Companies pay for oil spills; why not "carbon dioxide spills"?

When oil (and oil-derivative fuels) burns, the combustion process creates carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct. The vast majority of the time, the carbon dioxide molecules that result from combustion "spill" into the air, where they contribute to climate change. And while the combustion of each tank of gasoline only spills a few pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, all of these small-scale carbon spills around the globe add up: the International Energy Agency estimated that humans emitted over 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2012 from oil-based products. As a comparison, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster released approximately 1 million tons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Coal power plants like the one above "spill" billions of tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere each year. Even though this volume dwarfs the amount of oil spilled each year, our response to oil spills is much more aggressive than our response to carbon emissions. Image credit: the Guardian

Coal power plants like the one above "spill" billions of tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere each year. Even though this volume dwarfs the amount of oil spilled each year, our response to oil spills is much more aggressive than our response to carbon emissions. Image credit: the Guardian

A comparison of society's response to oil spills and to carbon spills is quite revealing. On the one hand, take the BP oil spill mentioned above. In response to this disaster, government and private sector actors rapidly mobilized a clean-up effort to contain the damage of the oil spill as much as possible. And years later, BP agreed to pay tens of billions of dollars in fines for damages caused by the spill. On the other hand, consider our response to carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere, which is essentially non-existent. In certain markets, some of the largest carbon emitters have to pay a small fee for spilling carbon into the air, but most of the parties around the globe that are responsible for carbon spills end up paying nothing. What's more, efforts by governments and/or private companies to clean up carbon spills have only recently begun ro develop.

The fact that society makes energy companies pay for oil spills but not carbon spills is strange in many regards. For one, the damages from carbon spills affect people and environments all around the world, not just the local areas contaminated by oil spills. Carbon spills also last much longer than oil spills if left to natural process for remediation. But most importantly, the scale of damages from climate change are likely to dwarf the economic and environmental costs of oil spills.

This isn't to say that oil spills are not awful disasters -- they are. This comparison just highlights how disproportionately weak our response for carbon spills is compared to our response to an analogous environmental disaster. 

There are a number of likely reasons that explain our weak response to carbon spills. For one, oil spills have immediate, highly visible impacts that motivate us to clean them up quickly; carbon spills are invisible when they happen, and their impacts are only felt decades in the future. What's more, we have tools to clean up oil spills, so we actually can clean them up (at least to a certain degree) when we set out to do so -- as of now, solutions that can clean up carbon spills from the air are just beginning to reach commercial scale.

This is what an oil spill looks like. In contrast, even the biggest "carbon spills" are invisible and odorless, with their damages happening years after the initial spill. Image credit: Wikipedia

This is what an oil spill looks like. In contrast, even the biggest "carbon spills" are invisible and odorless, with their damages happening years after the initial spill. Image credit: Wikipedia

But the fact that carbon spills present a much more difficult problem than oil spills makes it all the more urgent we stop making carbon spills and start developing and deploying solutions to clean up the spills of past decades. When companies have solutions both to prevent and then clean up carbon spills, we can start seriously discussing why we don't hold them accountable for doing everything they can to avoid and remediate carbon spills in the same way we do with oil spills.