Earlier this summer, a Harvard researcher said he can potentially pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for as little as $100 per metric ton. The news reinvigorated many people who had resigned themselves to an ever-warming planet. The announcement also received pushback from some scientists and environmentalists who fear creation of a “moral hazard” if experimentation undermines the political will to halt emissions and the subsequent technology turns out not to work well enough to halt global warming.
Nevertheless, money is already flowing into this “negative emission technology” research. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and others are supporting at least three demonstration projects — in Iceland, British Columbia and Switzerland — that strive to take carbon out of the air, and more investment is on the way. The U.S. tax code has also improved the risk profile of carbon sequestration projects in the United States with new Section 45Q tax credits offering up to $50 per metric ton and lifting a pre-existing annual cap on emissions.
Until recently, it was believed carbon sequestration would involve industrial locations that produce concentrated amounts of carbon emissions (such as power and heavy industrial plants) and then pump the carbon underground where it could be stored with rocks. The concept of air carbon capture implies a much larger degree of flexibility for customers and companies, somewhat analogous to the flexibility and utility of rooftop solar over centralized commercial solar farms.
At the root of the problem is cost. For air capture technology to be affordable without slowing the economic activity that higher energy costs would create, costs will have to fall at least 10 times from current-day experiments.
As a frame of reference, in 2017, the first demonstrator in Switzerland announced that it could take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sell it to a commercial greenhouse for $600 per metric ton. By some measures, this is equivalent to a $6 per gallon gasoline tax. That amount is less than a landmark 2011 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that found an estimated cost of around $1,000 a metric ton —still too high for any commercial application.
As daunting as these numbers sound, it’s worth considering the dramatic fall in price of another important technology of similar complexity — lithium batteries — that has revolutionized another part of the energy industry. In the past decade or so, battery prices have fallen about 80 percent, from over $1,000 to under $200 a kilowatt-hour.
Battery technology has been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in research and development since smartphones became ubiquitous, and it is now benefiting from scaled-up manufacturing for electric cars. Large-scale production at Tesla’s Nevada-based Gigafactory’ for example, may push the price of battery packs below $100 per kilowatt-hour of energy storage by 2020 — a point at which the cost of building an electric powertrain becomes lower than an internal combustion energy powertrain. Such a fall in price would represent a 10x gain in energy density per dollar in less than two decades.
The science — and math — behind this kind of technological innovation has been well understood for decades. In the 1970s, Stanford computer scientist Roy Amara deserves credit for first articulating the observation — now called Amara’s law — in which forecasters and society in general tend to overestimate the power of technological charge in the short term and underestimate it in the long term. A mathematical representation of this adage is known as the logistic or classic "S" curve that can be seen in almost every modern technological forecast.
In 2009, Royal Dutch Shell researchers Gert Jan Kramer and Martin Haigh found that it takes 30 years for the invention of a technology to mature to a point where it makes up around 1 percent of the world’s energy use. Using examples of liquefied natural gas in the early 1960s and wind turbine technology in the 1980s, the duo found that there are reasons for optimism in carbon capture technology, albeit with a longer-than-hoped-for deployment.
If the price of carbon capture falls at 12 percent a year for 20 years — much like batteries have fallen in the past two decades — this would put air carbon capture at less than $20 a metric ton by the 2040s and would equal an increase in gasoline prices of around 10 percent at current prices, or 25 cents a gallon. If there were a price on carbon, unencumbered by the administrative state, it would allow for a much earlier and less disruptive economic transition to a post-carbon economy by mid-century for consumers.
Because many companies already use a theoretical “shadow” carbon price to support their long-term investment strategies, and there are sub-national carbon markets already operating in places like California and Asia, investors like Gates will continue demonstrating a willingness to spending billions more on research.
Given how difficult global politics has become since climate change first became a global issue in the early 1990s, (both Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have torpedoed U.S. participation in global climate change agreements), the real moral hazard would be restricting how scientists think and experiment about mitigating climate change.
A better path would ensure there are no regulatory bottlenecks to impede future research and development and to let Amara’s thesis on technology reach its logical conclusion — one that could solve the greenhouse gas emissions problem for good by century’s end.
William Murray is federal energy policy manager for the R Street Institute.