See index to all the chapters for Putting Out the Planetary Fire
– Hydrogen – Blue vs. Green
– Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – and Direct air capture
– Waste Incineration
– “Renewable” Natural Gas
– Natural Gas
– Carbon Offsets
– Net Zero vs Real Zero
A successful transition to a clean renewable energy future will involve trillions of dollars. Whenever there are such large sums of money involved, there are many who will seek to tap into this funding stream for their own personal profit rather than the common good.
Industry spokespeople travel the country peddling the newest technology to government officials to solve some critical problem. They often say they cannot share the details of the new technology because it is proprietary information that they can’t let their competitors (or the public) see, but rest assured, it has worked elsewhere, so let us get rid of this headache for you and in the long run we will save you money. Often they will say that the older version of this technology (for example incineration or nuclear power) admittedly had some problems, but the newest generation has solved them.
False solutions tend to reflect the belief by many that technology and engineering can solve all problems – though it usually avoids examining the root cause of the problems. Critics contend that it often reflects the same mindset or economic approach that created the problem in the first place and it invariably ends up costing a lot more than predicted. The weaknesses and drawbacks of such solutions are often ignored until many years after they have been put into place.
The proposals included in this chapter have varying levels of support. There are certainly credible scientists and advocates who are motivated by the common good who support a role for some of these solutions (e.g., Dr. James Hansen on nuclear, the need for direct air capture, green hydrogen). Others argue that the threats posed by global warming are so dire that we have to be willing to explore all alternatives, and it is probably more politically feasible to advance approaches that have strong corporate backing. Corporate support is not a test of whether a technology is best for society as a whole however, and its main impact is often to increase the revenues of the industry advocating for technological solutions.
Since it is increasingly clear that the world is not reducing emissions nearly fast enough to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C, many assert that we have to figure out how to pull carbon out of the atmosphere even though the existing technological approaches are far from feasible. While they acknowledge that natural solutions have a role in capturing carbon, they argue that such approaches alone are not sufficient.
False solutions often contradict the precautionary principle, which emphasizes caution in dealing with new technology, taking time to review before leaping into innovations that may prove disastrous. The precautionary principle has four key components: taking preventive action when the impact of something new is uncertain; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.
A study done by Penn State found that 77% of Americans believe that we have an overreliance on technology. Environmentalists often argue that scientists and engineers have far too much faith in the ability of technology to solve problems, and that they should focus more on stopping the cause of the problem. Others counter that too many environmentalists irrationally oppose the introduction of new technology.
One criticism of false climate solutions is that proponents often focus on whether it’s possible to make the technology work rather than on whether it’s the best and most cost-effective way to solve the problem. Can the solution be scaled up fast enough to avoid climate collapse?
On December 13, 2022, it was announced that there had been a significant technological breakthrough in the development of nuclear fusion, as researchers had achieved a low amount of net energy gain for the first time. Like the sun, fusion occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, creating vast amounts of energy. Not only does fusion produce four times as much energy as nuclear fission (and a million times more energy than burning fossil fuels), but it also does not produce highly radioactive waste.
Less media attention, however, was paid to the fact that scientists have been working for 80 years to achieve this critical initial step, and that decades more are likely needed before all of the many other challenges with it are solved. While it seems to make sense to continue to invest in developing nuclear fusion, it would not make sense to scale back investments in clean energy systems that are already viable or to reduce efforts to halt greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s ok to hope for miracles, but it’s not ok to rely on them to save life on Earth.
False Climate Solutions
False climate solutions do not address the root causes of climate change but have the potential to worsen the crisis. While they often provide some climate benefits, they are usually promoted by those whose main agenda is making profits from a particular business model – often sold as a new technology – and providing a future role for the fossil fuel industry. Such solutions are often expensive, have debatable impacts on reducing emissions, and can divert resources from more climate friendly solutions. Yet there are invariably some benefits that their proponents highlight.
The chapter draws heavily from False SOLUTIONS Gas and trash: how the fossil fuel industry is holding back a just transition by NY Renews. Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, and many environmental justice groups have also written extensively about false climate solutions.
False climate solutions are often opposed by environmental justice groups that represent the frontline communities most directly harmed by climate change. This has been especially the case with approaches such as carbon offsets which continue to allow pollution in low-income and communities of color in exchange for “beneficial” climate impacts (such as planting trees) elsewhere.
False climate solutions can initially attract widespread support as the proponents do a good job of highlighting the positive impacts. It may take a few years before their negative impacts or tradeoffs become apparent.
One example is garbage incineration (waste-to-energy projects), which in the early 1980s was initially embraced by many environmental groups as taking trash that was being landfilled and causing problems such as water contamination and making it valuable by burning it for electricity or heat. Only later did groups realize the enormous air pollution problems being created (e.g., dioxin, heavy metals) at an exceedingly high financial cost, while also creating barriers to local governments expanding recycling and waste reduction, plus the remaining toxic ash still had to be landfilled.
The false climate solutions outlined below have varying levels of support among climate activists and scientists. Some have positive benefits in limited applications, when used on site where they are produced or targeting specific industrial processes.
The role of nuclear power, especially continuing the life of existing facilities, is probably the one with the greatest division of opinion. The use of hydrogen has a generally benign environmental impact but creating it raises various environmental concerns; most climate activists oppose “blue” hydrogen, but many see a limited role for “green” hydrogen.
There is also general agreement that it’s necessary to figure out ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but there is significant disagreement over the merits of various approaches. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has promoted carbon capture, partially because it recognizes that its timeline to halt greenhouse gas emissions is too slow to keep global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.
There is a division of opinion among climate activists and scientists about whether nuclear power should be viewed as a solution to our climate problems. A main benefit is that the emissions from nuclear power plants are considered by many to be carbon free (or at least very low carbon). Another major benefit is that nuclear has the highest capacity rating for electric production, meaning that it can run at full capacity almost all the time, which is important for grid reliability and to meet peak demand.
While the environmental and financial concerns with nuclear power are outlined below, it’s important to remember that nuclear power, dependent on uranium as its fuel, is not renewable energy.
Dr. James Hanson, the former NASA scientist who sounded the alarm in Congress about climate change three decades ago, is among the most prominent climate advocates advocating nuclear power. Hansen co-authored a study that estimated 1.8 million as the number of lives saved by using nuclear power rather than fossil fuels since 1971. The study also estimated the saving of up to 7 million lives in the next four decades, along with substantial reductions in carbon emissions, if nuclear power replaced fossil fuel usage on a large scale.
My experience over 50 years is that most scientists have been supportive of nuclear technology, with the opposition coming primarily from the environmental community. Scientists sometimes tend to focus more on whether something is technologically feasible, while environmentalists tend to focus more on the impact on the environment and public health. One of the most prominent scientists who spoke against nuclear in its early days, Dr. Barry Commoner, was frequently criticized for taking positions outside his field of specialty, which was microbiology. Commoner said that while it was possible for nuclear power to boil water to be turned into electricity, he compared it to using a chainsaw to cut butter; there were much simpler and safer ways to do it.
As outlined below, the length of time to build new nuclear power plants is so long that realistically new plants would come online too late to impact whether or not global warming stays below the 1.5-degree threshold. Building a new nuclear power plant has a higher carbon footprint than existing ones, due to carbon emissions that occur during construction (for example the use of cement) and in the mining and processing of nuclear fuel. In addition, the enormous costs associated with building nuclear power plants would be more cost-effectively used to reduce emissions through investments in renewable energy, battery storage, or other means.
