers removed the buffer stock scheme propping up unsustainable corn and soy production, and instead used those exact same subsidies to make a buffer stock scheme on grasslands sequestering carbon and producing forage for animals, the transition would be both faster and smoother for the commodity markets. Again, right now, indirectly the buffer stock scheme is subsidizing AGW. THIS MUST END. Now that China has opened up the value added beef sales there is the capability to not only be more profitable for the farmer, but also the commodity markets as well. But if those animals are raised in feedlots instead of on forage, it will increase AGW! So this both a huge opportunity, but also potentially a huge disaster, all depending on how those animals are fed.

  32. 32
    Edward Greisch says:

    22 SecularAnimist: A first for Joe Romm: “So government policies must enable an orderly but rapid shutdown of coal plants (and then gas plants) while simultaneously replacing them with a combination of renewables, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. So, you can’t just have any CO2 price — you need one that starts out at a moderate to high level and rises quite rapidly.”
    at the end of

    Notice that Joe Romm now includes nuclear fission. That is a big change from Joe Romm’s nuclear-bashing days.

    “An even cheaper way to fill the gap from clouds or a lull in winds is to use “demand response,” which involves paying commercial, industrial, and even residential customers to reduce electricity demand given a certain amount of advance warning.”

    In other words, if the wind quits, they turn your power off to match the wind. How long do you think that will be popular?

    “A second way to deal with the variability of wind and solar photovoltaics is to integrate electricity storage into the grid.”
    “The biggest source of electricity storage on the grid today is “pumped storage” at hydroelectric plants.”
    Did you forget what Tom Murphy said about that at
    “Pump Up the Storage?”
    We need to lift Lake Erie 500 meters above the ground.

    And battery prices need to come down by a factor of a million, not by a factor of 2 or 10.

    So Joe Romm is dreaming a tiny bit less, but not enough less to make sense.

  33. 33

    I don’t find CCS and burial or CCS recycling as fuels plausible because (a) they are as yet unproven and non-deployed technologies, (b) there are technologies in-hand, proven, with solid historical demand curve exponentially decreasing cost profiles, yet these are fighting to be adopted, and (c) CCS prolongs a dependency upon an inefficient fuel-based economy, with loss of important energy at interconversion steps, rather than relying upon total electrification, which hasn’t these limitations, can be generated close to where it is consumed, without network costs, and is indefinitely renewable, on the spot.

  34. 34
    patrick says:

    Secular Animist,22: Thanks. Joe Romm has it right. His article is worth it just for the Gizmodo global temperature change graphic:

    The renewables revolution is arriving faster than people realize–which includes me. And it’s arriving not just at the fringes, but at the heart of the utility sector. The race for storage is on. A major international energy company is buying a major battery maker as we speak. And the biggest energy storage co. in America is one you never heard of. Partnered internationally and with three major U.S. utilities, too, it makes demand-response algorithms necessary for grid balancing at ‘lightspeed’–and consequent purposes.

  35. 35
    Thomas says:

    30 Dan Miller, thanks Dan I hear what you are saying and why. Of course effective rational sane Regulations will not be implemented. But neither will F&D. So dreaming about some impact in the next 20 years is only a dream fantasy. Carbon tax imposts are as big an economic myth as trickle down economics and the “invisible hand of the market” and “free enterprise” is.

    I have the greatest respect for Hansen and many others like him but he has been manipulated here, and by people who are probably equally well intentioned. Hansen is not a economist nor a business man (that’s a mindset plus experience in those fields), he should stick to his area of expertise and remain focused on championing zero net emissions based on scientific rigor and not play politics.

    The basis for F&D etc is flat out wrong and will fail. Contrary to beliefs it will not mean this: “F&D legislation since it does not grow government” it will in fact do the opposite laundering the money without any net benefit in the time needed. Pandering to ideological right wing conservatives who deny agw/cc, ignore basic science and evolution etc (and lying manipulators from Murdoch to the Koch Brothers) is a road to hell imo.

    I am stating as clear and emphatically as I can that market forces will NOT fix the problem – all the people have to fix it collectively using reason and common sense. Proper global regulation of Fossil fuel use from mines to refrigerators sold at shops does NOT pick winners and losers either as far as technological solutions or funding or research or new public infrastructure or “standards” are concerned. It simply enforces a mandatory lower use of fossil fuels across the board, step by step restricting it’s use in all aspects of life.

    In such a new “reality” natural human drivers will solve every single problem that arises including higher prices by finding cheaper and productive alternatives to operate within the new Regulations, how to finance those changes and still make a profit. Especially with a view to the tighter Regulation Models which everyone knows is coming next year and next decades as the Taps are slowly turned off of fossil fuel use.

