Carbon Capture and the Ethical Dilemma

black ship on body of water screenshot
Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on

Carbon capturing technology, known as geoengineering, exists. The question among philosophers is whether or not using such tools is morally sound. Removing carbon from the atmosphere with machines makes consumerism appear less harmful than it really is. On the other hand, natural climate solutions (NCS) are a less costly and more ethical alternative to geoengineering that involve restoration and protection of our organic environment. NCS’s are simple solutions such as halting rainforest destruction or rebuilding drained wetlands. Which solution is the right one?

“Carbon Capture & Storage projects in the power sector would cost between €60–€90 per tonne of carbon dioxide abated, the equivalent of around $69-$103 per tonne.” Carbon Capture & Storage Association, 2019

An estimated 29 gigatons of carbon is produced by fossil fuel burning and land use annually. Combine that with carbon capture & storage costs of approximately $100 per ton, and to capture anthropogenic emissions each year would cost 2.9 trillion dollars.

What is Geoengineering?

Scrubbers carry out different processes depending on what elements need to be removed from outgoing air or water. Small portable HEPA air scrubbers like BlueDri by AerIndustries are sold at around seven hundred dollars for indoor projects that require the removal of toxins. Someone might use one of these for remodeling a room that once contained asbestos. HEPA means the machine meets industry standards by removing 99.97% of particles with a diameter of 0.3 micrometers or more.

air scrubber
Air scrubber. Photo by AerIndustries.

Types of Scrubbers

Wet scrubbers, dry scrubbers, and electrostatic precipitators are three main categories of industrial scrubbers. Each kind can be further developed to remove specific substances. The following diagram shows a wet scrubber called an amine scrubber, which uses amines to separate hydrogen sulfide and CO2 from natural gas. Amine scrubbers are also used in oil refineries.

air scrubber diagram
Diagram from Global CCS Institute.

The Dilemma

Now for the fun stuff. As you can imagine, there is a yin and yang to carbon capture. A bill passed in early 2018 incentivized carbon capture and storage for the fuel industry by offering tax credits.

Obviously geoengineering should be- and already is- implemented in the industrial sector. It’s working. But some argue that when implemented on a broader scale, there could be unforeseen consequences. The “ethical dilemma” referenced in environmental ethics courses is that habitat destruction will prevail while carbon emissions are filtered out of the air. There is also a concern among geoengineering critics that climate solutions, including natural ones, have limitations. For instance, forests cannot be built in the desert to offset emissions because the forest won’t survive. Concerned citizens will also bring up the cost factor, the time factor, and the hypothetical man behind the curtain (consumerism).

Should people be responsible for emissions? Alternatively, should companies be forced to meet emissions standards or go under? Let me know what you think in the comments!

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