Some climate advocates see hope in a new type of nuclear power technology — small modular reactors that are expected to be quicker to build and promise more safe and efficient carbon-neutral energy production. These reactors still face years of development and regulatory approval. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists raises concerns that the companies that design SMRs are “putting too much stock” in what they claim to be “inherent safety features.” Computer simulations do not always detect problems that occur in the real world.
Former top nuclear regulatory administrators from the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain issued a joint statement in January 2022 strenuously opposing any expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change. They pointed out that new nuclear plants are too costly, too slow to build, not carbon free, not renewable, and still have the huge problem of storage of radioactive waste.
Half of independent studies on the carbon footprint of nuclear power, not funded by the fossil fuel industry, found it to be insignificant; half found it significant but still on the low side. Another analysis found that “half of the most rigorous published analyses have a carbon footprint for nuclear power above the limit recommended by the UK government’s official climate change advisor.”
The argument to keep existing nuclear plants open is stronger, at least until sufficient renewable energy is brought online to shut them down. Since the plants are already built, they are usually described as having zero carbon emissions. The carbon footprint of storing the waste for tens of thousands of years is seldom factored in however, and there are some emissions related to fuel production, transportation, and decommissioning.
Like any other technology, nuclear power plants experience wear and tear during their operations; continuing to run them past their expected 40-year life increases the risk of accidents. They also remain awfully expensive to operate.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through an estimated $7.6 billion bailout over 12 years to keep three old Upstate New York nuclear power plants operating after their owner wanted to close them since they were not economical. The initial cost of the bailout skyrocketed after a Supreme Court decision in a Maryland case rejected his original legal justification for the bailout and he abruptly switched to the social cost of carbon emissions avoided, which raised the cost ten-fold. This bailout led to other states, such as Ohio, taking similar actions (although Ohio’s was repealed after a $61 million political corruption scandal).
The cost of nuclear power is much higher than other energy sources. The cost per megawatt hour to build a new nuclear plant is at a minimum $112 (it averages $151, with a high end of $181), compared to $46 for utility-scale solar, $42 for combined cycle gas, and $30 for wind. Nuclear power needs government subsidies to remain financially viable. Capital costs for nuclear plants run into the tens of billions of dollars, significantly more expensive than wind, solar and gas plants. The U.S. nuclear industry depends on a continued high level of government financial support for building new plants and operating existing ones.
The costs for nuclear power cited above do not include the cost of the major nuclear meltdowns. For example, the estimated cost to clean up the damage from the three Fukushima reactor core meltdowns was $460 to $640 billion. This equates to $1.2 billion, or 10 to 18.5 percent of the capital cost, of every nuclear reactor worldwide. Nor did this include the cost of storing nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. In the U.S. alone, this costs $500 million annually for the one hundred civilian nuclear plants.
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has released an analysis debunking the idea that highly unprofitable, economically distressed nuclear plants should be further subsidized to meet financial, security, reliability, and climate goals. Closing costly-to-run nuclear plants and reinvesting their saved operating costs in energy efficiency provides cheaper electricity, increases grid reliability and security, reduces more carbon, and preserves (not distorts) market integrity – all without subsidies.
Long Standing Problems with Nuclear 
The waste generated by nuclear reactors remains radioactive for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Currently, there are no long-term storage solutions for radioactive waste. Most are stored in temporary, above-ground facilities. These facilities are running out of storage space, so the nuclear industry is turning to other types of storage that are more costly and potentially less safe
The waste must be safely stored for many millennia – longer than any human civilization has survived. According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Services, “irradiated nuclear fuel rods discharged from commercial nuclear power plants are highly radioactive, a million times more so than when they were first loaded into a reactor core as ‘fresh’ fuel. If unshielded, irradiated nuclear fuel just removed from a reactor core could deliver a lethal dose of radiation to a person standing three feet away in just seconds. Even after decades of radioactive decay, a few minutes unshielded exposure could deliver a lethal dose. Certain radioactive elements (such as plutonium-239) in ‘spent’ fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other living beings for hundreds of thousands of years. Other radioisotopes will remain hazardous for millions of years. Thus, these wastes must be shielded for centuries and isolated from the living environment for hundreds of millennia. Highly radioactive wastes are dangerous and deadly wherever they are, whether stored at reactor sites (indoors in pools or outdoors in dry casks); transported on the roads, rails, or waterways; or dumped on Native American lands out West.”
Nuclear energy also allows nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons, a problem noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their 2014 report on energy: “Barriers to and risks associated with an increasing use of nuclear energy include operational risks and the associated safety concerns, uranium mining risks, financial and regulatory risks, unresolved waste management issues, nuclear weapons proliferation concerns, and adverse public opinion.”
Nuclear power plants are a potential terrorist target. The flight path of several of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11 meant they could have hit the Indian Point power plant instead. An attack on a nuclear plant could put population centers at risk, as well as ejecting dangerous radioactive material into the atmosphere. Nuclear power plants have been a major concern during the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Accidents at nuclear plants have happened and a full-melt down of the core of a nuclear reactor would be disastrous. Nuclear proponents argue that the small number of major accidents have been so low that it shows it is safe. Opponents used the same data to make the opposite point in light of the number of deaths and damage that would result in a worst-case scenario. One study calculated that based on the number of nuclear meltdowns that have occurred, such events may occur once every 10 to 20 years. In the event of such a major accident, half of the radioactive caesium-137 would be spread over an area of more than 1,000 kilometers away from the nuclear reactor. To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have experienced some level of meltdown.
The risks and costs of a potential major nuclear accident are so high that the private insurance industry has required a federal law to cap the liability in case of a nuclear accident (the Price Anderson Act).
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine led to the deaths of thirty employees in the initial explosion and has had negative health effects on thousands across Eastern Europe. A tsunami in 2011 caused three nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan, resulting in the release of radioactive materials. In both disasters, hundreds of thousands were relocated, millions of dollars spent, and the radiation-related deaths are still being evaluated. Cancer rates among those living close to Chernobyl and Fukushima, especially among children, have risen significantly. In March 1979, a mechanical and human errors at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania caused the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history, resulting in a partial meltdown.
In addition to the significant risk of cancer from the fallout from nuclear disasters, there are increased health risks for those who reside near a nuclear power plant, especially for childhood cancers such as leukemia. Workers in the nuclear industry are also exposed to higher-than-normal levels of radiation, with a higher risk of death from cancer. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10%) died of lung cancer, six times higher than expected based on smoking rates alone. Sixty-one others died of mining related lung diseases.
Native Americans in the U.S. have been disproportionately harmed by mining for uranium. The government usually located reservations on land that were presumed to be worthless at the time. The Navajo and Hopi nations are among the most negatively impacted. From 1946 to 1968, 13 million tons of uranium were mined on Navajo land. The largest underground uranium mine on Navajo and Hopi lands operated from 1979 to 1990. More than 1,000 uranium mines on the reservation are abandoned, unreclaimed, and highly radioactive. Six hundred dwellings on Navajo tribal lands are contaminated with radiation. Residents of former uranium mining areas there suffer from cancer and leukemia clusters and birth defects.
Many consider the worst American nuclear accident to have been on July 16, 1979, when a dam near Window Rock, Arizona failed, releasing 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands, a toxic flood that had devastating consequences on the surrounding area.