    Of course this will not happen for some time until the SHTF. But when it does, and it will arrive one day, it will be so late that it will be draconian and/or we’ll return to a dog eat dog world. The new UNFCCC treaty already proves beyond doubt imo that no one yet gets the scale and speed of the problem nor how to address it. Thanks, I’m such a cheery chap. lol

  36. 36
    Thomas says:

    Applying First Principles: “market forces to fix the problem” ???

    Did Market Forces stop the African Slave Trade – Yes or No?
    Did Market Forces provide safe motor cars and roads to the general public – Yes or No?
    Did Market Forces stop the Chinese Opium Trade – Yes or No?

    Who was responsible for running those lucrative money making business ventures?

    Both National Governments (ie Politicians) and their mates in Big Business.
    Who stopped them? The people did.

    We ignore First Principles at our collective peril.

  37. 37
    Omega Centauri says:

    Ed @32 mocking demand response: “if the wind quits, they turn your power off to match the wind. How long do you think that will be popular?”
    No one is planning demand response as the sole way to integrate 100% variable power. The idea is to put various industrial usages on programs where they can be turned off/down when there is a shortfall. These businesses receive a substantial discount for doing so. Determining how aggressively to participate is a business optimization. There are quite a few high power processes which can happily defer power for several hours. Heating and pumping water, Air conditioning, refrigeration of large freezers with long thermal times, and so on. We can convert some fraction of the load to demand response at low net cost, after that then storage and long distance transmission come into play.

  38. 38

    T 35: Market forces will not fix the problem.

    BPL: There’s no reason why not. Exactly that kind of program fixed the acid rain problem in the US. I live in Pennsylvania, and I remember driving the PA Turnpike past mile after mile of white, skeletal, dead trees. In July. Nowadays, at least in the spring and summer, those forests are green again.

    Incentives work. If they didn’t, the fossil fuel companies wouldn’t be fighting so hard against Fee-And-Dividend.

  39. 39

    #32, Ed–The fact that you categorize as “nuclear bashing” comments in which there is no mention whatsoever of nuclear energy, even indirectly, and then have a nice little round of “renewables bashing” has a lot to say about why we can’t have sensible discussions around mitigation here.

  40. 40
  41. 41
    Andy Revkin says:

    A belated defense of my colleague Henry Fountain. Nowhere does the article say this is THE (or even A) solution. It says: “What Dr. Atwater and others have in mind are devices that, if scaled up, could recycle a significant portion of carbon dioxide that is captured from power plants or processes like cement manufacturing, or even directly from the atmosphere.”

    It’s too bad Tony used his overstated criticism of that story to launch what is an important RealClimate piece. Opening a front here on “real climate policy” would be great.

    I’m deeply skeptical of climate-scale (gigaton/year) carbon capture/sequestration or reuse. But I’m a huge fan of the kind of inquiry seen at these companies and institutes. There is no single path to stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at any level, let alone a level thought most likely to avoid 2C of warming. In fact, there is no path one can point to today using today’s tools AND policy instruments to get there. Dan Miller is right about the level a carbon tax would have to reach to sway investments and behaviors. But he has yet to describe a real-world path to enacting that idealized mechanism (fee/dividend), particularly in places where it would be most needed — where the vast majority of growth in CO2 emissions is coming.

    There’s a huge amount of sustained work to be done pursuing innovation on all scales, from laboratories to policy shops to schools, to shift the human relationship with climate and energy. More on that here: http://revkin30yearsclimate

  42. 42
    Chris Dudley says:

    Worth noting that carbon capture is not needed with full electrification. Wind, Water and Solar can get us to 350 ppm CO2 by 2100. Since coal is too expensive anyway, it is better to work on eliminating the demand for liquid fuels.

  43. 43
    Tony Patt says:

    I want to reply to a comment by Andy Revkin, which I don’t see posted here yet, but which he emailed me personally. He argued that I had overly criticised the New York Times article on carbon recycling; that it not implied that this would be a solution to make coal fired power plants sustainable. He is right. The article doesn’t say that in any explicit way, and it is unfortunate that implied that it did.

    To me, the article implied this, however, when I combined it with some other assumptions, which I think are probably valid. One assumption is that if we capture CO2 from a stationary emissions source like a power plant, and use this to make fuels, we are probably going to end up burning most of those fuels in a mobile source, like a car, ship, or airplane. The second is that the challenge of capturing and recycling CO2 from a mobile emissions source is probably a lot higher than capturing it and recycling it from a stationary source. In fact, I would doubt that it is very feasible, especially if that mobile source is an airplane. So if you put these two assumptions on, it means that using CO2 recycled from a stationary emissions source is probably only going to be recycled once. And once is not good enough. Where CO2 recycling can make a difference is where it is combined with air capture. Of course, many of the technologies discussed in the New York Times article could eventually be combined with air capture. The fault of the article, to my mind, is failing to highlight this as an essential step.

