A climate bill that could help launch the next technology revolution

Swiss company Climeworks currently operates some of the world’s freshest (and first) direct air capture facilities. Photo: Climeworks

By Erin Burns

Today, the USE IT Act was reintroduced in the House, making it a bipartisan, bicameral bill with 14 sponsors across both chambers. The bill is a big deal for carbon removal: not only is there serious money in it for research and development, but it begins to look at what infrastructure we’ll need in the United States to deploy carbon capture and removal at the level required to meet climate goals. Not bad for the first several weeks of 2019.

Let’s get into the specifics.

This bill has two titles. The first focuses on R&D support for both direct air capture (DAC) and carbon use. It authorizes $35 million for a competitive prize program for DAC and another $50 million in R&D funding for carbon use (or, as we like to call it, carbontech).

If you follow DAC at all, you’ve probably heard of the recent National Academies of Sciences report on Negative Emissions Technologies. You may have even read all 350 or so pages of it. If you didn’t, one of the biggest needs they identify for DAC is a robust federal R&D program. The USE IT Act’s prize would represent one of the largest federal investments in this technology to date, which is key in helping to bring down costs — one of the major hurdles to getting to the level of deployment included in climate models.

Also helpful in bringing down costs? A thriving carbon use sector that would provide another revenue source for DAC projects. The carbon captured from DAC, power plant, or industrial facilities can be used to create many different types of commercial products, including building materials and fuels. Today, there are dozens of carbontech companies in the United States and around the world, and their potential is huge: our analysis shows they represent a $1 trillion domestic market. The R&D funding in the USE IT Act will help us reach that potential.

These shoes probably aren’t carbontech, but they could be. Companies around the world are already making products, like cement, carpet tiles, and shoes, from recycled CO₂. Photo: Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

The second title would begin to map out infrastructure needs for large scale carbon capture and removal deployment. For a long time, federal policy on carbon capture has been focused on individual projects. First-of-a-kind projects are really important. However, we need to get to net-zero emissions by mid-century, and we’re only going to do that if we have lots of carbon capture — a few big projects won’t get us there. That’s going to require serious infrastructure, and this bill is an incredibly useful first step.

We already did a whole post on why we’re optimistic about Congress moving climate bills this year, but there are additional reasons we think this bill in particular is likely to move soon.

Last year when the USE IT Act was first introduced, it passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by voice vote (which means that basically all of the members of the Committee were more or less cool with it). The bill has even greater momentum this year, with a bicameral introduction and more sponsors.

There’s also increasing recognition that climate action is needed and that carbon capture and removal have to be a part of that. There have been several climate hearings already this year, with both topics coming up repeatedly. There were discussions around the introduction of the Green New Deal about what role carbon capture and removal would play in that set of policies. And just last week, Energy Futures Initiative — started by former Obama Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz — published a report that highlighted ten “high-priority clean energy innovation areas” which included carbon capture and removal. Addressing climate change broadly as well as these specific parts of the solution are finally getting more attention.

With growing urgency about climate action from policymakers and increasing recognition that carbon capture and removal is essential to emissions reductions, the USE IT Act is both vital and a first step. The burgeoning carbon removal and use industries are on the cusp of widespread deployment, and continued support from federal policy is essential if we want to meet climate goals and take advantage of the enormous economic opportunity these technologies bring with them.


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