How Are Carbon Capture and Carbon Removal Distinct?

Carbon capture and carbon removal sound like different versions of the same technology, but they use very different approaches to accomplish a similar goal: eliminating carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon removal relies on natural organic and inorganic carbon absorption, while carbon capture uses chemical processes to sequester carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But what are the core differences between these two methods? And which one should we be using in pursuit of environmental protection?

The Importance of Carbon Elimination

Carbon capture and carbon removal are both strategies designed to address the same problem – an excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and similar greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses have the potential to stick around in the atmosphere indefinitely; even more importantly, they have the ability to absorb wavelengths of radiation emitted by a planet, resulting in the eponymous “greenhouse effect.”

The process and the effects are very complicated, but you can generally think about it this way: with more carbon in the atmosphere, climate change accelerates.

There have been many proposed strategies for dealing with climate change, including reducing the amount of carbon added to the atmosphere by reducing pollution, or using advanced technology to simply deal with the changing climate as it develops. But there are problems associated with each of these approaches.

Instead, many scientists are turning their attention to eliminating or withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere, thus mitigating the problem without introducing new problems that need to be solved.

Carbon Removal

Carbon removal relies on natural materials, including both organic and inorganic materials, to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and either reuse it or store it. Trees, along with most plants, respire like we do, but they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen as a waste product – the opposite of what we’re used to as humans. If you had enough trees breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, you could meaningfully reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

This is the core idea behind carbon removal, though it incorporates naturally occurring substances and materials beyond just plants.

These are the advantages of this approach:

  •       A natural process. Many people appreciate carbon removal because it’s a totally natural process. Most people don’t understand the mechanics of carbon sequestration technology, but they certainly understand the value of planting trees. This makes carbon removal extremely palatable to the public.
  •       Contributions to the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is a naturally occurring cycle in which carbon is exchanged between entities in the environment. Facilitating carbon removal is simply a way of playing into these natural mechanics.
  •       Semi-permanent carbon reductions. Carbon removal has the potential to make semi-permanent carbon reductions. In this process, carbon is often transformed and sometimes stored, removing it from the atmosphere indefinitely.
  •       Removes carbon in the atmosphere directly. This strategy also allows for the reduction of existing carbon in the atmosphere. As we’ll see, this isn’t necessarily the case for carbon capture.
  •       Can be highly cost-efficient. Comparatively, carbon removal has the potential to be highly cost-efficient. Carbon sequestration technology, while very impressive, does require an investment.

Carbon Capture

Carbon capture relies on carbon sequestration technology to absorb and remove carbon directly from a source. This is a relatively new and somewhat expensive technology, but it has the power to eliminate carbon before it ever reaches our atmosphere so we can store it indefinitely in geological formations.

These are the advantages:

  •       Removes carbon before it enters the atmosphere. About half of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the energy industry. With carbon capture technology, we can remove carbon before it ever enters the atmosphere.
  •       Removes other harmful pollutants. As an added bonus, carbon capture technology has the potential to remove other harmful pollutants that are being produced by industrial processes.
  •       Potential reuse of carbon. Unlike with carbon removal, carbon capture technology gives us the potential to reuse the sequestered carbon for other purposes. The potential is practically limitless.
  •       Scalability. Carbon capture is also a very scalable technology. Though it does cost a bit more money than similar carbon removal strategies, it can be hypothetically applied to almost any conceivable source of carbon pollution.
  •       A cost-efficient future. Generally, as technologies become more advanced, they become both more powerful and less expensive. In a future where carbon capture tech is more convenient, less expensive, and more portable, it could be an incredibly effective solution.

As you can see, there are advantages to both carbon capture and carbon removal, though these processes work very differently. As we fight against climate change and protect our environment, we’ll need a wide variety of strategies to mitigate risk and get the best possible results.

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