At the virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit on Thursday, climate czar John Kerry made the claim that even if a goal of net-zero emissions is achieved, carbon dioxide will still need to be removed from the atmosphere.
Kerry spoke through a screen as the summit was held on a virtual format, saying, “Even if we get to net zero, we still have to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This is a bigger challenge than a lot of people have really grabbed onto yet.”
John Kerry at Biden’s #LeadersClimateSummit:
‘Net zero is not enough. We need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.’
A statement of climate futility and insanity. pic.twitter.com/CqtIXI8Xon
— Steve Milloy (@JunkScience) April 22, 2021
Scientists have pointed to a rise in carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere as a force behind global warming. That said, carbon dioxide also plays a crucial role in sustaining life on Earth because it keeps heat in the atmosphere and prevents the planet from becoming too cold.
According to UCAR Center for Science Education, there are natural sources of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere in addition to human industrialization efforts. Volcanic outgassing and wildfires emit carbon dioxide, as well as human respiration.
There are also natural ways that carbon dioxide is used up in the atmosphere, such as through photosynthesis — “the biochemical process by which plants and some microbes create food.” Forests and certain parts of the ocean with photosynthetic microbes are known as carbon “sinks” that can take out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Kerry has called on the United States to speed up the process of developing carbon capture technologies in the past. At the CERAWeek conference last month, in a conversation with former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Kerry said, “I think that the fossil fuel industry clearly could do a lot more to transition into being a full-fledged energy (industry) that is embracing some of these new technologies.”
Finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is complex. As Huffpost reported, natural ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere — through forests and farming methods — are hard to measure “and carry significant risks of displacing people from conserved lands or losing emissions progress to wildfires.” Technological advancements such as direct air capture, or technology that can take CO2 particles from the atmosphere, are costly and use up a lot of energy.
Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, looked at “public data from a coal with carbon capture electric power plant and a plant that removes carbon from the air directly” in 2019. The research compared different types of carbon removal in order to determine whether they were beneficial. Jacobson found that replacing coal or gas plants with renewable energy plants is a better option than attempting to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
In both cases, electricity to run the capture technology came from natural gas. He calculated the net CO2 reduction and total cost of the carbon capture process in each case, accounting for the electricity needed to run the carbon capture equipment, the combustion and upstream emissions resulting from that electricity, and, in the case of the coal plant, its upstream emissions. (Upstream emissions are emissions, including from leaks and combustion, from mining and transporting a fuel such as coal or natural gas.)
Common estimates of carbon capture technologies—which only look at the carbon captured from energy production at a fossil fuel plant itself and not upstream emissions—say they can remediate 85-90% of carbon emissions.
Once Jacobson calculated all the emissions associated with these plants that could contribute to global warming, he converted them to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide in order to compare his data with the standard estimate. He found that in both cases the equipment captured the equivalent of only 10-11% of the emissions they produced, averaged over 20 years.
“All sorts of scenarios have been developed under the assumption that carbon capture actually reduces substantial amounts of carbon. However, this research finds that it reduces only a small fraction of carbon emissions, and it usually increases air pollution,” he said.
Jacobson added, “Even if you have 100% capture from the capture equipment, it is still worse, from a social cost perspective, than replacing a coal or gas plant with a wind farm because carbon capture never reduces air pollution and always has a capture equipment cost. Wind replacing fossil fuels always reduces air pollution and never has a capture equipment cost.”
President Joe Biden announced a goal for the United States to get reach net-zero emissions at the summit on Thursday before Kerry seemed to imply later in the day that the goal is not good enough.
Biden said, “The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half — in half — by the end of this decade. That’s where we’re headed as a nation and that’s what we can do if we take action to build an economy that’s not only more prosperous but healthier, fairer, and cleaner for the entire planet.
“You know, these steps will set America on a path of net-zero emissions economy by no later than 2050, but the truth is America represents less than 50% of the world’s emissions,” he said.
As reported by the Daily Mail, John Kerry also pointed to the previous administration in his discussion at the summit, saying, “We had to prove that we were serious. And I think today, does that in many ways, and not in a chauvinistic – in a way that sort of inappropriate to our relationship with other countries, but in a way that reinforces the fact that this is my bilateral that we need to bring all the countries in the world at the table we all need to raise ambition.”