James Hansen: Can Carbon Capture Work?

June 13, 2018

A lot of news and talk about carbon capture and negative emissions this week.

James Hansen talks us down.

James Hansen’s Blog:

I am minimizing Communications, so that I can (really!) finish Sophie’s Planet, while also providing expert testimony for several lawsuits aimed at using the judicial branch of government to force the other branches of government to do their job. However, there is enough popular misinterpretation of recent news about the cost of carbon capture that I should comment on that.

David Keith has done some of the most credible work on direct air capture of CO2, so his recent paper1 in Joulereporting on the cost of carbon capture deserves attention. Media reports emphasized that these reported costs were lower than costs estimated in a report by the American Physical Society (APS) in 2011. This caused some people to believe that we may be on the way to a “get out of jail free” card, the hope of many that technology will come to the rescue, so we do not need to be so concerned about the mess we are leaving for young people.

Unfortunately, the new news on carbon capture costs provides no support for the notion that we can solve the climate problem without fossil fuel phase-out. On the contrary, the Keith et al. study reinforces our concerns.

Many people failed to notice the matter of units. Keith reports a cost of $113-232 per ton of CO2 for plant designs in which the resulting CO2 is ready for sequestration The cost per ton of carbon (tC) is higher by the factor 44/12. So the reported cost is $414-850/tC.

Furthermore, none of the four cases include the cost of carbon storage! According to the 2015 National Academy of Sciences report on CO2 removal2 the costs of geological sequestration are $37-73/tC. So the total costs for capture plus storage would be $451-923/tC.

Note that we used the cost range $113-232/tCO2 from the Keith paper. They also give a cost range $94-232/tCO2, which is what the media picked up on. However, the $94 case has the CO2 being used to make a liquid fuel that, when burned, puts the CO2 back in the air! So there is no negative emission. In fact, that total process would have positive emissions, at least to some degree.

In Young People’s Burden we were aware that the cost estimates from the APS study were high. Based on many studies referenced in our paper, we chose $150-350/tC as an optimistic estimate of the potential future cost. The low end of the cost range $451-923/tC based on Keith et al. is about 30% higher than the upper end of our range!

In Young People’s Burden we show that even our very optimistic cost of carbon capture results in an unbearable debt for young people, if high emissions continue unabated. The new estimates only reaffirm that conclusion. There is no prospect for a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.

One of the legal cases3 now underway is an effort to block the Trump government from opening up a huge new area of coal mining in Montana. The total coal resources in the basin in question are twice the quantity produced in the entire U.S. since 1949! Burning even a fraction of these resources would leave an astronomical cost for young people, as I show in the linked declaration I submitted to support the case against expanding that mining. It makes no sense to exploit these resources, serving only to enrich a handful of people. Most of the coal would be shipped to the Far East, but, in the end, I do not believe that the United States can escape either the moral or legal obligations from such a willful disregard of the consequences for young people. It makes no sense to approve such expansion of coal mining, and I believe that chances of blocking that expansion are good.


14 Responses to “James Hansen: Can Carbon Capture Work?”

  1. indy222 Says:

    Somethings fishy here. Dr. Sally Benson at Stanford points out that the market for commercial CO2 is less than 1% of the kind of production (ie atmospheric removal) rates required to be climate significant. We’re not going to pay for CO2 removal by selling it to industry – ANY industry. Also, Klaus Lackner’s claims of $600/ton of CO2 relies on use of an industrial incinerator to supply 80% of the energy needed to power the process. And finally, Ranjan et al. 2010 ( http://sequestration.mit.edu/research/aircapture.html ) finds the energy cost alone for air capture is $500/ton CO2. Quote…. “The cost of direct air capture reported in literature is in the range of $100/tC and $500/tC ($27/tCO2 – $136/tCO2). A thermodynamic minimum work calculation performed in this thesis shows that just the energy cost of direct air capture would be in the range of $1540-$2310/tC ($420-$630/tCO2) or greater. To this, one must add the capital costs, which will be significant”.

    I’m continually irritated at the phony accounting by bait-switch costs which get relayed to gullible pop science writers w/o due dilligence done nor up-front honest figures for CLIMATE SIGNIFICANT use, not this small pilot projects!

