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Is Elon Musk right about Carbon Capture?

Posted on 5 March 2021 by Guest Author

It's hard to say which is more divisive... Elon Musk or Carbon Capture. But both feature heavily in today's climate change conversation. So is Elon right to be investing in negative emissions?

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Comments 1 to 28:

  1. This study is relevant: "Global Sequestration Potential of Increased Organic Carbon in Cropland Soils"

    The research study reviews the literature and says (parphrasing) soils can be made to sequester up to an additional 1.85 gigatonnes carbon per year assuming the proper forms of farming are used (no tilling, mulching, crop rotation, biochar, etc.) and scaled up globally to include all or most croplands. Imo this number seems quite significant given global carbon emissions each year from fossil fuels are approx. 10 gigatonnes. It might be possible to do better of course, but this is a study of what is currently known by way of field trials.

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  2. I regard Carbon Capture technology as necessary as the IPCC report suggests.  But at this point I feel continued research in large-scale and cheap DAC (direct air capture) technology is a good plan - it will likely take decades for this technology to mature.  It's an insurance policy in case we are not able to cut emissions rapidly enough to stay under 1.5 or 2.0 C.  I do not want to see more CCS (carbon capture & sequestration) research because I view it a solution that enables us to keep burning fossil fuels.  Let me know if you think otherwise...  I'm not a scientist and I just want us to get to net zero!


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  3. Robin:

    My view is that any CCS technology that basically captures all the CO2 emitted from a fossil fuel plant would be acceptable, but CCS technology that only captures partial emissions is only helpful in the short term and bakes in CO2 emissions for the life of the technology.

    Yes, emissions are reduced somewhat with partial CCS, but then you have the investment in that technology that is a paid-forward cost. The holders of that technology will not be happy if they are told they have stranded assets that must be elimated in the next step towards zero emissions.They will fight that tooth and nail, much as the fossil fuel industry has been fighting for decades.

    So, in favour of CCS for complete capture. Reservations about partial CCS - especially if it represents long-term infrastructure investment.

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  4. Two things:

    1) There is more carbon missing from agricultural soils worldwide than extra in the atmosphere. So any techy sort of carbon capture that sequesters it permanently out of the biosphere certainly could be highly highly dangerous in the long term. Being locked into the sort of industrial agriculture, (with heavy use of fertilizers made from fossil fuels and vast areas degraded by biocides), spreading around the world is certain doom in the long haul. We collapse the biosphere carbon cycle and nothing we do will matter at all.

    We actually need the carbon, but back in the soil where it belongs.

    The primary issue with doing this however, is determining rate. That part is highly controversial for a complex wide variety of reasons.

    I will be putting together a team to go for that prize though. Because if we can get the rate high enough, on enough land, it can help meet the IPCC guidelines.

    2) Elon Musk is also involved in cutting emissions with Tesla, and battery/solar systems. So the criticisms regarding cutting emissions that were mentioned in the video are NOT warranted at all.

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  5. I share Bob Loblaw's concern about partial Carbon Capture related to fossil fuel burning. It is likely to just be the newest unsustainable harmful way of doing things. Even a system that theoretically captures all created CO2 is likely to suffer from the "reality gremlin" (a term made-up just as I wrote this). There will likely be a nasty reality difference from the theoretical performance of such a system. It include things like fugitive emissions (unintended escape) that are almost impossible to eliminate from any built system.

    I would add the concern that any Carbon Captured needs to be as certain as possible to be locked away (very likely locked away is not good enough). This concern would also apply to CCS that is being claimed as a credit against GHGs from fossil fuel activity. An aspect of this concern is that pumping captured CO2 into underground features that are "Hoped to be permanent storage" is potentially limited to things like salt caverns in geologically "quiet (very little quake activity) regions".

    The understanding needs to be that fossil fuel use actually has to be rapidly reduced and, in addition, there needs to be systems that take CO2 out of the atmosphere even if there is no profit to be made from such systems. And those systems taking CO2 out of the atmosphere need to be sustainable - no harm done by their operation or they just become a new harmful unsustainable way of doing things. And sustainable Carbon Capture systems need to start operating as soon as possible, no waiting for the "lowest cost system" to be developed. And they should be paid for by the least deserving among the wealthy who obtained wealth or other benefits from fossil fuel use through the past 30 years (when the wealthy should have been leading the way to Carbon-Zero living).