    The real point of my original blog post was to stimulate a critical debate on solution strategies. It is great to see this happening in the comments above, and on other blogs like those of Andrew Revkin and Joe Romm.

  44. 44
    Thomas says:

    #38 Acid Rain has not been solved – Greenery in Pennsylvania is not representative of planet Earth.

    2012 see slide #34

    Did a F&D or Market Forces ‘solve the ozone problem’ or an international treaty to ban/regulate all Ozone depleting chemicals at the flick of a pen? Do we still have refrigerators and air-conditioning at a fair market price? Yes.

    There are too many reasons to list why “market forces” will not fix the problem of cutting fossil fuel emissions. Have a look at some SO2/NOx issues:

    December 16, 2011 “Power plants are currently the dominant emitters of mercury (50 percent), acid gases (over 75 percent) and many toxic metals (20-60 percent) in the United States.”

    EPA’s Acid Rain Program has given the Utility Industry a reason to reduce SO2 and NOx emissions. This program was established by Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. It set a cap on the amount of SO2 power plants can emit. The program also addressed NOx emissions, but only set maximum emission rates based on the type of boiler.

    The Acid Rain Program focused on power plants, the largest single source of SO2 emissions, and a major source of NOx emissions. The plants affected by the program submitted permit applications explaining how they planned to comply with the program. EPA issues permits to each facility. The program also requires the use of continuous emissions monitors (CEMs) which measure their emissions and transmit the information directly to EPA.
    A unique element of the program is its use of emissions trading as a compliance option. In 1990, the 263 units designated as part of the Phase I program emitted 10.0 million tons of SO2. In 1995, the first year in which the units were required to comply with Phase I of the program, they reduced their emissions to 5.3 million tons. This is a 47% reduction in emissions over 5 years.
    “The Acid Rain Program also monitors and limits emission of NOx. In New England, the Acid Rain NOx rules have not had a noticeable effect, because other programs have imposed more stringent limits.”
    Prior to 1990, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had passed laws limiting the emissions from power plants. In 2001, Massachusetts adopted regulations that will further limit emissions from large power plants by as much as 75% of SO2 and 50% of NOx. Connecticut has adopted regulations that will further limit emissions by as much as 50% of the SO2 and 30% of the NOx currently being emitted.

    Note: The “Cap” was set too high. Acid Rain causing SO2 & NOx is still being emitted from power plants and other ‘sources’ 30+ years since the causes of Acid rain were identified and mitigation action began. Maybe the regulations are too lax and lacking political will?

    EU/UK For example, in 1970, emissions of NOx from road transport in the UK were 0.769 million tonnes but in 1990 they had risen to over 1.31 million tonnes NOx. Since then, however, emissions from transport have been declining due to improvements in vehicle technology [=Regulations], such as the use of catalytic converters [=Regulations], and the use of cleaner fuels [=Regulations]. In 1999 they were 0.714 million tonnes, [barely] lower than in 1970 [mainly due to fossil fuel Use/Demand increases and lax Regulations]

    4/14/16, SUMMARY: This action responds to the U.S. Supreme Court decision
    in Michigan v. EPA, 135 S. Ct. 2699 (2015), and explains how the
    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken cost into
    account in evaluating whether it is appropriate and necessary to
    regulate coal- and oil-fired electric utility steam generating
    units (EGUs) under section 112 of the Clean Air Act (CAA).

    After consideration of public comments, the EPA, in this final
    supplemental finding, concludes that a consideration of cost
    does not cause us to change our determination that regulation of
    hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions from coal- and oil-fired
    EGUs is appropriate and necessary
    and that EGUs are, therefore,
    properly included on the CAA section 112(c) list of sources that
    must be regulated under CAA section 112(d).

    On February 9, 2016, the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan pending judicial review. The Court’s decision was not on the merits of the rule. EPA firmly believes the Clean Power Plan will be upheld when the merits are considered because the rule rests on strong scientific and legal foundations.

    Note: Regulations are already prolific and proven to make a difference in all aspects of life. The difference between tight effective regs versus lax regs is political will ie “the people’s” level of demand for action based on known scientific facts vs industry’s power (all the way up to the US Supreme Court) to block it.

    Basicaly imo there is no such thing as a “free market” nor “market forces” – it’s a myth. There are particular people with particular mindsets who make particular decisions in their own particular self-interests within a controlled, manipulated and semi-regulated public space. The public and climate scientists don’t get a say in that. “It’s a club and you’re not in it.” said George Carlin :-)

    Marketing and Advertising uses people’s perceived desires and needs by manipulating and triggering their unconscious/subconscious beliefs beyond their awareness. Whether *the product* is toothpaste, a 4WD to deliver the kiddies to soccer, AGW/CC denial, an ETS, F&D, or politics in general is irrelevant – the process is exactly the same. All one needs is the money to pay for it and the public will respond.