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    I’m so tired of people irresponsibly reporting the imminent breakthrough of technologies that are decades away if they’ll ever be possible, let alone affordable. After reading 40 or 80 such breathless works of fiction I pay no attention any more. The worst, of course, are the ones like this that make internet trolls and mentally ill moron presidents believe we can keep burning coal and not have any, you know, cancer or mass extinction or anything. But every one makes it seem as though if we just wait a few more years and then it will all be so easy to fix “the problem” means thousands more people tweeting and posting and mewling and spewing nonsense and more delays in actually doing something to you know, fix the problem.

    Shit. There are days when it’s hard to keep from just crawling into bed and staying there.

    • Sir Charles Says:

      Speaking with James Hansen, first you need a significant price on carbon. The polluter has to pay.

      Survivable IPCC projections are based on science fiction – the reality is much worse

      • Sir Charles Says:

        Human activity is releasing some 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. How do you want to remove only a fraction of that? As Dr. Hugh Hunt above says (3:30): “We don’t do anything on that planet on that scale”.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        I have no strong objection to a strong bill putting a price on carbon. It would have been perfect 30 years ago. But now, it can’t be all we do or it will fail, along with civilization and millions of species. If we do it alone people will think that’s all we need and will go back to sleep, dooming us.

        Let’s be clear about it, a price on carbon is the lowest common denominator of climate “solutions”. Like nukes, it’s bribery to get the lunatic right wing (a redundant phrase these days) to accept reality and get the fuck out of the way of real solutions. It’s unlikely to work even in that limited capacity, whether we do the real things we have to do or not.

        We’ve waited too long and the situation is dire. There’s not enough time left to pass a weak bill and try to ramp up the price enough, fast enough, to be enough. Even a weak bill can’t pass now. If Democrats recapture both houses, which is looking not just extremely unlikely but impossible, as they continue their drive to be the Republicans Lite Forever party, maybe a weak bill could pass. Probably not even then. We will never pass a strong bill until we remove the current regime from power, with what will have to be essentially a peaceful revolution. Not a metaphorical revolution like cheap solar and wind are providing, but an actual revolution–people in the streets like Icelanders for as long as it takes, blockading and occupying government and corporate offices, oil fields and coal mines, and refusing to pay taxes, buy corporate products, use fossil fuels for days at a time (for some people, weeks or months). Demanding the shut down of fossil fuel and agrochemical operations and the building of efficiency, wiser lives and clean safe renewable energy, dramatic reduction of meat eating, transformation of agriculture, ending of all fossil fuel subsidies, and a lot more, without stopping until it’s done.

        It’s looks to me like all US fossil fuel corporations will be bankrupt within 20 years, probably a lot sooner. We need to make it orderly, and coordinate it with those 3 solutions–wiser lives, efficiency, renewables–by nationalizing the fossil industry before the chaos and rippling economic collapse of stranded assets and reeking graveyards of abandoned oil and gas fields, coal mines and wrecked mountains devastate this country and much of the world with it.

        We need political and economic equality, to implement an emergency climate mobilization so the newly democratic, progressive and climate crisis-facing US government can bring us systematically into a new, ecologically viable society–using all the emergency powers at its disposal. A carbon tax should be part of that, to sweep up the odd fossil fuel uses not taken care of by other means, and to help fund the orderly folding of the industry and its auxiliaries, but it can’t be any more than that, and if we do it wrong, or don’t do it as part of the whole program, it will doom us. I don’t think it’s worth the activist time and energy it will take to make it happen, especially while there’s so much work to do educating people and convincing them of the truth–that a US WWII type citizen and industrial climate mobilization is the only way to avoid catastrophic global warming. But sure, let’s put a price on carbon.

        • Jak O'Malley Says:

          J4Zonian, you are so right. I have some faith in the new batch of Justice Democrats we put in the House in November, but we need a bunch more of them, in the House and Senate, in 2020, and a president who “gets it,” too–or a veto-proof majority in both houses. That will require a concerted political effort, beginning now, not 2020; and at the same time we need to keep educating people on climate change, so they are prepared for the WWII/moon shot mobilization that will be required, because we are going to waste two more years before we get a sane, grown-up administration and we can actually get something done.

          I don’t think that will be enough.

