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Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need


  • June Sekera

    (New School for Social Research
    Boston University
    University College London)

  • Andreas Lichtenberger

    (New School for Social Research)


From typhoons to wildfires, as the visible impacts of climate change mount, calls for mitigation through carbon drawdown are escalating. Environmentalists and many climatologists are urging steps to enhance biological methods of carbon drawdown and sequestration. Market actors seeing avenues for profit have launched ventures in mechanical–chemical carbon dioxide removal (CDR), seeking government support for their methods. Governments are responding. Given the strong, if often unremarked, momentum of demands for public subsidy of these commercial methods, on what cogent bases can elected leaders make decisions that, first and foremost, meet societal needs? To address this question, we reviewed the scientific and technical literature on CDR, focusing on two methods that have gained most legislative traction: point-source capture and direct air capture–which together we term “industrial carbon removal” (ICR), in contrast to biological methods. We anchored our review in a standard of “collective biophysical need,” which we define as a reduction of the level of atmospheric CO2. For each ICR method, we sought to determine (1) whether it sequesters more CO2 than it emits; (2) its resource usage at scale; and (3) its biophysical impacts. We found that the commercial ICR (C-ICR) methods being incentivized by governments are net CO2 additive: CO2 emissions exceed removals. Further, the literature inadequately addresses the resource usage and biophysical impacts of these methods at climate-significant scale. We concluded that dedicated storage, not sale, of captured CO2 is the only assured way to achieve a reduction of atmospheric CO2. Governments should therefore approach atmospheric carbon reduction as a public service, like water treatment or waste disposal. We offer policy recommendations along this line and call for an analysis tool that aids legislators in applying biophysical considerations to policy choices.

Suggested Citation

  • June Sekera & Andreas Lichtenberger, 2020. "Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need," Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, Springer, vol. 5(3), pages 1-28, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:bioerq:v:5:y:2020:i:3:d:10.1007_s41247-020-00080-5
    DOI: 10.1007/s41247-020-00080-5

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Vasudevan, Suraj & Farooq, Shamsuzzaman & Karimi, Iftekhar A. & Saeys, Mark & Quah, Michael C.G. & Agrawal, Rakesh, 2016. "Energy penalty estimates for CO2 capture: Comparison between fuel types and capture-combustion modes," Energy, Elsevier, vol. 103(C), pages 709-714.
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    4. June Sekera, 2017. "Missing from the Mainstream: The Biophysical Basis of Production and the Public Economy," GDAE Working Papers 17-02, GDAE, Tufts University.
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