    That’s one of the things they label as “market forces” and “individual freedom”. But it is also why it’s a myth.

    And of course I know this comment will make no difference either. But one day it will be obvious to the majority as well. :-)

  45. 45
    sidd says:

    Re: Dead trees by the turnpike

    on the eastern part of 76, thats not drought, thats gipsy moth. But PA has a buncha turnpikes, perhaps tha reference is to another part of PA ?

  46. 46
    SecularAnimist says:

    Omega Centauri wrote: “Ed @32 mocking demand response …”

    It’s best to ignore Edward Greisch’s astonishingly ill-informed comments about solar, wind, energy storage, smart grid and efficiency technologies.

  47. 47
    zebra says:

    @Thomas 44 (and other comments),

    Is someone arguing against regulations?

    The issue here is politics– not choosing methods, or arguing arcane futurist agriculture fantasies.

    With deference to your expertise on marketing– if you can’t get something passed that does cater to laissez-faire capitalist sensibilities like fee and dividend, how is all this other stuff supposed to happen?

    I think you have to start with the camel’s nose, and that means having people accept the idea of doing something about climate change. To me, that means finding the easiest thing to pass in a bill, and passing it, however imperfect it might be. ACA is a good example. Corn Ethanol is a good example, albeit a bad idea.

    Journey of a thousand miles and all that…

  48. 48

    T: Basicaly imo there is no such thing as a “free market” nor “market forces” – it’s a myth.

    BPL: So I would class you as an “economics denier.”

  49. 49

    #44, Thomas–

    Haven’t read the whole comment yet, but I must respond to the first point, which is that the acid rain problem hasn’t been fixed globally. That is true, of course, but since what we are talking about is the efficacy of cap-and-trade mechanisms, which use the market pricing to drive pollution mitigation, it’s hardly fair to apply a global test when the remedy has been applied at the global level.

    And at the national level, Barton is right. A well-designed cap and trade program largely eliminated acid rain in the eastern US. It was threatening wide areas, with the Smoky Mountains particularly at risk–and here, as BPL’s comment indicates, ‘at risk’ should be read as “we were already seeing a lot of biological damage.”

    The program was a huge success, working more quickly, completely and cheaply than expected. (And it’s worth noting that there had been predictions of economic apocalypse by some, er, ‘interested parties.’)

    In a post-facto analysis, the benefit/cost ratio was put at the rather decisive level of 40:1.

    Beginning in 1995 and over the subsequent decade, the SO2 allowance-trading program performed exceptionally well along all relevant dimensions. (Early assessments of the system’s design and performance were provided by Schmalensee et al 1998 and Stavins 1998.) The program was environmentally effective, with SO2 emissions from electric power plants decreasing 36 percent – from 15.9 million to 10.2 million tons – between 1990 and 2004 (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2011b), even though electricity generation from coal-fired power plants increased 25 percent over the same period (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2011). The program’s long-term goal of reducing annual nationwide utility emissions to 8.95 million tons was achieved in 2007, and by 2010 emissions had declined further, to 5.1 million tons. Overall, the program delivered emissions reductions more quickly than expected, as utilities took advantage of the possibility of banking allowances. With its $2,000/ton statutory fine for any emissions exceeding allowance holdings (and continuous emissions monitoring), compliance was nearly 100 percent.
    The costs of achieving these environmental objectives with cap-and-trade were significantly less than they would have been with a command-and-control regulatory approach. Cost savings were at least 15 percent and perhaps as much as 90 percent, compared with counterfactual policies that specified the means of regulation in various ways and for various portions of the program’s regulatory period (Carlson et al. 2000; Ellerman et al. 2000; Keohane 2003). In addition to static cost effectiveness, there is evidence that the program brought down abatement costs over time by providing incentives for innovation in equipment and operating procedures that are generally much stronger than those provided by traditional command-and-control regulation (Ellerman et al 2000, pp. 235-48; Popp 2003; Bellas and Lange 2011).

    That’s from:

    And there’s much more, including much nuance.

    But the bottom line is that well-designed schemes–whether fee-and-dividend or cap-and-trade–can indeed be highly effective.

    Quite obviously, though, American cap-and-trade schemes will not affect Chinese emissions. For that, you’d need to have Chinese cap-and-trade (or fee and dividend) schemes. Oh, wait, that’s coming into play, pretty much starting now:

    It remains to be seen whether it more closely resembled the American acid rain program, or the European carbon market, which looks a crashing failure to me. But it’s clear that it *can* work–since sometimes, at least, it does.

  50. 50
    sidd says:

    Gaa, that should read _western_ I-76 has dead trees from gipsy moth. I am thinking of the stretch between new stanton and somerset in particular.