Transforming the carbon economy

A task force commissioned by the US Department of Energy evaluated a suite of technologies potentially capable of dramatically changing the flow of carbon through the economy, while still using carbon-based fuels. In a simplification of the current economy (top), carbon flows from deep underground (red arrow) and is then burned, which releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (blue arrow). In one of the alternative scenarios considered by the task force (bottom left), the carbon dioxide is not allowed to escape to the atmosphere and instead is sent to secure storage below ground. In another scenario (bottom right), carbon dioxide is removed from the air, then transformed, with the aid of low-carbon energy sources such as wind or solar, into fuels, which are then burned and vented to the atmosphere. Credit: Princeton University

Most strategies to combat climate change concentrate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by substituting non-carbon energy sources for fossil fuels, but a task force commissioned in June 2016 by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz proposed a framework in December 2016 for evaluating research and development on two additional strategies: recycling carbon dioxide and removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These strategies were developed under a single framework with the goal to produce an overall emissions reduction for the Earth of at least one billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Task force members said that these approaches would complement carbon-free approaches based on electrification, including wind and solar energy, by fostering low-carbon strategies that retain liquid and gaseous fuels for distributive uses of energy in transport, buildings, and industry. These strategies could also enable overall net carbon…

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