Carbon Capture and Green Technology

Environmentalism's Step Forward--and Two Steps Back

In June 2011, American Electric Power halted their flagship integrated clean coal and power project at the Mountaineer plant in West Virginia. The venture, jointly funded by AEP and the U.S. Department of Energy, was meant to be an international showcase for a promising environmental technology, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which steeply reduces the greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities. In the wake of the project's end, the future role of CCS remains an open question. 

Since 2004, when Tad Homer-Dixon and I wrote "Out of the Energy Box" (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2004), the energy sector has changed dramatically. Key events along the way included Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the tragedies of the disasters at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Our assessment of CCS is basically the same now as it was in 2004: Yes, CCS remains a critical technology. But more needs to be done to develop and implement it, especially in the policy world.

Man-made climate change remains the primary environmental issue of our day. The fourth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows an overwhelming global scientific consensus: rising greenhouse gases are a major component of observed climate change; some of the effects of climate change, such as the shrinking of the Greenland ice cap, are accelerating; and some profound changes to the physical climate system (for example, loss of Arctic sea ice) are being felt more quickly than climate models generally predict. These facts are not formally disputed by any of the 183 member nations that signed the reports.

What's more, the world is emitting more carbon dioxide than even the worst-case IPCC models allow. In 2010, roughly 35 billion tons of man-made CO2 entered the atmosphere -- about 70 times the weight of all human beings on earth. That annual volume is about seven billion tons more than it was in 2004, largely because of rapid economic growth in developing countries. 

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