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  6. Enhanced rock weathering  has potential at two billion tons of CO2 per year. The required source rock is abundant. Sounds relatively benign and environmentally friendly, compared to crazy ideas like BECCS.

    However direct air capture technology does still sound useful, and appears to already be proven. Although storing the CO2 undergound intuitively sounds challenging.

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  7. Why don't we just face the reality that only three things need to be done to fix the climate problem: stop burning fossil fuels, outlaw industrial animal agriculture and reduce population to somewhere around 500 million. Certainly. As long as we have the carbon footprint of 8 billion humans and 1.445 billion bovines, nothing we do will change the trajectory.

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  8. Looking back on global history, no organism before humans had utilized fire to control his living environment. The human requirement for heat became a human requirement for propulsion and power which became a human requirement for digging up fossil fuels and eating animals. So as long as there are humans, and lots of them, the climate problem can never be solved.

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  9. Hey swampfoxh, most climate scientists (the guys who are smart enough to figure out the climate and its potential trajectory) reckon we can solve this problem without going to the extreme lengths you suggest needs implementing...

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  10. swampfoxh,

    A better solution is to have leadership (all of it, in business and politics) held to account for achieving and improving on all of the Sustainable Development Goals and everything like them that is being worked on related to fixing-undoing the harmful unsustainable things that have developed and developing sustainable improvements for the future of humanity (like nuclear non-proliferation, and COP-IPCC actions to end climate change impacts). Anyone in a leadership role impeding that effort should be removed from their position and everyone their harmful leadership actions "helped" should be penalized to remove the gains obtained from the harmful pursuits of benefit.

    As for global population. If the highest impacting portion of the population was trimmed off the total sustainable global population could be 10 to 12 billion people based on current technology, with higher numbers possible with the development of better sustainable ways of living.

    If you really are interested in understanding what is required for a better future for humanity, including population considerations, I recommend:

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  11. Of course, any CCS technology runs into the question of how much it costs, in comparison to not emitting the CO2 to begin with.

    An early effort at full scale is the SaskPower coal-fired plant in SE Saskatchewan (Canada). Adding the technology to an existing power plant, it reduces efficiency, only part of the CO2 is permanently stored - and it is being used to increase the extraction efficiency of nearby fossil fuel deposits - and the economics haven't been quite was aws originally claimed.

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  12. A global population of 500 million is not going to happen fast enough to solve the climate problem. Killing billions of people is too evil and stupid to contemplate, and even if the global fertility rate fell to zero tomorrow (which it obviously wont) population size still wouldnt change fast enough to keep warming under 2 - 3 degrees. Consider the demographics.

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  13. Not suggesting we kill anybody. Merely showing that whatever we do can't really solve the problem unless the population falls to a half billion and industrial animal ag is outlawed along with go.ssil fuels being left in the ground. We can see that population size can't change fast enough, so while we are "mitigating" damage to a hospitable climate, we are "exterminating" ourselves...and we all recognize that the carbon footprint of 8 billion consuming "stuff" and emitting wastes will overwhelm and bury all of our remedies.  Carbon Capture is all bunk science since we already don't know what to do with the CO2 we have, let alone what to do with the CO2 we still want to kick out into the atmosphere, just so we can continue burning fossil fuels.

     Surely no one believes that sequestering CO2 in the ground is expecting it to stay there. Surely, plate tectonics is still operable on Earth. When you think about that, we should remind ourselves that nature already sequestered fossil fuel materials in the ground...then we dug it up.

    And when we think about mitigation efforts, we should consider that most of the planet's humans are not going to cooperate. We might be able to engineer a reduction in some emissions, but we already know that large numbers of people aren't going to let us do they are not letting us do it now.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Please move on from this line of discussion.

  14. For all his technological brilliance and extraordinary engineering prowess, Elon is better to concentrate on further refining his Tesla empire and leaving the question of 'carbon capture' to the farmers who are operating their farms along Regen Agriculture principles.

    The capacity of the soils to capture and hold carbon (and sufficient depth) is effectively infinite. As long as there is atmospheric CO2, N2, water, sun and chlorophyll, then plants and their mycorrhizal symbiotes will continue to build soil carbon.

    The problems is that current agricultural practices that stem from the well intended but ultimately flawed thinking of the Green (agribizz) revolution, are actually inhibiting photosynthesis and slowly degrading soils worldwide.
    Some of the problems.
    1.Heavy machines compact the soil and prevent atmospheric N2 from getting to the roots.
    2. Deep ploughing destroys the mycorrhizal fungal networks that are vital to the process.
    3. Inorganic N2 compounds are added that actually inhibit the chemistry of carbon storage.
    4. Inorganic N2 run of is bad and N2 creates N2), a potent GHG.
    The less agrichemicals that are used, the healthier the plants, the animals (including humans) that eat the produce, the farmers who farm the land.

