This is the fifth entry in a series of six email exchanges between two climate-change experts on the future use of coal. The series was originally posted here.

Editorial note: Current social and political barriers to adopting carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) are not insurmountable, Mackler argues. The first step toward a solution lies with the coalitions that are developing to drive the legislation that will provide acceptable regulation of the capture and storage industry. The stage is set for emerging entrepreneurs.

Dear David,

Thanks. It’s clear to me and hopefully to our readers that we do share an awful lot of commonality in how we view the climate problem and where we see its ultimate solutions. I’d like to conclude this exchange with a few other points on the imperative of finding a path for coal that doesn’t destroy our climate and in the process attempt to persuade you that if we don’t do this in the next two decades, everything else is academic.

Two points are crucial. The first is that the technologies to capture and store CO2 are not “out there” but “right here.” I’m glad to hear you mostly agree on this point. The second is that if we’re serious about saving the climate someone must take advantage of them. Let me explain.

More on point 1. The combination of technical, economic, and social hurdles preventing CCS [carbon dioxide capture and storage] from taking hold are quite nuanced and deserve a little more attention. As a friend of mine suggests, saying that we don’t know how to do CCS today is a little like saying in June of 1969 that we didn’t know how to put a man on the moon. Sure it hadn’t been done before, but we had put men in orbit of the earth and the moon and successfully performed unmanned lunar landings. A manned lunar landing just hadn’t yet been tried. The fact that an executive of an electric company with lots of conventional coal assets doesn’t think CCS is ready for prime time is not exactly a cold shower in my view. Look to the drivers of innovation — the technology companies — and you’ll find several commercial options to do this, available today, with performance guaranties. It’s not surprising that coal with CCS hasn’t been tried yet, why would anyone have done it without an incentive to do so? I also would suggest that if we got serious about wanting to deploy CCS, the storage regulations would come together pretty quickly. Many quite capable people are deeply engaged in this as we speak. Your point on the looming NIMBY [not in my back yard] barrier is probably the most troubling. I will return to this shortly.

More on point 2: I wish I had time to get into the details of the enormously rich analytical information that has been generated by economic and climate models. These are, of course, quite imperfect forecasting tools but they do represent the best information we have from some of our best thinkers. And almost universally, these show the slow lags in our energy system and its ability to transform over the course of the century. They also show great agreement on the fact that if CCS is available as an option (i.e. NIMBY concerns are overcome) it almost certainly is one of the least cost options available for decarbonizing power production in the next few decades. See analysis from the EPA [PDF] and the EIA for starters. If coal is outcompeted by other alternatives, then all the better but ruling it out from the get-go clearly makes a tough climb even steeper.

As the world struggles to find the willpower to take meaningful steps to dampen our climate risks, there are powerful interests pushing against the realignment of our traditional energy markets. Even just the narrative of a positive future for coal in a climate constrained economy has helped to bring important voices, such as the labor movement, onto the right side of this issue politically. Let’s not ignore the pragmatics of how legislation comes together in this country, and on that score I think it’s safe to say that we’re likely to see at least a few CCS plants on our soil. Turning attention to other big coal consuming nations — namely China and India — the recent vintage of their new coal fleets, their coal resource endowments, and their public postures on energy all indicate that it’s not likely we’ll see those facilities turned off soon. We would all be better off if there were a way to decarbonize them. As you suggest, we as a society need to come to grips with our situation and make some tough decisions. In a country that is stumbling in its attempts to build offshore wind farms, solar infrastructure in the desert, and transmission lines just about anywhere, it’s high time that we became a nation that can build things again. In that spirit, I think acceptability of CCS should be presumed if the case can be made it is safe (all indications point to the affirmative on that front). If we can’t get there, I still think that China will, and perhaps low-carbon coal doesn’t emerge in the U.S. as a climate solution; it will likely still be an important global technology.

Finally, the serious possibility of future carbon regulations has already catalyzed marvelous activity in the research community. I hope and expect the emerging entrepreneurs in this space will develop unexpected options to help us solve this problem.  Some interesting pathways are emerging as offshoots of flue-gas capture of CO2 from coal plants that just might have wider applications with profound implications. Removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere is one promising possibility that could open up a host of technological, financial, and political pathways previously unimagined. Closing our minds to climate solutions at this stage of the game is likely to constrain our solution set in unintended ways. So, by all means let’s aim high in our efforts to deal with climate change but rejecting some technology options outright before we’ve even really begun does not suggest a serious effort is underway. And I think we both agree that it’s time to get serious.

It’s been a pleasure.

Cheers,
Sasha