Environmentalists Oppose New CO2 Scrubber Idea

Environmentalists Oppose New CO2 Scrubber Idea
August 1, 2008

Scientists at Columbia University are developing a carbon dioxide (CO2) scrubber device that removes one ton of CO2 from the air every day.

While some see the scrubber as an efficient and economical way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, many environmentalists are opposing the technology because it allows people to use fossil fuels and emit carbon in the first place.

Mitigates Fossil Fuel Effects

Columbia University physicist Klaus Lackner, who is leading the research team, believes producing a large number of CO2 scrubbers can keep to a minimum any rise in atmospheric CO2 without the economically painful elimination of inexpensive energy sources.

"I'd rather have a technology that allows us to use fossil fuels without destroying the planet, because people are going to use them anyway," Lackner told the June 1 London Telegraph.

Activists Target Coal

Environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace have consistently opposed similar technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, because they do not address what they see as the root of the problem.

On May 5, for example, the activist groups Students Promoting Environmental Action and Save Our Cumberland Mountains demonstrated in Knoxville, Tennessee against carbon sequestration. Repeatedly citing a Greenpeace position paper, they argued eliminating the use of coal, not reducing atmospheric CO2, should be society's primary goal.

"Our position is we need to start phasing out coal as soon as possible," said Cathie Bird of Save Our Cumberland Mountains.

"Carbon capture and storage does not make coal clean," read a banner hoisted by protesters.

Reveals Activists' Real Motives

Leading energy analysts agreed with the scientists, rather than the protesters.

"If CO2 emission reduction is a goal, then investigating and investing in strategies for capitalizing on our existing infrastructure efficiently and effectively makes more sense than throwing away reasonable options simply because they don't align with a political philosophy about our energy economy," said Amy Kaleita, an environmental policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

"This is just one more piece of evidence that environmentalists aren't concerned about solving a problem," said Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. "Every problem, as they see it, is one way to restrict people's lifestyles, and if you come up with a technological fix that can solve a problem but doesn't require sacrifice and lets us go about our business the way we were before, they're not happy about it, even if it solves the problem.

"Now, I don't know about whether this technology will solve global warming," said Burnett, "but let's say it is cost-effective, and let's assume for the sake of argument that global warming is a real, serious problem that needs to be solved. Then I would argue that this technology may be a good thing."

Ultimate Goal at Issue

"I think the question is, what is the objective?" asked Erin Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in an interview for this article. "For me, the objective is reducing the harmful effects of climate change. It is going to be extremely challenging to reduce CO2 levels to the point where we can stabilize the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at, say, 550 ppm (parts per million), and this is only a mild goal.

"Most environmentalists would like to see a much more stringent goal," Baker added. "If we want to have a reasonable chance of achieving this goal, then we need to consider a portfolio of technologies in order to achieve this. This means keeping CCS (carbon capture and storage), nuclear, and biofuels, for instance, on the table.

"If we have some kind of major breakthrough in solar technologies and electricity storage technologies, then we won't need to rely so heavily on these other technologies. But if we don't have any breakthroughs and we refuse to use our full arsenal, we will most likely fail to combat climate change and cause economic hardships, especially for the most vulnerable.

"I am not necessarily advocating a full-scale implementation of any of these technologies, but rather that we continue to [research and develop] a wide range of technologies, and not flat-out reject any possibilities," Baker said.


Krystle Russin (krystle@purepolitics.com) writes from Texas.