    The more regen agriculture, the more healthy soils that hold carbon and water.
    If 10% of all agricultural land across the planet were to be farmed using proven, relatively simple, cheap and healthy Reg Agriculture principles, that would sequester approximately 46.g Gt of CO2/yr. That is more than the approx. 25.6 Gt that is currently emitted and so we could begin to bring down the Keeling curve. All that stands in the way of this are the vested interests of 1) agribizz which makes approx. $250 – 300B/year from feeding the current problem 2) technobizz that claims giant vacuums can process the planet’s atmosphere, as in some Sci Fi novel.

    The source for some of the numbers

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  15. The rules of Regen Ag require a massive and coercive change in human behavior. Still, very few scientists are addressing Animal Agriculture's negative impact on any chance to implement Regen Ag. Meanwhile, CCS offers another mirage undertaken by the fossil fuel industry to avoid stranded assets and have sold a bill of goods to the public that CCS will solve the larger emissions problem. If we are going to discuss solutions that require an "ought" followed by a statutory requirement, why wouldn't we just go with outlawing conventional plant and animal agriculture and fossil fuels? We know nobody will change their habits unless forced to do so by government fiat, so why not go for the jugular right now?

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  16. Nigelj already points out that population can't shrink fast enough to clear the 2 or 3 degree increase, yet some commenters maintain that Regen, CCT and other remedies are useful endeavors...even though they will be resisted by that very large (billions) population. So if we do these things and population still thwarts the 2 or 3 degree goal, what's to follow?

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Again, time to move on from this line of discussion.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right. This privilege can and will be rescinded if the posting individual continues to treat adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Moderating this site is a tiresome chore, particularly when commentators repeatedly submit offensive or off-topic posts. We really appreciate people's cooperation in abiding by the Comments Policy, which is largely responsible for the quality of this site.

    Finally, please understand that moderation policies are not open for discussion. If you find yourself incapable of abiding by these common set of rules that everyone else observes, then a change of venues is in the offing.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it. Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  17. Richard at 14

    "If 10% of all agricultural land across the planet were to be farmed using proven, relatively simple, cheap and healthy Reg Agriculture principles, that would sequester approximately 46.g Gt of CO2/yr. That is more than the approx. 25.6 Gt that is currently emitted and so we could begin to bring down the Keeling curve.

    These comments contain errors. They make uncited claims. Read my comment @1 based on a published, peer reviewed meta study. Not sure how you could have even missed it. Paraphrasing the study, soils can be made to sequester about 1.9 gigatonnes of carbon a year (which is approx 9 gigatonnes of CO2). And total emissions is approx 37 gigatonnes per year, easily googled. As per the study, this sequestration process requires virtually all the worlds croplands to be used.

    I get so tired of exaggerations. That is not to diminish the obvious value of regenerative agriculture, and the criticisms of industrial agriculture look roughly correct. Regenerative agriculture is a good thing for several reasons. Over selling the concept just seems like it could backfire and will give ammunition to the critics.

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  18. Swampfox @15

    "why wouldn't we just go with outlawing conventional plant and animal agriculture and fossil fuels? We know nobody will change their habits unless forced to do so by government fiat, so why not go for the jugular right now?"

    It would be nice and clean and simple, but is probably just not politically viable. No political party to my knowledge has proposed this because they are probably scared they would loose too much support in the polls, because not everyone wants to go that far. And you cannot simply outlaw fossil fules because we dont have an alternative fully in place. It would have to be done in a phased way, but you know that. And of course there is pressure on the government from the huge industrial farming lobby and fossil fuel industry, and these are big campaign donors.

    However certain other things do promote change. Its proven that carbon taxes help (look it up on wikipedia and read the studies) and renewable subsidies provably help. 

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  19. @Nigelj 17,

    One of the issues we have with studies like the Nature study you posted and Richards' citation is context.

    You can claim it is exaggeration, but actually more important to be understood is that there are fundamental problems using the industrial ag infrastructure for regenerative ag that limits the rate of sequestration substantially.