Nuclear supporters – like proponents of other dangerous technologies – argue that the new generation of reactors solve the problems of the older versions, although they tend not to admit problems with the older plants.
Some promote thorium as a “greener” nuclear option. While it has been around since the 1950s – an experimental 10-megawatt liquid fluoride thorium reactor did run for five years during the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory using uranium and plutonium as fuel – it’s still a theoretical, next generation nuclear technology. As The Guardian reported in 2011: “Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production, they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”
Hydrogen – Blue vs. Green
Hydrogen is another divisive issue among climate activists, particularly with respect to how it is produced. The main waste product from the use of hydrogen is water. But while its use is carbon free, its production often involves the use of fossil fuels.
Climate activists generally oppose “blue hydrogen” which is produced mainly from natural gas. The controversial carbon capture technology seeks to capture the carbon used in making hydrogen.
Many climate activists, within limits, support green hydrogen, which is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using renewable electricity. But there are other environmental concerns with green hydrogen, and most groups support a limit on the use of green hydrogen (e.g., for local use, certain industrial and transportation uses.)
Color is big thing with hydrogen, with traditional hydrogen often referred to as grey or black. Pink hydrogen is produced by using nuclear power
Food & Water Watch is one of the strongest opponents of hydrogen, with significant concerns about even green hydrogen. It argues that “Hydrogen entrenches fossil fuel use and infrastructure, as well as the resulting pollution in frontline communities.” It notes that hydrogen production would consume the annual equivalent of water used by 34 million Americans. Jasmin Vargas, a Food & Water Watch organizer, called hydrogen “fundamentally racist and inequitable,” due to the potential nitrogen oxide pollution it could cause. Opponents argue that nitrogen oxide, which can damage lungs, poses more of a threat than current natural gas technology.
Hydrogen’s main climate benefit is to reduce the carbon intensity of on-site industrial production processes (such as in cement manufacture), which require the high temperatures of burning fossil fuels. More than one quarter of global emissions come from on-site industrial processes involving fossil fuels. The problem is that hydrogen production in itself is carbon intensive since almost all of it is presently produced from fossil fuels.
The global demand for hydrogen in 2019 was 70 million metric tons (Mt). According to the Center on Global Energy Policy, half was used to make ammonia and fertilizers with the other half used in petrochemical refineries or production.. There are 169 hydrogen projects in 162 countries. Worldwide, 98% of hydrogen is made from fossil fuels with no CO2 emissions control and is responsible for 830 Mt of CO2 each year. In the U.S., 95% of hydrogen is produced by a reaction between a methane source, such as natural gas, and high-temperature steam (700°C–1,100°C), referred to as steam methane reforming (SMR). About 4% is produced through coal gasification, a process that involves reacting coal with oxygen and steam under high pressures and temperatures, and 1% is produced from electrolysis. Globally, 76% of hydrogen is produced from natural gas by SMR, with 22% produced through coal gasification and 2% from electrolysis. Hydrogen produced from uncontrolled fossil fuels is often referred to as grey hydrogen.
With gas currently providing the largest share of the world’s heating, it should come as no surprise that the gas industry has been overselling the idea of converting gas infrastructure to run on hydrogen. Hydrogen is being promoted through a powerful international, political and media machine, associated with the fossil fuel industry. The use of hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) could keep gas flowing through infrastructure that would otherwise be stranded and maintain the need for oil and gas development and processing facilities through which hydrogen can be produced. No color of H2 makes sense to decarbonize heating and pretending otherwise risks delaying urgent action to slash emissions.
Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas with a process of steam methane reforming, where natural gas is mixed with very hot steam and a catalyst. A chemical reaction occurs creating hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Water is added to that mixture, turning the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. If the carbon dioxide emissions are then captured and stored underground, the process is considered carbon-neutral, and the resulting hydrogen is called blue hydrogen. However, carbon capture and storage (discussed in more detail later) is grossly ineffective for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and may also make local air pollution worse, while its high costs divert resources away from renewables.
There’s controversy over blue hydrogen because natural gas production inevitably results in methane emissions from leaks of methane from the drilling, extraction, and transportation process. Cornell and Stanford University researchers found that the use of blue hydrogen is more harmful than once thought due to the high amounts of natural gas needed to fuel the process, combined with the escape of “fugitive” carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced from extraction. The study found that blue hydrogen utilizes inefficient carbon capture and storage technologies.
The study found that total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for blue hydrogen are only 9-12% less than for grey hydrogen. While carbon dioxide emissions are lower, fugitive methane emissions for blue hydrogen are higher because of an increased use of natural gas to power the carbon capture. The greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat.
Hydrogen can be produced through electrolysis of water, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Electrolysis generates no direct greenhouse gas emissions. If clean, renewable energy electricity is used for the electrolysis, the zero-carbon hydrogen is referred to as green hydrogen. Presently however, green hydrogen can be three times more expensive than other hydrogen, hitting $16.80 per kilogram in the U.S. in July 2022, though the U.S. Department of Energy hopes to lower the cost of green hydrogen to $1 per kilogram.
Green hydrogen made through electrolysis has a fair amount of support among climate activists. Targeted uses for energy storage and hard-to-electrify niche sectors could be a positive. Larger scale substitution of hydrogen for fossil fuels however, raises some concerns. Blending or substituting hydrogen into the fossil gas network reinforces gas combustion infrastructure as part of our economy, while also raising fuel costs and creating several technical challenges.
A report on false climate solutions by NY Renews laid out a number of concerns with hydrogen, including green hydrogen:
“Producing hydrogen is also water-intensive, and severe water stress, already a significant issue in some parts of the country, is another potential harm. Producing 1kg of hydrogen via electrolysis uses 18.04 kg of water, in addition to the water lost in the distillation process, which nearly doubles that amount. Combustion of hydrogen for electricity, heating, and industrial processes also raises serious environmental justice concerns, threatening significant emissions of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides that contribute to respiratory distress.”
NY Renews also points out that “green hydrogen uses large amounts of electricity to produce hydrogen from water, and so by definition it is only as ‘green’ as the power grid from which it draws. This can mean either that green hydrogen drives up GHG emissions from a dirtier grid, or it diverts substantial renewable electricity from a cleaner grid.”
Intensive power demand may be the single biggest barrier to green hydrogen. For example, the International Energy Agency finds that hydrogen demand in the European Union will require 3,600 terrawatt hours of renewable electricity, almost equal to total current electricity demand in the region. Heavy draw-down of renewable electricity for green hydrogen electrolysis is especially concerning given that the renewable power supply will likely need to grow by 100% or more in the first place – to support electrification of other major sectors such as transportation and buildings.
Among the environmental justice concerns NY Renews cited is evidence that combustion of hydrogen is a potent source of local pollution, particularly nitrogen oxides (NOx). Power plants burning a blend of gas and hydrogen may emit higher levels of NOx than with fossil gas alone. Indoor air quality already compromised by gas appliances may be further compromised by gas and hydrogen fuel mixes. At least two studies also point to escalated NOx emissions in industrial settings powered by gas and hydrogen, potentially exposing workers to health risks.
Hydrogen also presents drawbacks in transmission and distribution. At higher concentrations, it can cause embrittlement of metal pipes and containers. Leakage and safety risks in gas distribution may also be elevated with blending of hydrogen.
NY Renews’ report did acknowledge potential benefits from green hydrogen, if produced in limited quantities for specific uses. It could power a fuel cell infrastructure to durably store excess renewable power when it is available. It could also be used for select industrial processes, such as for steel and cement, combined with substantial abatement effects to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Some transportation uses could be appropriate, particularly heavy trucks, barges, aircraft, and port equipment.
