Does CDR provide "moral hazard" for avoiding deep decarbonization of our economy?

No. But the fact that some environmentalists question the value of developing Carbon Dioxide Removal ("CDR") approaches for this very reason merits greater analysis. The "moral hazard" argument against CDR goes something like this: CDR could be a "Trojan horse" that fossil fuel interests will use to delay rapid decarbonization of the economy, as these fossil interests could use the prospect of cost-effective, proven, scaleable CDR technologies as an excuse for continuing to burn fossil fuels today (on the grounds that at some point in the future we'll have the CDR techniques to remove these present-day emissions). The key problem with this "moral hazard" argument is the hypothesis that "cost-effective, proven, scaleable CDR solutions" are poised to proliferate at greater rates than GHG emission mitigation technologies (such as renewable energy and energy efficiency) that are required to decarbonize our economy. Today, CDR solutions remain largely in their infancy. Installed bio-CCS plants can be counted on one hand, for example, and not a single commercial-scale Direct Air Capture project has been built to date. Renewable energy, however, has had a considerable head start on CDR technologies on reducing costs. Take solar PV systems as an example. As the chart below shows, solar PV panels have dropped in cost from over $75/W to under $0.75/W over the past four decades.

price of solar power drop graph Cost of Solar Panels    10 Charts Tell You Everything


This cost reduction in the price of solar PV panels happens to be exactly what economic theory would predict. Learning curve models show that that costs of energy technologies come down in a predictable fashion as cumulative installed capacity increases. The graph below shows learning curve estimates for a range of energy technologies.

Learning curve for power generation technologies


So what does this mean for the "moral hazard" argument against developing CDR solutions?

For this "moral hazard" argument to be valid, we would have to believe that CDR approaches will be able to not only catch up to other renewable technologies in cost within a short-time frame, but then continue to reduce costs more quickly. Otherwise, renewable technologies will continue their inevitable march down their cost curve, and will continue displacing fossil sources in our energy mix.

Suggesting that CDR approaches will outpace other decarbonization technologies doesn't seem particularly plausible. This is because the technologies that have the "steepest" learning curves are usually those that can be manufactured and installed in assembly-line type manners (like solar PV panels or fuel cells, for example). Most CDR technologies do not fit this mold -- for example, large scale bio-CCS projects frequently require many bespoke designs to fit particular plants/geographies. Direct air capture and small-scale biochar pyrolyzers fit this assembly-line model better, but there is no reason to expect these technologies to come down cost curves more quickly than their renewable complementors.

In fact, this learning curve analysis would suggest that CDR faces the opposite of a "moral hazard" problem -- because CDR remains so far behind other renewable technologies, we will keep building more and more renewables and neglect to develop CDR, which will seem expensive by comparison. Neglecting CDR in this fashion would be fine if we didn't need negative emissions as a society. But if we find that negative emissions are necessary in a few decades, and we haven't started developing CDR technologies? Then we are like to find that the initial CDR deployments are incredibly expensive and thus not politically viable. So there is a strong argument to be made for us to start developing CDR technologies today alongside renewable energy technologies, so that if/when we need to start removing carbon from the atmosphere, we have a suite of viable solutions to do so.

In conclusion, it's simply not worth worrying about a "moral hazard" problem that we won't have for at least decades, and are most likely to never have all -- especially when the problems of not developing CDR solutions today could be much more severe.