The wild, uncertain future of carbon dioxide removal

The Orca plant in Iceland, the largest direct air capture plant in the world.

The Orca plant in Iceland, the largest direct air capture plant in the world.
Photo: HALLDOR KOLBEINS / AFP (Getty Images)

A group of powerful companies on Monday announced a new venture to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Meta, Alphabet, Stripe, Shopify and McKinsey are teaming up to buy $ 925 million worth of carbon offsets over the next nine years, a move they say will create a market that will help develop the necessary technologies for to get CO2 out of the air and ocean.

“Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that there is currently no way to keep global temperature rises within 1.5 ° C without permanently removing gigatons of CO₂ already present in the atmosphere and ocean. , “the announcement reads, adding that the move will send a” strong signal of demand to researchers, entrepreneurs and investors that there is a market for carbon offsets. “

Last week “now or never” The IPCC report contains, for the first time, an entire section on carbon dioxide removal or CDR. It is clearer than ever that the world to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement will must figure out a way to remove some of the CO2 we have already released into the atmosphere. Given the incredibly beginning nature of carbon dioxide removal technologies – all the direct air collection in the world together can only remove approx. 10,000 tons per yeara little bit – it’s also crucial that we find out how we can scale up the strategies we have and innovate new ones.

But what is real needed from carbon dioxide removal technologies remains a question mark, and the large numbers tossed around in press releases risk distracting from the current task of reducing emissions with technologies we already have. And as exciting as announcements as the Frontier project is, there are dangers too great companies and technocrats shaping the future of an industry that will ultimately be crucial to cleaning up our planet.

“The report clearly states that we need CDR to achieve this [the Paris Agreement] goals, ”said Toly Rinberg, a Ph.D. students at Harvard University specializing in the science and management of CDR. “The question is how much we will need and how we will implement it.”

Crucially, the IPCC’s focus in this report is not on using carbon dioxide removal as a fix-all tool, but rather as a complement to deep emission reductions. In other words, the report looks at CDR technologies that help us get closer to net zero while industries that are difficult to decarbonizejust as steel, petrochemicals and cement, are working to get their action together.

“There are a lot of parts of the economy where we have an idea of ​​how we can completely eliminate CO2 emissions, but it’s going to take a long time,” said David Morrow, research director at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. at American University. “While we’re working on it, we can also work on building CDR capacity so we can close that hole faster. The faster you reach net zero CO2 emissions, the faster you stop the temperature from rising further. That’s the main idea. “

The IPCC report also outlines the types of carbon removal techniques available to us, such as forest-based methods (planting a bunch of trees), direct air collection (machines that suck CO2 from the sky) and ocean-based techniques (using things like seaweed farming and alkalinity management). to remove CO2). Each of these proposed solutions, Morrow said, has its own complications.

“With something like replanting, we know how to do it – it’s easy,” he said. “What is uncertain is how durable that sequestration would be. If those forests are felled or die, carbon goes back into the atmosphere and it’s harder to measure how much carbon is absorbed.”

Direct air capture, meanwhile, is technologically reliable but incredibly expensive. That technology “may be optimistic where solar panels were in the ’70s,” Morrow said. “There is a long, long way to go before you get to a really large scale and possibly more affordable technology, but if we can get there, then we know it can permanently remove CO2.” Finally, there is a black box with other techniques that could provide results in the future, which to sprinkle stones into the ground and sea ​​fertilizationbut are simply too new and have too many questions about their side effects.

While it is clear that carbon dioxide removal technologies need to be scaled up, a huge number of possible numbers are at stake when it comes to figuring out the amount of carbon we will need to remove from the atmosphere. We simply do not yet know for sure how much we will need. Scenarios range from the removal of single-digit gigatons each year, in conservative estimates that only take into account emissions from these hard-to-decarbonize industries, to 10 to 15 gigatons per year by the end of the century at the higher end.

And there is a budding and perverse incentive for some technocrats to focus on the higher numbers to hype a new industry. Bill Gates, for example, has gone all-in on invest in different CDRs methods while rejecting investments in existing technologies that have been shown to reduce emissions – what he have called “the easy stuff.” Oil companies have also come into play, with big players like Chevron and Exxon pouring money in various initiatives. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s X-Prize, which pushes new and emerging technologies to remove carbon dioxide, claims that we should use 10 gigatons per year in 2050 – a figure that Rinberg said is at the much higher end of the range of results.

“My position is that people who call for the double-digit gigaton-scale reduction of carbon dioxide, whether they like it or not, are in line with the narrative and incentives from polluting industries and for-profit interests,” Rinberg said . “By saying that the reduction of carbon dioxide will be great in the future, it reduces the political pressure to sharply decarbonize today.”

When listening to Musk and Gates, one might walk away thinking that somehow it is easier to cultivate existing carbon dioxide removal techniques and develop new ones than to reduce emissions, but there is a lot of complications. First, the lower estimates of how much carbon we need to remove will require a huge amount of resources to obtain. ONE primer Rinberg co-author estimates that removing just one gigaton – a billion tons – of CO2 each year would require the planting of 80 million acres of forest, about 309,000 square miles, which is larger than the state of Texas. Removing the same gigaton using existing carbon dioxide removal technology would meanwhile require spending around 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption. (For some context is the world largest direct air collection facilitywhich opened last year, can only remove about 4,000 tons per year.)

And though all the speculative money brought into this nascent industry will certainly do so some well, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. Silicon Valley is almost unique obsession with financing CDR technology means that much of the budding scientific work is treated as a technological development: as intellectual property for companies seeking to win venture capital dollars, not as scientific processes open to public review and improvement.

Meanwhile, existing technologies such as direct air collection huge attention from investors, partly based on the assumption that they will be profitable in the future – despite the very real possibility that this technology could never be a money-making company. To make matters worse, there is essentially no oversight of the growing CDR industry, which means we may be heading into a situation where governments and corporations base their climate goals on technologies and processes that have no public oversight. (Bloomberg reported that the Frontier project will use a “pool of experts” to evaluate the effectiveness of the projects submitted to the fund. “While it is unlikely that we will publish the technical evaluations ourselves, we will continue to publish vendor applications for Frontier, as well as the names of experts conducting reviews and regular research into how the field is evolving,” a Frontier spokesman said. to Earther when we asked if the Foundation would publish the scientific research process or not.)

The IPCC makes it clear that we will need carbon dioxide removal, which means it may be worth dreaming of a different vision of how the industry can evolve. There is a version of the future where direct air capture is treated as a public supply, funded as waste collection or water treatment; where new scientific processes and technologies are open to public review and public funding, with no VC in sight; where there is a robust and thorough examination process for new technologies before companies and governments are allowed to buy credits or set offs or claim them as part of net-zero plans (we know how well they are doing).

But it would require a reorientation of how we think about climate progress, taking innovation out of the hands of the private sector and defining it as a public interest. And no matter how the industry evolves, science is aware that the bigger focus should be on decarbonization nowusing technologies we already have: namely renewable energy.

“This report was much clearer than any of the others in saying that getting to net zero and avoiding overrun will require carbon removal,” Morrow said. “It’s now just one of the pieces we need to grab, but it’s just a small piece of the puzzle, and it’s the big picture that some people think.ple work on or think of CDR sometimes miss. It is not a substitute for reducing emissions – it is there that almost all the work is done. “

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