Groups like the Sierra Club that support green hydrogen do so only under these certain conditions:
- Green hydrogen is a promising solution only for uses that cannot otherwise directly rely on clean electricity, which is much more efficient.
- Green hydrogen should not be used to justify a buildout of facilities that otherwise increase pollution or fossil fuel use.
- If green hydrogen is being used, the goal should be to switch to 100 percent green hydrogen once the technology is available. We should not support projects that label themselves as “sustainable” because their fuel source includes a small fraction of hydrogen when the lion’s share of it is fracked gas.
Some scientists have raised concerns that support for green hydrogen in the recent Inflation Reduction Act contains loopholes that might lead to increased emissions. Dr. Leah Stokes wrote in the NY Times that “one estimate suggests that lax rules could double the greenhouse gas pollution already created by today’s dirty gray hydrogen to more than 220 million tons of carbon emissions per year. That’s like 26 new coal plants belching out pollution every year. And fossil fuel companies like BP and utilities like Constellation are already lobbying the government for the loose rules that could create a dirty hydrogen monster.”
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – and Direct Air Capture
Carbon capture is another issue on which the opinion of climate activists is divided. The idea is to capture carbon and remove it, either before or after it goes into the atmosphere (e.g., direct air capture). With global carbon emissions of around 420 ppm, far above the supposed target of 350, scientists argue that some level of carbon removal will be necessary – especially since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposed timeline for emission cuts are inadequate to keep warming below the 1.5-degree target.
Natural carbon removal options, which have widespread support, include regenerative agriculture practices that increase soil carbon content, such as composting, cover cropping, and improved grazing management, afforestation, reforestation, and the restoration of coastal and marine habitats.
Carbon capture and sequestration/storage (CCS) is the process of capturing carbon dioxide formed during power generation and industrial processes and storing it so that it is not emitted into the atmosphere. The recent Inflation Reduction Act invested $12 billion in CCS. The earlier bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Biden had another $5 billion.
The biggest CCS projects in the country have been multibillion-dollar failures. Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch notes that “Even the world’s largest carbon direct air capture facility that is currently under construction is expected to remove only 0.0001 percent of the CO2 emitted globally per year. Carbon capture would not reduce the other forms of deadly air pollution created by fossil fuel plants, or the water contamination caused by fracking, or the toxic waste created by drilling.” CCS continues to exist only because of massive subsidies from the federal government.
Most climate activists oppose carbon capture proposals that seek to remove carbon before it escapes into the atmosphere as a thinly disguised way to continue to allow for the burning of fossil fuels. In addition, the billions spent on models show that it is too expensive and does not work. Due to the large amount of energy required to power carbon capture and the life cycle of fossil fuels, Food and Water Watch points out that carbon capture in the U.S. has actually put more CO2 into the atmosphere than it has removed. There are also other significant risks related to the disposal and storage of carbon. Still, with its promotion by the fossil fuel industry and by some climate scientists, elected officials in the U.S. have been willing to provide billions of subsidies to this false climate solution.
“Spending money on carbon capture and storage or use (CCS/U) and synthetic direct air capture and storage and use increases carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions, air pollution, and costs relative to spending the same money on clean, renewable electricity replacing fossil or biofuel combustion,” according to Food and Water Watch. In October 2021, more than 330 U.S. scientists wrote to President Biden to urge him “to reject fossil fuel industry delay tactics like carbon capture and storage, blue hydrogen, and carbon offsets that impede the rapid transition to renewable energy and perpetuate a racist fossil fuel system.”
What is CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage)?
As the EPA points out, “CCS is a three-step process:
Capture of CO2 from power plants or industrial processes
Transport of the captured and compressed CO2 (usually in pipelines).
Underground injection and geologic sequestration (storage) of the CO2 into deep underground rock formations. These formations are often a mile or more beneath the surface and consist of porous rock to hold the CO2. Overlying these formations there is supposed to impermeable, non-porous layers of rock that trap the CO2 and prevent it from migrating upward.”
Proponents say that CCS can capture up to 90% of CO2 released by burning fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial. The main ways to capture carbon are “post-combustion, pre-combustion and oxyfuel. Post-combustion technology removes CO2 from the gases that result from burning fossil fuels. Pre-combustion methods – done before burning the fossil fuel – involve converting the fuel into a mixture of hydrogen and CO2. Oxyfuel technology produces CO2 and steam by burning fossil fuels with almost pure oxygen.”
“Post-combustion and oxyfuel equipment can be fitted to new plants or retrofitted. Pre-combustion methods require large modifications to existing plans to be retrofitted, and therefore are more suitable to newly built ones. Once the CO2 is captured, it is compressed into liquid state and transported by pipeline, ship, or road tanker to be pumped unground at around one mile deep. It can be stored into depleted oil and gas reservoirs, coalbeds, or deep saline aquifers. Proponents says that it can be used for enhanced oil recovery, where CO2 is injected into oil and gas reservoirs to increase their extraction.”
Problems with CCS
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in her 2019 address to the United Nations chided the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for relying so heavily on the development of a miracle technology as a way to save future life on the planet. Many view CCS as potentially the largest corporate boondoggle in history. 
A related issue is direct air capture – to try to remove carbon already in the atmosphere. Once again however, this technological effort has failed so far, while not enough attention has been paid to investing in natural carbon sinks such as forests.
The reason that the oil and gas industry love carbon capture is simple: It extends the fossil fuel era instead of ending it.
Critics argue that carbon capture and storage is expensive, energy-intensive, and unproven at scale, and it does not reduce carbon in the atmosphere. After five decades of effort, it has not worked. CCS technology promotes continued reliance on fossil fuels rather than accelerating the transition to cheaper and cleaner renewable energy. Adding carbon capture to coal- or gas-fired power plants makes them more expensive, less efficient, and less competitive than renewable energy projects, which are already the cheapest source of electricity for most of the U.S. and most of the world.
Food & Water Watch has been among the most vocal critics of CCS. They point out that the history of CSS is one of colossal failure. Between 2005 and 2012, the Department of Energy spent $6.9 billion attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of CCS for coal, but little came of this investment, and between 2014 and 2016, less than 4% of the planned CCS capacity was deployed. CCS is incredibly energy-intensive – essentially requiring building a new power plant to run the system, creating another new source of air and carbon pollution.
Food & Water Watch also points out the storage of carbon from the process also presents significant risks. Well failure during injection or a blowout could release large amounts of CO2. Storage locations can leak CO2, as they tend to be located close to fossil fuel reservoirs, where oil and gas wellbores provide a pathway for CO2 to escape to the surface and could contaminate groundwater and soil.
To transport the captured CO2 through pipelines to potential storage sites, it must be highly pressurized and kept very cold, requiring the construction of pipelines that can withstand those conditions. Condensed CO2 can be corrosive to the steel in these pipelines, increasing the risk of leaks, ruptures, and potentially catastrophic running fractures. Explosive decompression of a CO2 pipeline releases more gas, more quickly, than an equivalent explosion in a gas pipeline, because of the intense pressures involved. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that “carbon dioxide leaking from a pipeline forms a potential physiological hazard for humans and animals.” In the areas closest to pipelines, released CO2 could quickly drop temperatures to -80°F, coating the surrounding area with super-cold dry ice.
