Carbon, companies and claims of a net-zero climate future

18 Desember 2020

As some of the world’s most recognizable (and fossil-fuel dependent) brands end the year with grand announcements about climate commitments, analysts have been quick to respond to their ambitions with questions about what their plans will actually achieve in terms of delivering a carbon-free future.

First came the news that United Airlines plans to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 100 percent by 2050. That’s a cause for optimism, especially where the global aviation industry is concerned. But a closer look shows that United’s plans really involve a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive, itself a partnership between the Occidental oil company and its carbon storage arm, and the United States-based Rusheen Capital Management.

The deal depends on Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology developed by Carbon Engineering in Canada, and relies on a future plant facility designed to bury a million tons of carbon annually in the Permian Basin.

United says DAC is “one of the few proven ways to physically correct for aircraft emissions,” and can scale to capture millions and potentially billions of metric tons of CO2 annually.

“The captured COwill then be permanently, safely and securely stored deep underground by Occidental, a process certified by independent third parties. The commitment – the first to be announced in the aviation industry – will help 1PointFive build the first industrial-sized Direct Air Capture plant in the United States,” adds United in its statement.

“A single plant is expected to capture and permanently sequester one million tons of COeach year, the equivalent of the work of 40 million trees, but covering a land area about 3,000 times smaller.”

The United investment is “immensely positive” and welcomed by the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy, a research center at American University. That doesn’t make it a breakthrough.

“United’s pledge for support of DAC development cannot and should not be read in itself as a credible commitment to cleaning up the airline’s past or future carbon pollution,” said institute directors.

“Instead, what United is doing here is helping to establish a technological pathway that may, in the future, yield real and significant carbon removal benefits. Whenever companies are talking about DAC or other forms of carbon removal, money spent on near-term research and development should be viewed as distinct from money spent over a number of years on the actual sequestering of carbon.”

The authors – Simon Nicholson, Wil Burns and David Morrow – say it’s a bit like a child cleaning up spilled Cheerios on the floor. It’s great if the kid promises to get a vacuum cleaner to scoop up the cereal, but there’s no credit for cleaning up the mess until the vacuum cleaner actually does that.

“It’s also important to understand what the kid’s plan is if the vacuum cleaner doesn’t arrive or if it fails to operate as advertised,” they said, extending the carbon-emissions metaphor. “And, most importantly, what’s the kid’s plan for limiting the flow of Cheerios to the floor?”

Meanwhile, there are similar questions raised about British-based oil supermajor bp and its newly announced majority-stake investment in carbon offset developer Finite Carbon. “Putting a price on carbon can make it possible for anyone with the ability to protect, plant or improve forests to generate revenue from their efforts,” says Finite Carbon founder Sean Carney.

Yet even a more accessible carbon offset market doesn’t magically “erase” emissions and may encourage a “deal with it later” mindset among consumers. The reliance on forests, sequestration and creative offset accounting may be one reason why United is moving toward the underground storage plan instead.

“This distinction being drawn by United between their DAC investment and offsets looks important,” say the American University authors. “The main benefit will be if United makes the drawing down of carbon part of their core operations rather than as something that customers can add on a voluntary basis.”

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