    Richard is using numbers from regenerative ag practised in a way not limited by the current industrial ag (green revolution) and associated secondary industries. Your Nature study details improvements on industrial ag, but without changing the basic models. It is not suprising that the current paradigm is not ideally suited for sequestering carbon and falls significantly short of what many farmers brave and lucky enough to work outside the support of that model have been able to do.

    Adding cover crops between monoculture commodity crop harvests is certainly beneficial, and using no till with covercrops between commodity crops even better yet. But as much better as this may be, it is nothing even close to the potential of a native tallgrass prairie. And THAT can bypass all the whole commodity crop infrastructure and easily sequester orders of magnitude more carbon per year.....And also at the same time produce more food per acre than now.

    But you really need to make pretty big changes to the whole food system to make that sort of future a reality.

    Don't think that you and Richard are as far away as the numbers you parry about seem. Truth is you are simply looking at two different things, yet describing them as accurately as you can.

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  20. Since this is a scientific site it would be helpful if people supported their arguments with citations and not just empty assertions.  Long, unsupported diatribes, especially doomer messages, are not very helpful in advancing the discussion.  Scientists have not yet given up on reducing carbon pollution and feeding the current population of the world. 

    See Jacobson et al 2018 and Connelly et al 2016 for possible solutions to the carbon problem in providing enough energy for adanced societies. Red Baron has previously posted extensive links suggesting a large amount of meat can be produced without a carbon disaster.  Perhaps carbon could even be sequestered.  I disagree with some of his conclusions but he has demonstrated that his position can be defended with citations.

    Swampfox: what peer reviewed studies can you produce to support your wild claims?  I note that you have not even cited a newspaper article in support of your rants.  Why should I believe you instead of Red Baron?

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  21. I'm alway skeptical of any claim that includes something like "feeding all the people." Over 80 million acres are devoted to growing corn in the US. I'll leave to Red Baron the calculations to determine how much carbon that could store if used differently than in the extreme industrial fashion required by corn growing. Of all that corn, 60% goes directly to ethanol production and feed stock, another 10% to dry distiller grains with solubles (which requires further energy input), then another 11% to other processings. Other processings include high fructose corn syrups, an addition to human diet that has no value whatsoever from the nutrition and health point of view, and is arguably detrimental to health. 

    This means that over 80% of the use for corn has been artificially created to find avenues to an overproduction so severe that the stuff is not worth enough for farmers to make a living. Corn farmers have been subsidy dependent for literally generations. This entire system is total nonsense, from any angle: economic, social, environmental, thermodynamic, agricultural. It is complete madness.


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  22. Moderator. I'm not trying to disrupt the orderliness of this conversation. I have been following SkepSci for eight years. I use it for my lectures on Climate Change: Impact of an Outlaw Species" which I have delivered to thousands of people over the last 7 years. It's not outrageous, as some assert, that industrial animal agriculture or current plant agriculture is the major contributor to GGEs, nor it is outrageous to tag the emissions footprint of 8 billion humans as the principle cause of the climate problem. Really, the climate scientists are their own problem. We find the evidence, present it to the politicians, they distort it to fit their own narratives and the human race ends up fiddling while Rome burns. The climate scientists need to put their foot down and start demanding policy changes instead of meekly slipping away into their labs and relocking the door. Scientists need to run the climate mitigation show...if they don't start running it, it will never get's not getting done now.

    The main reaction to my lecture is, "Gosh, I didn't know all this was going on."

    That should tell contributors to SkepSci how ineffective their research has been, how little influence they have. What good is their science if it never reaches the public, if it never frightens anyone into action? 

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Moderation complaints and off-topic  snipped.  Others have pointed you to a post better-suited for your conjectures about animal agriculture.

    Time to move on.


  23. swampfox wrote that animal agriculture is "the major contributor to GGEs". No, it's not. I suspect they have watched the highly deceptive (and wrong/dishonest) film 'Cowpocalypse'. swampfox asserts that they have have followed for 8 years so they should have seen the article about the subject which states that the actual figure is around 11%.

    The F.A.O. estimate that the actual figure is about 14.5%

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  24. We have all read the same literature, it doesn't need constant citing. The F&AO numbers don't include many items needed in determining animal ag's footprint, like the footprint of refrigeration. I'm not a ranter, I'm a climate science writer and a faculty member of the F&AO has a vested interest in keeping the numbers low, they are a "cow" interest group. I'm an omnivore, so I don't have a bias about cows, but bovines pose two major problems: 1.445 billion of them, nose to tail, would circle the earth at the equator about 100 times, along with the human race, shoulder to shoulder, another hundred times. That is an impact that needs to be reckoned with, but is an attention that is being ignored. 

