NEWS RELEASE                                                                                        October 2019

Sucking CO2 Out of the Air Means There is No Tipping Point

There is the widely held belief that we could reach some tipping point after which we are helpless to combat the greenhouse gas problem. However, as reported by McIlvaine last week, there is a way to suck the CO2 out of the air. So this does not make us helpless. There is a cost associated with the removal effort but it will be far less than drastic preventive measures such as eliminating all fossil fuels.

The UK is leading the way with a program to burn biomass in its largest coal fired boiler. If the resultant CO2 is sequestered, the net effect would be to achieve two thirds of the entire CO2 reduction goals for the nation.

The analysis last week shows the conclusion of researchers that tree planting would be a cost effective way to capture most of the excess CO2 generated in the past 200 years. However, the problem is that in 2050 many of the trees will start dying and we will reach an equilibrium. The CO2 capture from newly planted trees will equal the amount emitted by decomposing trees. However if all the coal fired boilers built in the future are biomass capable and can sequester their CO2 then the tree planting program remains effective.

The present CO2 level is 410 ppm. In the next 30 years new coal plants in India and other initiatives are likely to have the impact of increasing CO2 by 1 ppm per year. But a massive tree planting program could have the effect of reducing CO2 by more than 1 ppm per year. The net effect would be a 390 ppm CO2 level in 2050.


ppm CO2

ppm CO2

Existing 410 390
New Coal and Other 30 20
Tree Planting -50 0
Biomass Combustion and Sequestration 0 -30
CO2 level in the atmosphere at end of period 390 380

After 2050 solar and wind will be more cost effective particularly if energy storage methods advance. The need for new coal fired plants will cease but there will be other sources with the potential to add 20 ppm to the atmosphere in the 2050-2080 time frame.

In 2050 there will be a very large quantity of fuel contained in elderly trees. They can be harvested and burned as fuel. They do not emit CO2 to the atmosphere due to sequestration. New trees which replace the old trees will continue to remove CO2. So this initiative would more than offset man made sources and the CO2 level could drop to 380 ppm in 2080.

CO2 sequestration has been commercially practiced for decades. One use has been enhanced oil recovery. CO2 is being piped long distances in many areas. Presently it is economic only if it has a use such as recovering oil. The UK believes that new carbon capture technologies will drive down the cost over the coming years. But whether it is inexpensive or expensive the situation is manageable in 2050 due to the ability to suck out the CO2. This control provides flexibility. McIlvaine Company knows that predictions regarding environmental impacts are seldom precisely accurate. So flexibility is very important.

Robert McIlvaine has been involved in air pollution control since the original Clean Air Act. He testified before senate sub committees relative to the mitigation of acid rain through installing scrubbers at power plants. The big concern was destruction of forests and buildings. Little was understood about the potential for SO2 to react with basic chemicals in the atmosphere and create fine particles which damage the lungs. It was later found that sulfur has a positive effect on the soil and that some of the isolated areas of tree destruction were not likely to be duplicated with increased SO2. However, it is now clear that the sulfate aerosols were a major problem and more than justified the SO2 reduction.

Dioxin emissions from waste incinerators are another example of incomplete knowledge. This concern caused the U.S. to discourage waste to energy plants in the 1970s and 1980s. The rest of the world discovered that waste to energy rather than landfilling was much better for the environment. So in most areas of the world you have to combust rather than landfill waste but do so with removal of the air pollutants.

The greenhouse gas effect may be worse or better than the average scientist now believes. But it is nearly assured that the impact will be different than anticipated. This is why a flexible policy is so desirable.

The report last week is available at Biomass Ready Coal Fired Plants and Massive Tree Planting will be the Compromise Climate Change Solution