Food & Water Watch found that while renewable energy technologies can virtually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, equipping coal- and natural gas-fired plants with CCS would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39%. Such a scenario could support a 35% increase in coal production and a 13% increase in natural gas production.
Iceland has opened the world’s largest carbon capture factory, utilizing the properties of deep underground basaltic rock.
Direct Air Capture
Food & Water Watch notes that “Direct air capture extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere. CO2 can be permanently stored in deep geological formations, or it can be used, for example in food processing or combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels. Today, two technological approaches are being used to capture CO2 from the air: liquid and solid DAC [direct air capture]. Liquid systems pass air through chemical solutions (e.g., hydroxide) which removes the CO2. The system reintegrates the chemicals back into the process by applying high-temperature heat while returning the rest of the air to the environment. Solid DAC technology makes use of solid sorbent filters that chemically bind with CO2. When the filters are heated and placed under a vacuum, they release the concentrated CO2, which is then captured for storage or use. Most large-scale opportunities to use the captured CO2 would result in its rerelease into the atmosphere, such as when synthetic fuel is burned. This would not create negative emissions but could still generate climate benefits, for example if synthetic fuels replace conventional fossil fuels…. Some benefits of DAC as a carbon removal option include its limited land and water footprint and the viability of locating plants on non-arable land close to suitable storage, eliminating the need for long-distance CO2 transport.”
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in government and private investment, including from the U.S. Department of Energy and major fossil fuel companies, direct air capture (DAC) has never been successfully demonstrated on a large commercial or utility scale. Mechanical-chemical DAC brings with it hazards and dangers, ranging from pipeline ruptures to contamination of drinking water, which will inordinately affect frontline, low-income communities, and communities of color.
The cost of direct air capture is more than 50 times the cost per metric ton of most natural climate solutions. To cover some of their costs, DAC companies can sell the byproduct, CO2, for a variety of purposes. This includes enhanced oil recovery, whereby oil companies inject the CO2 into old oil wells to pump even more oil out of them.
Mechanical-chemical carbon removal requires hazardous storage. Millions of tons of removed CO2 must be stored beneath the ocean or in underground formations where it can lead to earthquakes or be accidentally released or leaked. If released, concentrated CO2 is toxic and can cause catastrophic injury and result in mass casualty events. When carbon is removed directly from the air – or from gas and oil facility smokestacks – it must be transported to where it can be durably stored. In six midwestern states, 3,500 miles of CO2 pipelines are being planned to transport millions of tons of carbon, and there are plans for seizing private land by eminent domain to build them.
Direct air capture is energy intensive, requiring fossil fuels to power the operation. CO2 in the atmosphere is much more diluted than in, for example, flue gas from a power station or cement plant. The chemical reaction required to capture CO2 in large DAC operations only occurs at very high temperatures. And CO2 needs to be compressed under very high pressure to be transported and then injected into geological formations. This contributes to DAC projects’ higher energy needs and cost relative to other CO2 capture technologies and applications.
However, despite all these faults, there are many who say that direct air capture has to be utilized since it is clear that the world has moved far too slowly to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, let alone reduce the carbon level in the atmosphere below 350 ppm.
Here is how Prof. David Schwartzman, a leading ecosocialist scientist, puts it: “Promoting the restoration of natural ecosystems and a shift to agroecologies from industrial agriculture/GMOs will be necessary and very beneficial for several reasons, including mitigation of GHG emissions and optimizing the preservation of biodiversity. But even keeping warming at no more than the 1.5 deg C target will limit the capacity of the soil to store carbon because of the increase in microbial respiration. Therefore, DAC and permanent storage in the crust (chemical reaction with mafic/ultramafic rocks to produce carbonates) powered by renewable energy supplies will very likely be imperative to draw down the carbon dioxide level below 350 ppm for a long time into the future because of continuous reequilibration of carbon dioxide between the ocean and the atmosphere. This is the only geoengineering project that should be considered to advance climate security for humanity and biodiversity.”
Waste Incineration (aka Waste-to-Energy)
Waste incineration is the incineration of municipal waste (food, paper, cloth, wood, plastics) to reduce waste volume and recover energy for electricity and/or heat.
Waste-to-Energy is considered a renewable energy source in nearly two dozen states although most environmentalists strongly disagree.
I wrote The Financial and Environmental Impact of Garbage Incineration in 1985 for the Environmental Planning Lobby (now Environmental Advocates). Much of the report summarized into plain English an air emissions report done by the California Air Resources Board, and then added on the negative financial impacts (e.g., the contracts with municipalities often imposed penalties if the amount of the waste stream being recycled was increased). Within a few years, most environmental groups switched from support to opposition garbage incineration.
Trash incinerators are the largest source of dioxins, the most toxic man-made chemical known to science. Incinerators are major sources of particulate matter that cause respiratory illnesses. Other major pollutants from incinerators are mercury, lead, NOX, and SO2. The waste industry’s own data shows that incinerators emit more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than power plants burning natural gas.The Environmental Protection Agency, which is supportive of incinerators, says that per unit of electricity produced, garbage incinerators generate less GHGs than coal or oil, but slightly more GHGs per unit energy than natural gas.
As of 2019, of 72 incinerators were still operating in the U.S. 80% were sited in environmental justice communities.
Researchers at the New School point out that the makeup of municipal solid waste has changed over the past 50 years. Synthetic materials such as plastics have increased, while biogenic, compostable materials such as paper and yard trimmings have decreased. Plastics are particularly problematic for waste handling because they are petroleum-based, nonbiogenic materials. They are difficult to decompose and release harmful pollutants such as dioxins and heavy metals when they are incinerated.”
Garbage incineration is the most expensive way to produce electricity. The amount of electricity they produce is modest especially compared to the harms caused by the air pollutants released. The estimated energy generation capacity of operating incinerators was about 2.3 gigawatts in 2015. By comparison, more than 10.5 gigawatts of new solar and nearly 8.5 gigawatts of new wind went online in that year alone. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance points out that “when accounting for the embodied, life-cycle energy — that is, the amount of energy used to source, manufacture, and transport materials for consumption — of solid waste burned at incinerators, there is a net energy loss.” Three to five times more energy can be “saved through alternative strategies such as waste prevention, reuse, recycling, and composting than can be generated by burning.”
A far better approach is to eliminate as much waste as possible, using zero waste efforts, extended producer responsibility, bottle bills, etc., reuse what is possible and then recycle what one can. This is often the official solid waste hierarchy for states, with incineration and landfilling listed last, but officials often skip over the first few strategies (reduce, reuse, recycle) and focus on the burning.
NY Renews details the problems with biofuels in their false climate solutions report.
“Bioenergy” – energy extracted from organic matter – is at the heart of many false climate solutions. Bioenergy can divert land use from food to energy production, particularly for populations in the Global South. It may also deplete the Earth’s ability to capture carbon, which is urgently needed to slow and reduce atmospheric warming. Producing these fuels also requires intensive water and pesticide use.
Biofuels are primarily liquid fuels – ethanol and biodiesel – used for transportation, derived from a variety of plant matter including grains, grasses, tree fiber, and vegetable oils. Biofuels, especially for transportation, have long been promoted as carbon neutral by industry. Originally promoted as a way to secure energy independence from foreign oil, biofuels are largely marketed as a climate-friendly and clean alternative to fossil fuels.
