Paying People to Produce Less Pollution is the Deal of the Century

If it costs $15 million to build a machine that removes the same carbon as getting a few hundred cars off the road, why not skip the middle man?

A new contraption called the “Orca,” now under construction in Switzerland, will remove about 4,000 tonnes (about 2,240 U.S. lbs) of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. It’s an oil man’s dream, a device that will allow us to keep burning fossil fuels as we kick the ball down the road until 2050, with the promise that big tech will save us. What could go wrong?

Magical-CO2-Gadget featureds

Original Image Source: "Inspector Gadget BrickHeadz" by Pellaeon is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How much CO2 pollution is 4,000 tonnes? Not much. The Guardian reports that: “According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, that equates to the emissions from about 870 cars.”

That’s pretty meager air-cleaning bang for the buck. Dive in a bit deeper and you learn that this reverse Deathstar won’t be fully operational for about 10 years. And it’s hardly a passive device. To pull the CO2 from the air, it uses fans to drive air through filters, then “injects” the captured carbon dioxide 1,000 meters into the ground to “mineralize” it. No figures are offered for how much energy all that will take, but it sounds substantial. And producing energy produces more CO2, unless it’s captured with renewable technology.

What else will $15 million buy?

But let’s ignore the obvious technical hurdles and focus on the value proposition for technotopian fixes like this. To begin, let’s think about other ways we might spend that $15 million to reduce CO2 emissions.

  • Provide free public transportation. Surveys find that many people don’t use public transit because of the cost. In New York City, the average monthly commuting cost is $119.88. That’s $1,438.56 annually. Let’s say we wanted to get an additional 870 drivers in the New York metro area out of their cars and into the metro. What if we gave them all free commuting passes? We’d pay $1.2 million per year. Result: 12 years of equivalent CO2 reduction (at $15 million), with no hidden energy production costs, and an economic boost to public transportation.
  • Insulate Existing Homes. Estimates from NAIMA suggest that bringing residential building insulation in the U.S. up to a higher standard, could rid us of 125 million tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions. What would $15 million buy? NAR estimates that the average cost to upgrade insulation in a home is $2400. That’s enough to bring 62,500 homes up to a much higher efficiency Estimates suggest current American homes produce about 6,400 lbs of CO2 annually for heating and cooling. Insulation upgrades on those 62,500 homes might would likely cut their annual HVAC-related emissions by 50 percent. Stay with me. Multiply 62,500 x 3,200 lbs of CO2 (the amount of emissions cut annually), divide by 2,000 (for tons) and you arrive at 100,000 tons! That’s more than 100 times the CO2 reduction of the $15 million machine.
  • Drive Electric. Is it too soon to trade in a gas car for an electric car? Maybe not. EVs aren’t perfect yet. Battery technology is still messy, and overly CO2 intensive, for example, but because EVs can transition seamlessly to renewable power sourcing, they have the potential to get “greener” over time. I like this analysis comparing the lifelong CO2 footprint of EVs with gas models: “Based on where EVs are being sold in the United States today, the average EV driving on electricity produces global warming emissions equal to a gasoline vehicle with a 68 MPG fuel economy rating.” The author continues:  “In a grid composed of 80 percent renewable electricity, manufacturing a BEV will result in an over 25 percent reduction in emissions from manufacturing and an 84 percent reduction in emissions from driving—for an overall reduction of more than 60 percent (compared with a BEV manufactured and driven today).”

I could go on all day with examples like these, demonstrating why technological solutions to Climate Change are quite simply a waste of money at this stage of the Climate crisis. We don’t need new technology. We need a shift in focus, and a shift in big subsidies to industries and ideas that can make the biggest difference.

Sure, if this were 2050, and we mere mostly off fossil fuels, CO2 extractors might provide a little climate stabilization, but until then, they’re a distraction--a dangerous example of what others have called “magical thinking.” We need to change the conversation every time someone comes up with a new gadget that promises to allow us to keep misbehaving and keeps the fossil fuel people running the world.