The Politics of Air Capture

April 26th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A while back we prepped our readers to get ready for air capture. This article from a New Jersey newspaper, the Star-Ledger, describes how one air capture technology is progressing and how different interests are already taking political positions on its merits:

Klaus Lackner’s invention has been called many things — a wind scrubber, a synthetic tree, a carbon vacuum, even a giant fly swatter.

The energy guru, inventor and professor at Columbia University prefers to call it an “air extractor.” By any name, however, Lackner predicts that the giant machines he is building will one day stop global warming in its tracks.

After three years of intensive experiments, Lackner and scientists at Global Research Technologies LLC, in Arizona, have produced a working model of the device, which can sop up carbon dioxide, the dreaded greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

“Look, it’s one arrow in the quiver,” said Lackner, reached by telephone. “This begins to offer a solution to an overwhelming problem.”

Others were more expansive.

“This significant achievement holds incredible promise in the fight against climate change,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia. “The world may, sooner rather than later, have an important tool in this fight.”

Here is one reaction to the technology:

“There’s no magic bullet to save us from the problem of global warming,” said Kert Davies, an energy expert for Greenpeace USA in Washington, D.C. Removing greenhouse gases so readily will not encourage people to develop alternate, renewable technologies, he said, and strive for energy efficiency.

Such techno-fixes also miss the point of the environmental degradation brought on by the use of fossil fuels, he said.

Carbon scrubbers won’t stop oil spills, habitat-destroying strip mining and ozone, he said. “It’s like having cancer and putting a Band-Aid on it,” he added.

Besides, Davies said, the devices, which will in principle be larger than the prototype, will be eyesores. “Can you imagine thousands of acres of giant fly swatters across the land?”

If reducing fossil fuels is not really about carbon dioxde, as the Greenpeace spokesman suggests but also about many other benefits, then why shouldn’t these benefits play a more central role in energy policy debates? And being so quick to abandon the carbon dioxide argument is not an effective strategy for compelling action on carbon dioxide. Greenpeace has come out in favor of wind power and the required acres of windmills across the land. This is hard to square with CO2-removal technologies as eyesores, unless one recognizes that the aesthetics of a technology appear to be a function of its political role.

I have no idea if Professor Lackner’s ideas will prove to have technical merit or not. However, I do believe that all options should be on the table, and we should resist efforts to limit choice prematurely.

4 Responses to “The Politics of Air Capture”

  1. Jim Lebeau Says:

    They had nice CO2 scrubbers on the submarine I was on over 25 years ago. So I am not too impressed. A simpler solution to this “problem” would be to produce a great deal of biomass, render it to charcoal, and sequester the charcoal.
    All of the carbon in the charcoal would have come from the CO2 in the atmosphere. Charcoal is easier to sequester than CO2.

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  3. Roger C Says:

    Two comments:
    The 90,000 tons of CO2 a year is about what a 400 MW coal-fired power plant emits a week.
    I am very frustrated by individuals and organizations that are using global warming and CO2 reductions to further agendas. For example, those who say we have to cut CO2 but no nukes are acceptable are making it difficult to really address this problem. If in fact the potential for catastrophic problems means we have to act now why should any potential solutions be taken off the table.

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  5. JamesG Says:

    You may see the Greenpeace position as making no sense but if you analyse it a bit more then it makes perfect sense. Greenpeace stand for a clean pollution-free environment hence they primarily advocate clean, renewable non-nuclear energy sources. However, owing to cheap fossil fuels it seemed the only way to convince people to move to renewable energy was to overhype the dangers to the planet of excess CO2. Whether they actually believed it or not is irrelevant from that perspective. Now the chickens have come home to roost and many people are now so scared they are advocating both CO2-free nuclear power and CO2 capture, neither of which encourages alternative energies or any real reduction of pollution. Ironic really! Also, Greenpeace know just as well as Jim Clarke or indeed anyone, that CO2 enriches plant growth and hence a small overburden is probably even good for the environment but industrial CO2 always comes along with a pile of more nasty pollutants so trying to remove the good stuff without at the same time removing the real toxins is just a stupid move.

    Personally I am in two minds: I hate the overhype, the bandwagon science and the reliance on extremely dubious computer modeling but I’m happy that finally we have been focusing on alternative energies. Developing a CO2 capture solution would just encourage people to continue using gas guzzlers and wasting precious energy resources. Why not capture the water vapour instead? According to all AGW theories it is the additional water vapour that causes the main warming via positive feedback and clean water is what humans will really lack in the coming years. A Win-Win situation perhaps?

    For the record, I am an ex nuclear engineer, an ex oil engineer, a CO2-free fuel cell designer, a developer of accurate computer modeling software and an ardent environmentalist so I am all over the place on this issue. Maybe I have more perspective?

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  7. JamesG Says:


    Many people, like yourself, are also furthering their own nuclear power agenda on the back of the global warming scare. I am also pro-nuclear but I accept that a lot of people are even more scared of nuclear proliferation than higher global temperatures. Iran’s desperate want of nuclear weapons is enough to worry anyone, as is the recent polonium poisoning in London. Nuclear technology remains the ultimate terrorist weapon. Also Uranium is neither renewable or plentiful and fast breeders using plutonium are a non-starter. Probably the Thorium reactor idea should be hyped up more as, being largely clean and safe, it stands more chance of acceptability, perhaps even one day by Greenpeace.