          We will never get anywhere as long as the fucking Koch brothers can outvote millions of us by writing a stinking check. We need to bury Citizens United with a stake through its ugly heart, end corporate personhood–right after we execute the fossil-fuel corporations for their crime against humanity, withholding news of the end of the world for profit–if they are persons they MUST be subject to capital punishment–and seize all their assets to fund expedited clean energy research, end exports, and wind down production. We must end all big money/dark money contributions to politicians. We need term limits in House and Senate AND Supreme Court, the absolute end of the we-the-people-raping anti-democratic Electoral College, and the right of the people to a vote of no confidence, with the entire government up for review and re-election if we so demand. WE ARE NOT GOING TO GET ANY OF THIS FROM A CONGRESS THAT IS BROKEN BEYOND REPAIR AND CORRUPTED BEYOND REDEMPTION by that big money and privilege and hunger for power. This is an oligarchy, a corrupt, fascist state. It has not been a democracy–ever, really, if you really study history. And it will continue to work for the fossils and the banks and Wall Street and Big Pharma and the medical industrial complex until we the people wake up and put it out of our misery.

          WE NEED DIRECT DEMOCRACY, the national citizens’ initiative. A sufficient majority of us–a supermajority, now–understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. If what our general strike demands is the mechanism–we have every right–to make our own laws, the national citizens’ initiative, AND to amend the Constitution in a LITTLE more expeditious manner than at present, WE can fix this–and a whole lot else that’s wrong–a whole lot faster than never, which is what we will get from a congress that is fossilized in more ways than one.

          If I’ve piqued your interest even a little, please google up The National Citizens Initiative for Democracy and NI4D, @ni4d on Twitter. And think about it. Do we want to continue to let corrupt, psychopathic corporations and people steal our lives and the future of the species, or do we educate ourselves and take responsibility for our own lives and for leaving our children a decent, survivable future?

  3. neilrieck Says:

    CCS (carbon capture and storage) is not free; it comes at the price of additional energy to do the capture; then ever more energy is required to do compression prior to storage. But most people just do not understand the enormity of this problem which is this: burning a given weight of fuel (say one pound or one kilogram) produces three times more CO2 (by weight). Many people find this fact almost impossible to believe so I have reproduced the burn equation for gasoline here.
    You only need a secondary school understanding of chemistry to follow along.

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    Remember, not eating meat is the most important thing you can do

    Remember to shut off your lights

    Be sure to use your own bags at checkout, not the plastic ones

    Use your bike more; walk when you can

    It’s really time now to end subsidies for renewable energy

    Fly on airplanes less

    And here is the proof! Look at how successful individual actions have been in reducing our fossil fuel use!!! Yay, we’re winning, right?!?


    J4zonian is right.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence.

      And here come the usual buts:


      I think you meant ‘end fossil fuel subsidies and increase those for renewables’? I’m not sure there what’s sarcasm and not.

      And the slow creep up of the percentage of renewables in the US has little to do with personal actions. The people who don’t care enough to change–the coal rollers of the world–are the ones responsible for the vast majority of emissions. The way-too-slow shutdown of fossil fuels has to do with corporations’ and the right’s continued success in selling the conservative “individuality” frame and making people believe the lie that individual actions are both the cause of and solution to the ecological crisis. Lack of political action is what’s causing the slowth of the end of the fossil fuel age.

      The most important thing you can do is organize. At this point, despite my lifelong commitment to personal example, everything else is coal sludge.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        It was all sarcasm.

        The graph at the link shows that despite decades of individuals doing their little bits, individual actions, renewables remain a tiny slice of our energy use.

        We need massive action at a government level to make headway. Policy. Mandates. It’s our only hope.

        And that the idea of ending subsidies for renewable energy is demented – a suicide pact. And yet it is a popular idea – even at web sites devoted to global warming. This is insanity, there is no other word for it.

        • Jak O'Malley Says:

          Didn’t the Republifucks already end subsidies for renewables? Or was it just the energy conservation tax credits? Fixing this will require fixing our broken political system, and by definition that will require a revolution. Hopefully a peaceful one. Hopefully.

  5. ted knopper Says:

    Everybody keeps talking about subsidies for carbon fuels. All I see is higher taxes and more money for government. Where exactly are the subsidies? Writing off your reserves as you use them up is depreciation by another name, something all business does when figuring out the cost of doing business. Things are used up and wear out, that is not a subsidy.

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