Can CDR give new life to comprehensive carbon pollution legislation in the US?

The prospects for Federal carbon pollution legislation in the U.S. have remained bleak ever since the U.S. Senate failed to pass comprehensive climate change legislation in 2010. Even today — as scientists have grown more confident about climate change predictions, severe weather events have grown more prevalent, and the costs of clean energy technology have continued to fall — climate change related legislation does not appear politically viable in the near future. Could this change quickly if CDR played a larger role in climate policy? Here’s why it might:

Cost-effective CDR changes the fundamental political calculus for entrenched fossil-fuel interests (who are some of the largest opponents of comprehensive climate regulations). Without cost-effective CDR, oil and energy companies will have to “strand” – i.e. not extract from the ground – trillions of dollars of oil and gas assets in order to prevent climate change. The graph below must be terrifying for fossil fuel interests, as it suggests that, in order to prevent climate change, fossil-fuel related companies will have to change their business model to focus on decarbonized forms of energy (something that these companies are having difficulty with to date) or become extinct by the end of the century.  It is no surprise, in other words, that entrenched fossil interests have fought against proposed climate legislation.

Picture1

Adapted from: “Moving Below Zero” The Climate Institute

When cost-effective CDR is introduced into the political equation, however, the value of proven fossil reserves no longer evaporates completely. Instead, fossil fuel companies can continue extracting fossil resources so long as they remove at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as they emit. In essence, the light blue “carbon removal” wedge in the figure above could grow larger, enabling the continued use of additional fossil fuels. 

In a world with cost-effective CDR, proven fossil fuel assets will still lose value. But if CDR becomes cheap enough, fossil fuel interests are likely to support carbon regulation over a business-as-usual (BAU) world. Fossil fuel interests are not naive — they understand that BAU climate change also has the potential to negatively impact long-run returns to shareholders. And given their politically conservative tendencies, fossil interests would likely take the “Devil they know” (i.e. the manageable but certain loss associated with installing CDR at scale) than the “Devil they don’t” (i.e. a >2 degree C world with the potential instabilities that could result).

The proverbial elephant in the room, of course, is the fact that “a world with cost-effective CDR” is purely hypothetical today. So let’s try to make this world a reality by investing in more CDR-related R&D, as this change might just be what’s needed to unclog the political logjam surrounding climate change legislation by turning some of climate change legislation’s staunchest foes into some of its strongest allies.

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