Insights Blog

Why Carbon Reduction Should Be a Public Service

October 23, 2020

As the impacts of climate change – from wildfires to flooding – become impossible to ignore, calls to adapt our economy are joined by calls to remove and store existing carbon dioxide, a process known as carbon drawdown. In response, market actors have launched profitable ventures in mechanical-chemical carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and sought government support. But just how effective and sustainable are these ventures?

In a recently published paper, New School for Social Research PhD candidate Andreas Lichtenberger and co-author June Sekera, Director of the Public Economy Project at the New School’s Heilbroner Center for Capitalism, review the literature on carbon dioxide removal and find that the use of public funds to subsidize commercial CDR is often counterproductive. They argue that governments should instead approach carbon reduction as a public service.

The paper focuses on the two CDR options which have gained the most legislative traction: point-source capture and direct air capture, which together the authors term “industrial carbon removal” (ICR). The authors review and discuss the effectiveness of each ICR method, asking whether it removes more CO2 than it emits, determining its resource usage at scale as well as its biophysical impacts.

Fig. 1 Full life cycle. Pathways associated with industrial carbon removal (ICR). (Image elaborated from Wikipedia entry on carbon capture and utilization and from Stewart and Haszeldine 2014.) 

The paper reveals that commercial ICR methods incentivized by governments emit more CO2 than they remove and thus do not meet the needs of atmospheric CO2 reduction. Some studies have found ICR methods (both point-source capture and direct air capture) to be net CO2 reductive through methodological choices by ignoring aspects of the process (like the fact that captured CO2 is primarily used for oil production) or assuming low-or zero-carbon power. The authors also find inadequate literature examining the resource usage and biophysical impacts of ICR methods at a significant scale.

The review shows that scientific literature does not support the use of public funds to subsidize commercial development and deployment of ICR, and that policy decisions have thus far been finance-driven, not science-driven. Instead, the authors recommend that governments approach atmospheric carbon reduction as a public service, like water treatment or waste disposal, because storage – not sale – of captured CO2 is the only way to achieve a true reduction of the gas.