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Values Proposition

The great corporate decarbonization derby is on

Are any technologies capable of solving the climate crisis at scale?

Green, globe-shaped ball (displaying a carbon reduction icon) resting on a log

Source: Shutterstock/BOY ANTHONY

To tackle big risks requires big imagination and big bucks. And, except for annihilation from global thermonuclear warfare, no set of risks loom larger than the continuing atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide. Earth is responding to this buildup through rising temperatures, melting glaciers, expanding seas, migrating species and disease vectors and a host of other impacts. Scientists and policymakers believe that the Paris accord goal of restraining warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2030 is or soon will be surpassed and that temperature increases of up to 7F by 2100 are within the realm of possibility.

These large-scale impacts have clearly gotten the attention of government policymakers and the private sector, most particularly the fossil fuel industry. The enactment of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provided significant funding for initiatives to decarbonize the economy and, more specifically, authorizes taxpayer dollars to underwrite investments in carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen and a host of other technologies.

While fossil fuel companies have consistently opposed the federal government’s efforts to curtail greenhouse gases through regulatory policies, some major producers (including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum) are building new businesses (often underwritten by generous public subsidies) designed to capture their own emissions while marketing technologies and services to other firms.

Aside from issues of feasibility, scalability and commercial viability, these and other technologies will ultimately encounter an equally challenging set of questions from individual stakeholders and civil society as a whole.

Technologies under development

A growing number of experiments are underway across a range of technologies, including:

  • Carbon capture systems (CCS) are installed to collect carbon dioxide from combustion sources (power plants, refineries, natural gas plants) and reinject it into the deep subsurface of the earth where it can stabilize within geological formations. These systems are hugely expensive, which explains the private sector’s reluctance to invest its own capital to develop carbon capture technologies while awaiting federal governmental funding. In addition, many technology experts, including some within the electric utility industry, voice skepticism that CCS is ready to meet the market given the number of operational, maintenance and data management challenges that have yet to be resolved.
  • Direct air capture (DAC) refers to technologies in which carbon dioxide-laced air is literally pulled out of the atmosphere into containment vessels from which the CO2 is pumped deep into Earth’s bedrock formations. Two of the most prominent DAC projects are in Iceland (soon to begin operating) through an Icelandic-Swiss collaboration, and in Texas, where Occidental Petroleum (whose project is under construction) is using a process powered by solar energy to extract CO2 and then sequester it far below the Earth’s surface. Both projects are small-scale, although Oxy has announced plans to build 100 such facilities, each capable of corralling 1 million tons of CO2 per year. Oxy’s work is eligible to receive federal tax credits, and it has attracted investor support from BlackRock. It is also the subject of growing controversy because the company plans to both sequester CO2 in the subsurface but also to use some of the gas to extract additional petroleum. 
  • New technologies for generating electricity receive growing interest as an alternative to fossil fuel power generation. Dow Chemical and X-Energy Reactor Co., with U.S. Department of Energy cost-sharing, are deploying modular nuclear energy to generate low-carbon-process heat and power for chemical manufacturing operations in a plant near Victoria, Texas. BASF and several business partners, supported by the German government, are building a demonstration plant to apply renewable energy to provide electricity for steam crackers and seek to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent.

What returns on taxpayer-funded investments in decarbonization technologies should the private sector be expected to pay?

Other, more exotic "geoengineering" concepts to capture or chemically transform carbon emissions are in the talking or early building stage. Scientists in Greenland plan to harvest "rock flour" from retreating glaciers and apply its ability to extract CO2 when applied to Danish farmlands while also increasing agricultural productivity. Other groups of engineers are evaluating whether to seed the atmosphere or the seabed with CO2 offsetting chemistries. 

Technology meets societal realities

Aside from issues of feasibility, scalability and commercial viability, these and other technologies will ultimately encounter an equally challenging set of questions from individual stakeholders and civil society as a whole. These questions include:

  1. What returns on taxpayer-funded investments in decarbonization technologies should the private sector be expected to pay? For several generations, public funds have been used to develop the Internet, mobile telephone and search technologies, and the basic research for pharmaceutical products. This time, taxpayer dollars are allocated to subsidize major transitions in energy and transportation systems (both fossil fuel and renewable technologies). What is a fair return for these public investments?
  2. Should there be a quid pro quo for companies that accept public funding to develop or commercialize their technology development initiatives? For example, should companies commit to greater transparency and higher environmental performance standards as a condition of receiving such support?
  3. What secondary and tertiary impacts will result from the adoption of decarbonization technologies? Major secondary consequences will include the risks of additional volumes of contaminated wastewater, fly ash and chemicals from various technologies, and new sources of nuclear waste from modular nuclear plants. Significant tertiary issues that must be addressed are the development of environmental performance standards for suppliers, community protection from new sources of pollution, and socioeconomic impacts of differing skills needs, wage rates and potential relocation of employment opportunities.

These questions are not being asked with sufficient frequency — or being asked at all. In our race to respond to the growing urgency of climate impacts, there is a broader public interest to be served beyond the efficiency by which public monies are disbursed for investments in technologies that may or may not succeed at the scale we need.

[Learn how companies are implementing climate transition action plans at GreenFin 24 (June 17-19, NYC), the premier event for sustainable finance professionals.]

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