Carnegie Mellon University
June 12, 2023

Decarbonization: Climate change is personal now

The evidence is clear: To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we must drastically restrict releasing greenhouse gases and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. Increasingly common “once in-a-century” storms and unyielding droughts underscore the consequences of human-driven greenhouse-gas emissions, of which CO2 is the main culprit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says carbon capture deployment is lagging if we want to meet global mitigation targets. With the stakes so high, why is this the case? 

Ed Rubin, a Nobel laureate on the topic, sums it up simply: “Why would anyone spend good money to prevent CO2 from going into the air if there is no incentive or requirement to do so?” 

And here begins a lesson on the economics that shape our motivations for generating and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Rubin, professor emeritus of engineering and public policy and mechanical engineering, was a coordinating lead author of the special report on the capture and storage of carbon dioxide by the IPCC, which, jointly with Al Gore, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

“Would you be willing to spend thousands of dollars more for an electric car to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere?” asks Rubin.

Some people with financial means may, but others and big industry, not so much.

“If you are a factory, and CO2 is emitted as a byproduct of making whatever it is you make, say cement, why would you spend 60% more to capture the carbon when the other cement guys aren’t doing anything? What would it take for you to control your air pollutant emissions? In most cases, the answer tends to be a stick in the form of government regulations,” explains Rubin.

The government's role

Traditionally, government intervention is how we solve environmental problems in the United States. The role of the government is to enact measures that help solve problems. Typically, this happens with a mix of carrots, or incentives, and sticks, or requirements. The biggest improvements in environmental quality have all required sticks.

“We require coal-burning powerplants to install equipment to control major air pollutants; we don’t simply ask them to consider it,” says Rubin.

What makes the carbon dioxide problem different from past environmental challenges is that throughout our economy carbon dioxide is more pervasive in terms of sources and activities that give rise to atmospheric emissions, and its adverse impacts are less obvious. In contrast, we successfully solved water and other air pollution problems that were harmful to human health, especially when the sources of those problems were relatively constrained. 

For example, three decades ago in the United States, we targeted sulfur dioxide from coal-burning powerplants to curtail acid rain. That required emission reductions from just a few hundred facilities in one sector of the economy. However, with greenhouse gases, and CO2 in particular, “there is not just one place to go to solve the problem,” says Rubin.

Though dealing with the many sources of greenhouse-gas emissions is challenging, Rubin believes there is another factor that explains the slow pace of actions to control these emissions. “There is nothing people care about more than their health,” states Rubin. And this point ties to the initial question as to why we haven’t done more to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. 

“While there are important scientific differences between traditional air pollutants and greenhouse gases, in my mind, what distinguishes the global climate problem from other environmental problems is that it hasn’t yet been personal,” says Rubin.

“Politically and socially, there haven’t been the same urgency and personal stakes as there have been for other environmental issues like polluted water and dirty air, where there were direct and visible impacts on health and well-being. But now it is getting a little more personal, and that’s the big change I’ve seen. Climate change impacts are getting more attention because they are unavoidable, and they are happening more rapidly than science anticipated a couple of decades ago.”

Glancing backwards, Rubin explains that a great deal of public understanding (and misunderstanding) about climate change was influenced by media activities supported by the oil, gas, and utility industries. As a result, there has not been an overwhelming sense of necessity to deal with climate change politically. But times are changing. Now we are experiencing some of the adverse effects of climate change that were predicted by scientists long ago. “Because climate change happens more quickly in some parts of the globe, a lot of those impacts have become visible sooner than people may have anticipated,” says Rubin.

“We’re now seeing the linkages between climate change and other phenomena like forest fires, droughts, heat waves, and floods. If your house burns down in a forest fire, that gets your attention. If your house floods because of a hurricane, that gets your attention. When science links those tragedies to climate change induced by human activities, then the realization kicks in, ‘Hey this isn’t something far in the future that doesn’t affect me or my family.’ It’s getting personal now,” says Rubin.

“I think the realization that climate change is real and can affect us individually, and that it is here now, is helping to catalyze more political action than it has in the past.”

Carrots and sticks

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed last year, pledges about $369 billion in climate investments, including $270 billion in tax credits to encourage carbon reductions. Rubin, like many members of the scientific community, sees the measure as a good first step but much more is needed. 

The package of incentives, “is a very large set of carrots, which hopefully will speed up investments that people and businesses make in their own economic interests. The basic expectation is that these incentives will drive down the cost of low-carbon technologies along the so-called learning curve. As technologies become cheaper over time, solutions will be more economical,” says Rubin.

The legislation provides incentives for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as well as measures to boost carbon capture, utilization, and storage. The International Energy Agency and the IPCC concur that carbon capture and storage is imperative if we want to limit average global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C (2.7°F) to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

“What it comes down to is: what will it take to avoid more than 1.5°C of warming? The answer is to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2050. But today the planet is already 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. So, if we continue on the current trajectory, or reduce emissions by only a little, there is no way we’re going to limit the global average to 1.5°C unless we also figure out a way to take substantial amounts of carbon out of the air,” says Rubin.

Carbon capture, broadly speaking

“When we talk about carbon capture today, it can mean different things to different people,” says Rubin.

Up until recently, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has headlined discussions on removing carbon dioxide from coal or gas-burning power plants, or from large industrial facilities like cement, steel, and petrochemical plants that also release large amounts of CO2 during production. “Technologies for capturing CO2 in industrial settings have been used for many decades,” Rubin notes. “What’s new is to sequester it deep underground to prevent any release to the atmosphere.” 

Yet there are other ways to capture or remove carbon from our atmosphere such as by planting more trees or using direct air capture systems, which is technology that “is like a big vacuum cleaner for the air.” Air capture technologies are new and not yet used commercially, but they could be essential to mitigating climate change if other measures prove inadequate.

Expanding incentives for carbon capture methods and technologies should speed their development and implementation. With the proper incentives, CCS can make sense for some industries both financially and politically, whereas direct air capture and sequestration is technically possible, but still extremely expensive and not possible on a large scale soon.

However, looking broadly across the economic landscape, other factors are coming into play: In particular, the cost of renewables has come down dramatically. “The full cost of a reliable energy system is still much greater than some of the numbers you see bandied around for renewables, but there is a lot of investment now in battery and other energy storage technologies that are needed. I’m fairly confident it will pay off, and costs will come down. The same is true for other technologies. If there is a market for carbon capture systems, their cost will also come down,” says Rubin.

“The industrial sector is where carbon capture and storage is most likely to take hold since there are few other options for deep carbon reductions. But again, what is needed is a strong policy driver, because at the end of the day, CCS is an add-on technology, like scrubbers or water treatment plants, that increases the cost of the product. So, the environmental benefit of carbon capture only makes economic sense if there are broad restrictions on carbon emissions, or a market-based policy such as an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade program,” he says. “What we have today is a basket of carrots and few, if any, sticks.”

“I’ve increasingly underestimated the political power of vested interests. There is strong resistance to change when it affects their pocketbooks and livelihood. But the world is starting to come around now as climate impacts are getting more personal. It is taking a lot more time than I would like, so we are also going to be doing a lot of adaptation to climate change before we see substantial progress to 1.5°C. But history shows that once we get serious, we eventually achieve our environmental goals, often at a much lower cost than anticipated.”