Great Lakes region could be a world leader in carbon offset market, research shows
Both Michigan and the wider Great Lakes and St. Lawrence binational region could become a world leader in the high-quality, voluntary carbon offset market to the possible tune of $783 billion in revenues by 2050, according to new research.
Scientists at the University of Michigan studied the capacity of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region to become a hub for carbon capture, use and storage. They found the area can provide 52 billion tons of environmentally sound carbon storage through both natural and engineered solutions, such as injecting compressed liquified carbon-dioxide underground or even permanently binding it in precast concrete.
To compare, the region has already retired 130 million tons of carbon credits as of 2020, a tiny fraction of what’s possible.
That enormous potential carbon storage capacity – as much as 52 gigatons – is enough to store 100% of the region’s emissions for years to come, with room to create billions in regional revenues from the global voluntary carbon offset market, researchers calculated.
The University of Michigan created sort of a really nice criteria for what would make a quality offset. So, if there’s going to be offsets in the region, what can be done to ensure that they’re going to last and make those promises that they’re intended to,” said Mike Piskur, program manager for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers intergovernmental organisation, which requested thisstudy.
A carbon offset is meant to take carbon-dioxide out of the atmosphere to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions made elsewhere. Carbon emissions lead to global warming through the greenhouse effect, which drives the worsening climate crises.
Offsets can either involve reforestation or dedicated forestland capturing carbon-dioxide through the natural process of photosynthesis, or it can be done through engineered carbon-capture techniques.
Those technologies are constantly improving and becoming more economical, the researchers said.
“There are already multiple processes available today to capture carbon from the air from a smokestack. Of course, plants capture carbon on their own. They don’t need any help, no technology required. And so, there are already lots of technologies that are available and more coming,” said Susan Fancy, research and commercialization program manager for U-M’s. Global CO2 Initiative.
“The new technologies that are coming will help us reduce costs. The challenge with carbon capture is that it is not yet at scale.”
The recent study found that despite the vast forestland across the area, the overwhelming majority of the region’s capacity to store carbon comes from its underground geologic formations. The captured carbon can be injected underground through existing oil and gas or waste disposal wells.
But the researchers said it was critical to identify high-quality carbon storage methods to ensure emission offsets have the intended effect on the atmosphere and they aren’t greenwashing, or deceptive about how environmentally beneficial they are. Offsets should only be used to account for what emissions cannot be totally eliminated.
“We don’t want geologic storage to enable long-term fossil fuel use that is not the point at all. So, it’s a bridging solution. We need to get our emissions down as fast as we possibly can. And, obviously, it’s going to take us quite a while yet to build out all the renewables and low-carbon energy sources,” Fancy said.
“While we’re building all that stuff, capturing carbon and storing it underground, it is practical to help us get the emissions down as fast as we can to avoid those worst impacts of climate change.”
Scientists estimate that governments, corporations, and other groups may seek up to 10 gigatons of carbon removal globally every year through 2050, followed by 20 gigatons annually for the 50 years after that.
The Great Lakes St. Lawrence region currently produces a collective 1.5 gigatons of carbon emissions each year.
The study’s figures did not include carbon storage potential in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, estimated at between another available 1.8 gigatons to 5.3 gigatons.
Researchers recommend US states in the region with significant geologic potential to store carbon-dioxide should apply to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for authority to regulate this type of activity.
The study authors also suggest state and provincial agencies should coordinate with so-called “hard-to-abate industries” such as iron, steel, cement, and other industry sectors. Driving emissions to net zero for those types of businesses by 2050 isn’t expected to be feasible, so they will need this type of offset opportunity for emissions mitigation, the scientists said.
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