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The Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes capturing carbon emissions


The U.S. is set to make the largest investment in history to slow the pace of climate change. President Biden on Wednesday signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes tax credits for electric cars and efficient homes, but it also incentivizes pulling carbon emissions right out of the air. Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team is here to explain how that works and why some have reservations about it. Hi, Lauren.


RASCOE: So, Lauren - OK - we burn fossil fuels. Carbon emissions go into the air. But there is this very complicated process through which they can somehow be captured and trapped under the ground, right?

SOMMER: Right. Right. And the idea is grab those emissions before they can heat up the planet. So, you know, one place to do that is at a smokestack - right? - from a power plant or, like, a big industrial plant. The carbon dioxide is siphoned off before it's released. It's cooled down so it can be pumped deep underground, where it's trapped in rock formations.

RASCOE: How long does the carbon stay there? And why doesn't everybody just do it now? Because it seems like that - why isn't this the solution that everybody's just doing?

SOMMER: As long as it's in the right kind of rock formation, the carbon dioxide seems to stay down there because it can actually bind to the rock. So it's kind of trapped. Of course, you have to monitor that over the long term. There are a handful of pilot projects around the world that are doing this now. But, you know, as Howard Herzog told me - he's a research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative - it hasn't really taken off, as you said.

HOWARD HERZOG: We have the technology to put a lot more CO2 in the ground than we're doing. The big hurdles have been economic because the question is, why would you put CO2 in the ground and spend all that money if I'm allowed to just put it in the atmosphere for free?

SOMMER: Because he says these projects can cost hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

RASCOE: Without a price on carbon, that's the question that's always been asked. Like, why are you going to spend all this money? But the Inflation Reduction Act - it has some funding where it's going to try to change that equation somehow. What would it do?

SOMMER: Yeah. So it increases the tax credit for capturing carbon, and it makes that tax credit available to a broader range of projects because some projects have really struggled financially and some have shut down. Not everyone loves the idea because it means fossil fuels will still be burned even if you're capturing that carbon.

RASCOE: Why go this route instead of, say, focusing on renewable energy or technologies that don't have any emissions at all?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, this came up as the bill was being debated. There are concerns from environmental justice communities that they already live next to oil and gas and big industrial plants. Those communities are low income, communities of color, and they're worried that the carbon capture incentive could prop up those facilities and keep exposing them to the pollution. The issue is that emissions need to fall really fast. You know, the world needs to get to net zero by 2050. And that's to avoid really extreme impacts like deadly heat waves and storms and floods. So Herzog says it really will take all kinds of approaches.

HERZOG: We're going to need a lot of technologies. We're going to need every technology we can. Wind and solar and electric cars are all very important and very critical to the pathway. But while they're necessary, they're not sufficient to get us to net zero.

SOMMER: And, you know, for some heavy industries like cement production, they're really tricky to make carbon-free. So carbon capture may be the fastest way to address that.

RASCOE: So given how fast emissions need to fall, does the Inflation Reduction Act go far enough?

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, right now, estimates show it could help emissions fall around 40% by 2030. That doesn't entirely hit the Biden administration's goal of 50% by then, and that's compared to 2005 levels. So there's definitely more to do. And a lot will really depend on Americans taking advantage of these incentives for things like, you know, electric cars and more efficient heating and cooling. It really would need to happen at a large scale to make this major difference.

RASCOE: That's Lauren Sommer from NPR's climate team. Thanks for speaking to us today.

SOMMER: Yeah, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.