For the past several years, one of the biggest buzzwords in climate engineering has been “carbon recapture,” or the method of using a machine to extract of carbon dioxide from our severely carbon-poisoned air. Carbon recapture technology sounds like science fiction, but it’s existed for years. It’s simply faced one huge problem: production at the industrial plant scale. Unsurprisingly, it’s just very expensive to pick molecules out of the atmosphere.
But in a paper published in Joule this morning, Harvard researchers claim that they may have solved this problem. While typical methods of carbon recapture cost around $1000 per ton of carbon dioxide sucked from the air, these researchers boast an astronomically lower cost: $94-$232 per ton of carbon dioxide.
“The feasibility of DAC has been disputed, in part, because publications have not provided sufficient engineering detail to allow independent evaluation of costs,” the research paper reads. “This design reflects roughly 100 person-years of development by Carbon Engineering.”
It’s a tremendous step forward in future-minded carbon engineering. But the problem is that the product of carbon recapture is, well, carbon that will eventually find its way back into the atmosphere. At full capacity, the researchers claim that it can pull 0.98 megatons of carbon from the air each year, and by feeding 0.48 megatons of natural gas to the plant, 1.46 megatons of carbon dioxide goes back out.
Carbon recapture reinforces our dependence on oil, and in this case, it just pumps even more carbon dioxide right back into the atmosphere after extracting it. Even if carbon recapture can occur at an industrial scale, it will be subject to the influence of the same gasoline-dependent companies feeding into this problem in the first place.
In essence, carbon recapture is the engineering equivalent of cap and trade, an economic negotiation method that sets a limit on carbon emissions but allows companies to transcend their cap by trading “carbon stocks or buying offsets (paying for some amount of renewable energy to be used elsewhere). All the while, carbon emissions don’t really go down. At best, they’re stabilized. Carbon caps have also always been way too high in order to meet proposed warming limits of 1-2 degrees Celsius.
Carbon recapture also fails to critically question consumption habits, and the emphasis that our global economy places on growth and hegemony. Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, a scholar of climate politics at the University of Virginia, expressed this dilemma at the 10th International Modelica Conference in 2014.
“It is our predicament that we live in a finite world, and yet we behave as if it were infinite," Castro Cornejo said. "Steady exponential material growth with no limits on resource consumption and population is the dominant conceptual model used by today's decision makers. This is an approximation of reality that is no longer accurate and has started to break down."
The appeal of carbon recapture makes perfect sense. Our situation is incredibly dire. The lethal environmental feedbacks set off by climate change have already been in motion for decades, feeding us more extreme weather events like hurricanes and slow-moving killers like droughts. We’ve already surpassed an annual average of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s almost impossible that we’ll be able to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
If we can take carbon out of the atmosphere, it only makes sense to invest money and intellectual energy toward doing so—within reason. The danger comes in viewing carbon recapture as an “undo” button, one that distracts us from forms of energy that simply emit less carbon, such as solar power. Of course, solar power historically has a similar problem to that of carbon: it’s economically difficult to make it work at the scale necessary to support human society, but only when the numbers don’t consider the externalized cost of damage that climate change may wreak.