Conventional biofuels such as corn ethanol are derived from fermented grain sugars. Ethanol is blended with gasoline, at a rate of 10 to 16%. Biofuels derived from vegetable oils, cooking grease, and animal fats are used in diesel engines. Such biodiesel is also used as a blending fuel, particularly for public fleets and other trucking, as well as home heating.
Biofuels create other problems that compound climate and energy problems. NY Renews notes that problems arise from the “cultivation of their feedstocks and related land-use changes, displacement of food production, soil and water contamination, carbon-intensive fuel processing methods, and non-greenhouse gas pollutants and local pollution.” Biofuels have some level of carbon emissions upon combustion and in their production process and contain non-GHG pollutants that are released. Biofuel production from vegetable oils is a net contributor to GHG emissions due to direct and indirect land-use changes. Only biodiesel made from waste fats appears to be less carbon intensive than fossil fuels.
While the industry promotes biofuels as an environmental justice measure since they could reduce emissions from trucks in low-income communities, they are not commercially viable and have had insignificant impact on improving air quality in truck-clogged communities and high exposure workplaces.
Ethanol emissions are associated with higher rates of ozone formation—a major source of respiratory illness, particularly in low-income communities of color. It is also no better than gasoline in terms of carcinogenic potential.
A February 2022 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that corn-based ethanol is likely 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to emissions resulting from land use changes to grow corn, along with processing and combustion. The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard law enacted in 2005 requires the nation’s oil industry to annually mix 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol into the nation’s gasoline.
The television series West Wing highlighted how the folly of promoting ethanol from corn had much to do with Iowa’s status us the first election in the presidential primaries.
The Environmental Protection Agency notes that “production of biofuel feedstocks, particularly food crops like corn and soy, could increase water pollution from nutrients, pesticides, and sediment. Increases in irrigation and ethanol refining could deplete aquifers.” Biofuels also can be competition for food for both humans and animals, which can lead to more land area devoted to agriculture, increased use of polluting inputs, and higher food prices. Most biorefineries operate using fossil fuels.
Biogas is a mixture of gases, primarily consisting of methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, produced from raw materials such as agricultural waste, manure, municipal waste, plant material, sewage, green waste, wastewater, and food waste.
The capture of methane does have some support among environmentalists. Methane can be captured from the decomposition of organic waste at landfills. Many lawmakers support subsidies for anerobic digesters, especially for farmers whose operations produce a lot of manure. Others use small-scale systems to promote composting and some capture of methane for local use.
NY Renews notes that “Capturing and processing landfill gas and waste-water solids gas for on-site or nearby uses like heating or powering equipment is beneficial and even carbon negative compared to biomethane produced for distribution in the gas system.”
For landfills, the better solution moving forward is to divert the organic waste into composting programs.
The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska describes a methane digester system, also called an anaerobic digester, as a “device that promotes the decomposition of manure or ‘digestion’ of the organics in manure to simple organics and gaseous biogas products. Manure is regularly put into the digester after which the microbes break down the manure into biogas and a digested solid.”
Groups like Food and Water Watch argue that such subsidies support factory farms. Calling it “factory farm biogas”, it notes that the EPA reports methane emissions from agriculture have increased 7% since 1990. Emissions from factory farm manure have risen 71%, largely from mixing animal waste with water. Factory farms are a major driver of climate change, as they generate vast amounts of waste in one location.
California has invested more than $350 million to build digesters on dairy farms to capture methane and stem climate change. Emerging research suggests that after the digesters process the manure, it emits ammonia, which can travel long distances to contaminate water and soil and threaten ecosystems. Communities nearby also worry that the ammonia emissions will contribute to particulate matter that is seriously dangerous to human health.
“Renewable” Natural Gas – or Biomethane
Another biofuel is biomethane, which is often promoted as renewable natural gas (RNG). It is a gas captured from the breakdown of waste materials in landfills and livestock operations and processed into nearly pure methane for blending with fossil gas. Biomethane is being promoted as a clean, “decarbonizing” substitute for burning fossil gas for electricity, heating, transportation, and industrial processes. If produced and distributed into the existing gas network, it will add to methane leakage and related serious warming effects, as well as local environmental health harms.
There are technical differences between biogas and biomethane (renewable natural gas), though they are often used interchangeably. The International Energy Agency says “biogas is a mixture of methane, CO2 and small quantities of other gases produced by anaerobic digestion of organic matter in an oxygen-free environment. Biomethane (also known as ‘renewable natural gas’) is a near-pure soruce of methane produced either by ‘upgrading’ biogas (a process that removes any CO2 and other contaminants present in the biogas) or through the gasification of solid biomass followed by methanation.”
Renewable Natural Gas must meet pipeline standards of chemical purity to be deliverable for consumer energy uses. In most gas uses, RNG and fossil gas are interchangeable and depend on the same pipeline and delivery infrastructure for reaching end-users. Thus, gas and pipeline companies want to continue to invest in pipeline infrastructure to distribute RNG. Industry is actively promoting biomethane for use in heavy-duty trucks, farm equipment, and other harder-to-electrify uses. Industry is pushing states to establish a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) to incentivize transportation biofuels, as California has done.
NY Renews notes that “the promotion of renewable gas is a strategic bid to buffer the fossil gas industry from policy and market changes that threaten its very existence. Further, such an effort raises serious concerns about the expansion of carbon-intensive land-uses to grow feedstocks necessary to ‘green’ the fossil gas system, as existing feedstock capacity is only sufficient to replace between 6 and 13 percent of current gas demand. Biomethane and fossil gas have virtually the same chemical composition and both emit similar levels of nitrogen oxides upon combustion and thus is not considered any cleaner from an environmental justice perspective. Like other biofuels, biomethane must be blended with other fossil fuels and thus depending on the continued existence, and indeed expansion, of the pipelines and other infrastructure of the larger fossil gas supply chain.”
RNG is not as low carbon as the industry claims and its local air and water impacts are concentrated in vulnerable communities. While RNG can prevent methane from escaping from the initial source of the biogas, it does not eliminate the significant leakage of methane from biogas capture and processing, pipelines, building hookups, and appliances. There is not enough of it to substitute for more than a small fraction of natural gas. RNG will also cost significantly more than fossil gas, in the range of 3 to 15 times higher compared to current prices by 2040.
Biomass is the raw feedstocks of biofuels, primarily woody matter, which are burned directly for energy instead of being processed into liquid fuels. Biomass energy – particularly involving direct combustion of woody matter – is expanding, causing climate and environmental justice harms.
There are four basic types of biomass energy technologies:
“Burning or gasifying biomass to produce steam to turn turbines to generate electricity
Burning biomass to generate heat in thermal systems (combined with electricity generation, this is “combined heat and power,” CHP)
Processing biomass feedstocks to produce liquid fuels like corn ethanol or other biofuels (see separate section)
Collecting gases from landfills or anaerobic digesters to produce energy.”
Driven by demand in Europe, the southern U.S. is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of the wood pellets used to produce biomass energy, rapidly depleting local forests. The European Union sources nearly 60% of its renewable energy from biomass.
Biomass energy is disruptive of carbon neutrality because carbon recycling from the atmosphere by regrowing forests takes decades even as wood-burning for energy is adding significant emissions today. Wood-burning biomass is the biggest carbon polluter, worse than coal, worse than oil, and worse than natural gas, both because of the low energy to carbon ratio inherent in wood, and also because biomass facilities generally operate at considerably lower efficiencies than fossil fueled facilities.
