Smart, Practical Approach to Climate Change

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By Merrill Matthews
Special to AFRO

Lawmakers want to fight climate change, but many of them are taking the wrong approach. Proposals to abandon fossil fuels entirely, like the Green New Deal, are both impractical and expensive.

Fortunately, we don’t need to ban fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions. The better approach is to capture the carbon we emit and store it underground, safely away from the atmosphere. So-called carbon capture and sequestration (i.e., storage) is at the center of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s new climate plan. Despite reservations from some lawmakers and environmental activists, this plan could garner bipartisan support. Carbon capture has been around for decades, though only on a small scale.

In the most common approach, known as “post-combustion” capture, power plants burn fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to create electricity, which releases carbon dioxide as a by-product. Rather than letting that carbon dioxide enter the atmosphere, plants can capture it and transport it, usually via pipeline, and store it deep underground.   

In a newer approach, known as “pre-combustion” capture, power plants can remove carbon dioxide from fossil fuels before they burn them. Both processes capture an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the carbon. But while precombustion costs less to operate, post-combustion is easier to retrofit on older power plants.

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Merrill Matthews (Photo/ipi.org)

Other innovative approaches are in the works. For companies that don’t actually produce much carbon but want to play a role in reducing it, there is “direct air capture,” an emerging technology that seeks to remove CO2 directly from the air rather than where it is produced.

There are currently 19 carbon capture facilities operating worldwide, which, along with facilities under construction, have the capacity to capture 40 million metric tons of carbon each year. That’s a small portion of the 5.1 billion metric tons of carbon released in the United States alone. But these facilities show that carbon capture works, and thanks to technological improvements, carbon capture is more cost-effective than ever. Today, it costs between $48 and $109 to capture a ton of carbon using conventional capture methods.

Unfortunately, progressive lawmakers and many environmentalists dislike carbon capture because it supports the use of fossil fuels. They would rather ban oil and natural gas and transition entirely to renewable energy sources. That isn’t feasible. Fossil fuels supply nearly 63 percent of electricity generated in the United States. Meanwhile, wind power provides just seven percent of that energy, while solar supplies less than two percent. Even if we had enough wind and solar power to meet energy demand, the United States would need 900 times our current energy storage infrastructure to keep the lights on when wind and solar couldn’t provide it.

Some conservatives balk at the idea of using subsidies and tax breaks to encourage carbon capture. That’s a valid concern, considering how much money the government has wasted on failed green energy projects. But with plans like the Green New Deal gaining popularity, McCarthy’s proposal is the most fiscally responsible option lawmakers have.

Many lawmakers want to take action on climate change, but they need to realize that eliminating fossil fuels doesn’t make sense. Carbon capture is a reasonable, bipartisan climate plan that both recognizes fossil fuels’ importance for economic growth and national security, while actually reducing atmospheric carbon levels.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO.
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