    Regen Ag has its own intractability, along with the Savory "bovines forever" solution. We all know the last ten ice ages created the twenty (now less) feet of the "Great American Desert", not the Buffalo. The buffalo theory is invalidated by that animal's need to stay near water while avoiding wolf packs in the tall grass prairie. Also, antique inventories of the buffalo hide industry of the 19th century show less than 3 million carcasses, so Savory's estimates of herd strength are highly inflated. The very idea of a bovine eating grass, taking materials from that grass for its own development, invalidates the returning value theory of soil Regen, unless, of course, the animal died and rotted on the prairie, returning its store of leached nutrients to the ground. This is a much longer story, so I won't take up anymore of your time, its apparent that some of you don't want to be reminded that most every solution posed to fix the climate problem has caveats, although the science of the "what" and "why" we have about the  climate problem is pretty solid.

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  25. Swampfox:

    I read a lot about Arctic Ice, sea level rise and renewable energy.  I do not have time to also keep up to date on agriculture.  Therefor I do not read the literature you read on agriculture.  It seems you do not read much since you have cited no references in your rants.

    If you want to make a scientific argument you must cite your references for everyone else.  You are simply claiming you alone know what should be done.  Your claim of authority seems pretty slim to me.  Try finding some references so we can check your claims.

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  26. There is more to be addressed regarding agriculture than the impacts it has on climate change or the potential for agricultural practices to be changed in ways that help reduce the climate change harm that has already been caused.

    A more holistic view regarding the issues is presented in the University of Stockholm led development of the "Planetary Boundaries" evaluation. Key points from that evaluation related to agriculture are the ways that developed agricultural activity can be seen to be significant reasons that global human activity has already exceeded Planetary Capacity regarding Biochemical Flows (specifically the Nitrogen Cycle) and Biodiversity.

    That understanding of planetary boundaries is understandably a major aspect of the basis for the Sustainable Development Goals. The latest annual report regarding the Sustainable Development Goals effort, Human Development Report 2020, discusses the details of the Planetary Boundaries (Note: Although climate change Planetary Boundary impacts are not as significant as other boundary impacts at this time, it is understood that the developed systems need significant change to keep climate change impacts from doing more harm to the future. The HDR 2020 focuses a lot of attention on Climate Change impacts because more climate change makes it more difficult to achieve the other SDGs).

    The most important understanding is that the challenges to the development of a sustainable improving future for humanity are mainly getting the "highest negative impacting people" to be less harmful, and to get the "Supposedly Superior People" to be more Helpful, especially helping the less fortunate.

    That understanding leads to the awareness that the behaviours of richer people as leaders are key considerations. The people who are wealthier have the ability to be the least harmful and most helpful. Those among the richer in the global population, which is the majority of people in the "supposedly more advanced nations", who are not acting that way, including the leadership they vote for politically and what they encourage economically (how they spend their money), is a detriment to the future of humanity. And anyone using their wealth to influence popular support contrary to achieving the corrections required to develop sustainable improvements for the benefit of the future is behaving most harmfully, even if it isn't "illegal" (which exposes the reality that Law and Order and Regulation can be harmfully inadequate or incorrect when powerful interests influence and get to compromise that type of stuff).

    10 to 12 billion people can be decently sustainably fed with current technology. The ways that the systems that have developed fail to do that is "The Problem". And over-consumption and food waste by the "Supposed more Advanced, the Supposed Leaders, are serious aspects of the systemic problem).

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  27. swampfoxh @24, Savorys claims about how much carbon grasslands soil can be made to sequester by certain types of rotational grazing are probably exaggerated. This website did an article on his work a year or two ago, that demonstrated this exaggeration with reference to published studies. 

    That said, there is published evidence grasslands can be made to sequester at least some additional carbon with the right rotational grazing eg Nordberg. The worlds grasslands grazed by cattle are often metres deep in carbon rich soil, which suggests something is going on. I suspect the truth of how much carbon can be sequestered by rotational grazing  is probably somewhere in the middle between the various claims. However open grasslands grazing like this has low cattle density to work properly, so it likely means fewer total cattle numbers globally than presently.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Please take this discussion to the appropriate thread.

  28. Elon Musk like Bill Gates is a true believer in that technology can solve all the problems - a behavioural change away from the economy of things is regarded as unnecessary.

    In the next few decades we will find out the reality.

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