Wood emits more carbon per Btu than other fuels: Natural gas: 117.8 lb. CO2/MMBtu; Bituminous coal: 205.3 lb. CO2/MMBtu; Wood: 213 lb. CO2/MMBtu (bone dry, although wood is often wet, which decreases the efficiency of the burn.) The Partnership for Policy Integrity points out that “Proponents argue that since this material will end up as CO2 in the atmosphere anyway, why not use it to generate some power in the meantime? However, it is important to remember that burning emits carbon instantaneously, while decomposition takes years and even decades, and in the case of the waste wood left over from logging operations, actually builds soil carbon in the meantime.” A study done by Massachusetts found that in New England forests, it would take 40 years of re-growth to draw the carbon pollution from biomass electricity generation down to parity with burning coal for those same four decades.
Most existing biomass plants in the U.S. are industrial boilers that generate heat and power by burning sawmill and papermill waste. Due to subsidies for “renewable” energy, many new biomass plants are being built, relying on trees for fuel. There are more than 115 new biomass burning electricity generating facilities being developed nationally, as well as a number of coal plants that plan to co-fire biomass. There are hundreds of proposals for smaller, thermal only burners.
One of the largest users of biomass is Vermont, which gets about one-fifth of its electricity from burning wood and one in eight families burn wood as their primary heat source, about eight times the national average. Vermont defines electricity from burning biomass as renewable energy.
For many years natural gas was promoted as a bridge fuel to a clean air future, even though it is a fossil fuel. Compared to other fossil fuels, natural gas is cheaper, plentiful, and comparatively cleaner than burning oil or coal.
Combustion of natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal and 30 percent less than oil, as well as far fewer pollutants, per unit of energy. Since 2005, annual consumption of natural gas in the U.S. increased by more than 40%, becoming the largest source of U.S. electric power generation. Its substitution for coal helped reduce power sector emissions to mid-1980 levels. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and it is a major export.
Since the burning of natural gas produces less carbon emissions than coal and the use of diesel of trucks, it was even promoted by some environmental groups such as the national Sierra Club  as a way to transition to a clean energy future.
A major problem with natural gas is that its main component is methane. Methane is more than 80 times potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide during a 25-year time period. Many governments however compare methane to carbon over a 100-year period, where methane is only about 25 times more potent; this significantly understates the global warming impact of methane and natural gas. Methane is about 200 times less abundant in the atmosphere and lasts there for only about a decade on average – while CO2 can last for centuries. Climate activists point out that since we are extremely concerned about global warming over the next 10 or 20 years, trying to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to place far more emphasis on cutting methane emissions.
The other big reason many tend to understate the impact of natural gas on climate change is the estimate of how much methane is leaked during the production, distribution, and use of natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has used an estimated leakage rate of 1.4%, while others use a leakage rate of 3%. A 2019 study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that the U.S. oil and gas supply chain emits about 13 million metric tons of methane annually, much higher than the EPA estimate of about 8 million metric tons. This discrepancy is likely due to EPA’s emissions surveys missing potential sources of methane leaks, such as faulty equipment at oil and gas facilities.
Prof. Bob Howarth of Cornell University noted that the Environmental Defense Fund may have actually underestimated the actual leak rate of methane as some of the measurements were obtained with an instrument that – according to the device inventor – produces systematically low numbers. He also noted that that the researchers didn’t look at the emissions from gas distribution systems into urban areas, which recent studies suggest are considerable. A recent study at the University of Michigan concluded that methane emissions from flaring are five times higher than previously thought.
Howarth and fellow Cornell scientist Tony Ingraffea had done prior research that showed that methane emissions from shale gas – from well development and hydraulic fracturing through delivery of gas to consumers – were likely 50% greater than from conventional natural gas. Howarth’s findings have been challenged by the fossil fuel industry.
Stop Fracking of Gas
The Cornell University professors along with Prof. Mark Jacobson were instrumental in the successful effort to get New York State to ban the fracking of gas in December 2014, including their study documenting how the state could meet 100% of its energy needs by 2030 through renewable energy (especially offshore wind) without the need for fossil fuels.
The effort to ban fracking was also led by grassroots frontline community activists whose communities throughout the Southern Tier and Central New York were ground zero to the threat fracking posed (you can find more details about this in the chapter about campaigns). Like many environmental fights, mainstream environmental groups with staff and foundation funding initially opposed the call for a ban, saying it was too radical, and instead pushed for a moratorium for more time to study the likely negative impacts on water, noise, surrounding communities, etc. A few statewide groups like the Green Party immediately supported the grassroots push, noting that natural gas was just another fossil fuel and should be opposed. But a few years in, the strength of the grassroots movement won the big groups over, starting with Food & Water Watch which helped organize protests of the Governor whenever he showed up in public. The grassroots groups also got local communities to enact bans on fracking. When the courts upheld the bans, the Governor realized that many of the most likely areas to do fracking were already eliminated.
The reasons to ban fracking were myriad. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves blasting huge volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand deep into the earth to fracture rock formations and release oil and natural gas which could not be economically mined by conventional means.
The Center for Biological Diversity points out that a fracking boom can transform an area almost overnight, creating massive new environmental and social problems. Fracking is intensifying in Pennsylvania, Texas and North Dakota and moving into new areas, like California and Nevada. Twenty-five percent of the chemicals used in fracking can cause cancer, while others harm the skin or reproductive system. These chemicals – as well as methane released by fracking – can make their way into aquifers and drinking water. Fracking can release dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene and xylene, while also increasing ground-level ozone levels, raising people’s risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. With a methane leakage rates as high as 7.9 percent for fracked shale gas wells, this would make it worse for the climate than coal.
Even the few places like New York State that have banned fracking find themselves fighting off proposals to build new plants to use fracked gas, including the construction of hundreds of miles of pipelines to transport it.
In June 2019, the U.S. displaced Saudi Arabia as the top exporter of crude oil, a startling development for a country that only started exporting crude in 2016. That month, the U.S. exported over 3 million barrels of crude oil per day, in addition to consuming 20.5 million barrels per day in 2018. This expansion was due to the production of oil via fracking, which has driven the U.S. oil production boom over the past decade. With fracking producing record levels of natural gas, this has also led to a rapid increase in exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with the U.S. became the world’s leading producer of both oil and natural gas.
For more information about problems with carbon offsets, see the chapter on carbon pricing.
The fossil fuel industry, big utilities, big agriculture, big finance – and their political allies – are pushing carbon offset schemes to allow them to continue releasing the greenhouse gases driving the climate crisis, harming Indigenous, Black, and other already-marginalized communities, and undermining sustainable farming and forestry practices. By allowing pollution to continue in exchange for land grabs elsewhere, offsets often shift the burden of reducing emissions from the Global North to the Global South.
What’s more, offsets have in general not reduced emissions.
Offsets undermine sustainable farming and increase consolidation in agriculture. Corporations and large landowners are best positioned to develop offset projects, which further entrenches the factory farm and the corn/soybean monocultural model at the expense of small farmers, including Black and Indigenous farmers. Instead of allowing the industrial, extractive model of agriculture to further prosper by selling offsets to industrial polluters, climate activists and policy makers should support traditional and ecologically regenerative agricultural practices.
Net Zero vs. Real Zero
Many politicians and corporations set Net Zero goals rather than Real Zero goals. Often the government has a goal of an actual reduction of 80 to 85%, by a future date such as 2050. They argue that certain industrial processes such as cement and aluminum do not have alternatives that eliminate emissions (e.g., renewable energy does not provide high enough temperatures for the reaction), so they propose other steps to offset the continued emissions.
