In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

What Are We Waiting For? Lessons from Covid-19 about Climate Change

Monday, February 15, 2021

Author: Sally M. Benson

Benson.gifIn the grips of a global pandemic that knocked everyone off their feet, what can be learned about responding to the growing threat of climate change?

Parallels between the Covid-19 Pandemic and Climate Change

Scientific experts had been warning that another global pandemic was a virtual certainty and that the “world is ill prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global, sustained, and threatening public-health emergency” (WHO 2011, p. 20).

It should not have been a surprise that as covid-19 spread around the world, it escalated into a devastating event, causing more than 1 million deaths and “negatively affecting global economic growth beyond anything experienced in nearly a century” (CRS 2020, p. i). No country has been spared. Entire industries have been brought to their knees. At the peak, 17 percent of the US workforce was unemployed (CRS 2020). The global economy is expected to contract by 5.2 percent in 2020 (World Bank 2020).

If only countries had been better prepared, and if only they had acted more quickly and more decisively, covid-19 could have been contained and its effects much less severe.

Similarly, scientific experts have warned about the effects of climate change—-rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and sea level rise—since the 1970s (NRC 1979; Revelle 1982; Weart 2008). Since that time there have been progressively more urgent calls for decisive action to cut emissions. But actions have been too slow and indecisive. And unlike covid-19, for which it is reasonable to expect suppression within a relatively short period, dealing with climate change is a decades- to century-long marathon.

Which brings the discussion to my point. What are we—individuals, society, government—waiting for? Why aren’t we using everything in our arsenal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? For example, why aren’t we accelerating deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology?

CCS: A Ready Tool to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The concept of CCS emerged in the 1970s (Marchetti 1977) and was implemented for the first time about 20 years later, by the Norwegian oil company Statoil (Kaarstad 1992). CCS uses chemical scrubbers to capture CO2 (Boot-Handford et al. 2014), which is then compressed and pumped deep underground into rock formations where it is permanently trapped—much like oil and gas are naturally trapped for millions of years (Benson and Cole 2008).

CCS reduces emissions by 90 percent or more from a wide variety of sources—electricity from gas or coal, cement manufacturing, steel mills, hydrogen from reforming of natural gas, chemical production, and pulp and paper production (Metz et al. 2005). In optimized technology portfolios, CCS contributes about 13 percent, or ~90 gigatons (GT), of needed global emission reductions to 2060 (IEA 2019). Portfolios that exclude CCS are more expensive, relying on more costly and nascent technologies. Moreover, the need is clear for GT-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere to compensate for overshooting the CO2 emission budget (IPCC 2018). Two of the most promising approaches for such removal are bioenergy with CCS and direct air capture with CCS (NASEM 2019).

CCS deployments have grown at a rate of 8.6 percent annually since the mid-1990s and now 19 projects are capturing 39 MT/year (GCCSI 2020; Zahasky and Krevor 2020). But sustaining this growth rate to 2050 will result in only a tenfold increase in emission reductions through CCS, far short of the required contributions. Doubling growth to 17 percent/year would enable 4.5 GT/year by midcentury—or about 11 percent of current emissions from fossil fuel use and industry, in line with the contributions needed.

Understanding CCS Costs

The slow growth of CCS is often explained by “it costs too much.” However, CCS is not more expensive than the costs of many policy measures used to increase renewable power generation and electrify cars.

Costs for renewable portfolio standards in the United States have been estimated at about $130/tonne of CO2 emission reductions (Greenstone and Nath 2019). In California costs for rooftop solar deployments are estimated at $150–$200/tonne and utility-scale projects at $60–$70/tonne (CA-LAO 2020). Even with these costs, about 5 GW of solar rooftop generation and 12 GW of utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) projects have been deployed in California. In Germany, with aggressive incentives for scaling up renewable generation, wind energy is estimated at €44/tonne CO2 and solar at €537/tonne CO2 (roughly $52 and $633, respectively), and from 2001 to 2010 a total of 21 GW of wind was deployed and 27 GW of solar PV (Marcantonini and Ellerman 2013).

Dealing with climate change is a decades- to century-long marathon.
So what are we waiting for?

Costs for switching to electric and hydrogen vehicles are also significant, in the range of $100s/tonne (CA-LAO 2018; Felgenhauer et al. 2016a,b). The Low Carbon Fuel Standard, a cap-and-trade program to decarbonize fossil fuels, has been about $200/tonne (CARB 2020).

Costs for CCS compare favorably with what is being spent for other technologies and policies. CCS costs range from about $40/tonne for high-purity sources such as ethanol plants to $110/tonne for a natural gas combined cycle plant (NPC 2019).

In 2017 Congress passed the 45Q legislation, a tax credit for CCS of $35/tonne if the CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery and $50/tonne if it is pumped underground into saline formations for permanent storage. While 45Q is a big step forward, the price support for CCS is not large enough to justify the higher costs for the vast majority of CO2 emission sources that are dilute (containing less than 15 percent CO2), such as natural gas and coal power plants. Additional incentives, at the levels used to support renewable generation, electric vehicles, and battery storage, are required to provide certainty for investors and project developers.


There are other factors to address for the scale-up of CCS, such as reducing capture costs, increasing confidence in underground storage, sorting out who owns the underground pore space, and long-term liability. Every technology has its growing pains. But none of these issues are insurmountable. To limit global warming, all solutions are needed: aggressive energy efficiency, renewable energy, electrification of heating and transportation, energy storage, H2 for a wide range of applications, nuclear power, and CCS.

The challenge is not that CCS is too expensive, too immature, or too risky, but that it has not benefited from the same level of policy and public support as renewable power, electric vehicles, and more recently grid-scale energy storage.

Let’s heed the lessons from covid-19. Let’s listen to the experts. Let’s get prepared and take decisive action. What are we waiting for?


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About the Author:Sally Benson is the Jay Precourt Family Professor in the Department of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.