Recycling carbon emissions will prove challenging, report to Congress says

Written by
Steven Schultz
Steven Schultz, School of Engineering and Applied Science
Jan. 11, 2023

According to a report to Congress from a National Academies committee, turning carbon emissions into useful products like concrete could use as much as 5% of global carbon dioxide pollution. 

“Though it is still a nascent industry, carbon dioxide utilization can participate meaningfully in the transition away from fossil carbon by providing pathways for sustainable synthesis of many carbon-based chemicals and materials that society needs,” said Emily Carter, Princeton’s Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, senior strategic advisor for sustainability science at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and the committee's chairperson. 

But working out the details of this endeavor will be challenging. 

The committee, formed by the Energy Department at Congress’s instruction, found significant barriers to realizing a goal of recycling industrial and atmospheric carbon emissions into new products. Carter said that among key barriers the committee identified are the cost of the products without a carbon tax or similar market structure; limited availability of key inputs such as clean hydrogen and clean electricity; a lack of infrastructure needed to capture and transport carbon dioxide; and the complex regulatory requirements of establishing the needed infrastructure.

“The challenge is clear and urgent: how do we maintain or improve quality of life for the planet’s inhabitants while ameliorating the harm already done and preventing future harm to the environment?” Carter wrote in the preface to the report. 

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