Net Zero pledges that cancel out emissions in the atmosphere rather than eliminating their causes are not enough.
Net Zero emissions targets disguise climate inaction and distract from the necessary and urgent work of phasing out fossil fuels at source and localizing sustainable food systems and economies. Polluters’ Net Zero schemes are based on multiple myths and are little more than public relations campaigns. The Center for International Environmental Law points out that Net Zero approaches “rely on assumptions that carbon offsets, tree plantations, bioenergy, and dangerous distractions such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage will somehow keep or take emissions out of the air after polluters have done their damage.”
Unproven technologies that have repeatedly failed, have yet to be realized, and remain non-viable at scale are being imagined as supposed solutions for continued emissions. From carbon capture and storage to direct air capture to burning plastic waste for fuel, these technologies extend and deepen the fossil economy that drives the climate crisis while imposing profound new risks on frontline communities around the world. Governments and industries are using the “net” in Net Zero to avoid responsibility for past, present, and future emissions and create a false sense of climate progress.”
Many businesses are now hyping their zero emission pledges. Out of the world’s top 500 corporations, just 67 have made commitments to reduce their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, while the vast majority refuse to even disclose their level of emissions. GRAIN, a nonprofit promoting small farmers and sustainable agriculture, note that “Corporations are ramping up their greenwashing to head-off any efforts to reign in their GHG emissions. After five years of having done nothing to move towards the already compromised targets established by the 2015 Paris Agreement, dozens of big polluters like Nestlé and Shell are now making “net zero” pledges, mainly to satisfy the public relations needs of the financial players that fund them. The shift in corporate greenwashing will do nothing to reduce emissions but risks generating a massive land grab for forests and farmlands, particularly in the global South. Food and agribusiness corporations are leading actors in this deadly scam.”
To develop stronger and clearer standards for Net Zero emissions pledges by non-state entities – including businesses, investors, cities, and regions – and speed up their implementation, in March 2022 the UN established a working group, Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities. “We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing,” said the Secretary-General.
The UN group released a report at COP27 in Egypt in November 2022, warning that “corporate ‘greenwashing’ must end if world hopes to meet climate goals. Companies need to put clear plans in place—short, medium, and long term—that show they actually have a pathway toward it. They should focus on reducing their own emissions as much as possible and limit buying carbon credits to offset their emissions. They need to address their entire value chain, meaning they need to look at their own supply chain as well as how their products are used. Companies need to stop investing in new fossil fuel supply if they want to claim they are committed to net zero emissions.”
Geoengineering Monitors notes that “Geoengineering, or large-scale man-made interventions to the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and soils, aims to either reduce carbon dioxide from the environment or regulate sunlight reaching the surface.”
While geoengineering has received a considerable amount of media attention, it has not received as much attention within the climate change movement since many view it in the realm of science fiction and a distraction from the real imperative to cut emissions. Some describe carbon capture and sequestration as a form of geoengineering. As government inaction on reducing emissions reaches the point of no return, geoengineering schemes – and the vast revenues that companies will receive from them – will draw more attention.
Some argue that it is an awfully bad idea, but we may need to do anyway.
Many climate activists argue that since human behavior – burning fossil fuels – is what has thrown the planet’s climate out of kilter, the solution should focus on how to realign with natural systems, not further disrupt nature. Geoengineering is a product of the very mindset that caused global warming. There is also the major concern that various geoengineering schemes may very well have unexpected negative impacts upon the environment, including shifting impacts from one country to another. And if the projects are discontinued, any benefits might be rapidly reversed and even make the situation worse.
If research is done, individual states might decide to unilaterally deploy such technologies (as India does after a deadly heat wave kills tens of millions in the climate fiction novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson). Investing in such proposals diverts limited resources and policies away from measures needed to reduce emissions.
Geoengineering is already beginning to emerge in the COP climate discussions.  In 2021 the National Academy of Sciences recommended investing several hundred million dollars over five years to study the feasibility, benefits, and risks of geoengineering, though they recommend restrictions on outdoor experiments. Proponents argue that since the threats posed by global warming are so dire, all options need to be explored.
“None of the technologies have a track record. All of them come with major risks and unknowns, and in some cases, the effects would be obviously catastrophic,” said Niki Miranda-Martinez, coordinator of the international Hands Off Mother Earth campaign. Such technologies, she said, “are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming.” The group notes that since geoengineering requires the intensive exploitation of vast amounts of resources on land and oceans, the projects “would inevitably displace millions of people and potentially wipe out entire ecosystems” and “could redirect funding and investments away from real climate solutions.”
Solar radiation management is probably the most common form of geoengineering proposals. Resilience.org notes that “Some propose to fly airplanes continuously around, spraying (sulfate) aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect some incoming sunlight, so the Earth warms less. Another proposal involves ships sailing the seas, perhaps run by robots, each emitting billions of micro-droplets of water sucked from the sea into the sky to form reflective clouds. There have also been proposals to paint roofs or roads or big swathes of desert white, and fantasies of launching a lot of mirrors into orbit to reflect incoming sunlight.”
The National Academy of Sciences proposes focusing research on three areas: “injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight; using the particles to make low-lying clouds over the oceans more reflective; and thinning high-altitude cirrus clouds.” Major volcanic eruptions for instance cool the climate by pumping particles high into the atmosphere.
Ocean fertilization, which is likely the best studied ocean geoengineering method, involves supporting the growth of phytoplankton, which converts CO2 into oxygen through photosynthesis. A Harvard University blog pointed out that “Iron is the main ocean fertilizer under consideration, and this process would be much cheaper and faster than planting more trees on land. However, there are potential unintended consequences of this method. Overgrowth of phytoplankton could cause algae blooms that deplete oxygen from water, thereby harming marine animals. Additionally, although phytoplankton are crucial at the bottom of the marine food chain, a sudden increase in their population may shift the balance of different algal species, destabilizing the marine ecosystem.”
Geoengineering presents politicians and businesses with an option to avoid making difficult choices. Geoengineering Monitor notes that “Rather than putting an end to combustion of fossil fuels, destructive industrial agriculture, and the pursuit of endless economic growth, they can take the less politically contentious path of offering support for a technofix. The prominent voices on geoengineering that reappear repeatedly are actually a very small group of people. Most of them appear to be white men from rich countries, especially Europe and North America. Some of them have direct connections to the fossil fuel industry and many appear to have military connections.”
 https://www.ciel.org/carbon-capture-and-storage-an-expensive-and-dangerous-proposition-for-louisiana-communities/; see also IPCC Special Report on Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage, Chapter 4: Transport of CO2 (2005), at 181
 https://www.aimspress.com/article/doi/10.3934/energy.2021054 And: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rare-mantle-rocks-in-oman-could-sequester-massive-amounts-of-co2/; https://jacobin.com/2022/09/geoengineering-carbon-removal-fossil-fuels.
 Mark Z. Jacobson, “Why Not Liquid Biofuels For Transportation as Part of a 100% Wind-Water-Solar (WWS) and Storage Solution to Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Energy Security,” 2020, at
 https://www.ccacoalition.org/en/activity/organic-waste-diversion; https://www.npr.org/2021/07/13/1012218119/epa-struggles-to-track-methane-from-landfills-heres-why-it-matters-for-the-clima