Can direct air capture make a real impact on climate change?

BY Anna Kusmer, reposted from WBFO NPR

Release date: June 30, 2020

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Christoph Beuttler, carbon dioxide removal manager and policy expert at Climeworks, said that since the company started 11 years ago in Zurich, it has faced plenty of pushback.

Climeworks is one of the first and best-known companies to direct air capture — or pull carbon dioxide directly out of ambient air for storage or use, which can help lower emissions in the atmosphere. 

“We have always had to fight against various, you know, skeptical points. At the beginning, a lot of people said this can’t be done. And then we did it. I think now the discussion is around, ‘This can’t be done cheaply.’”

Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks

“We have always had to fight against various, you know, skeptical points. At the beginning, a lot of people said this can’t be done. And then we did it,” he said. “I think now the discussion is around, ‘This can’t be done cheaply.’”

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Last month, the startup raised $76 million from investors, the biggest sum ever for a venture focused on this type of work. And Climeworks’ recent success has many wondering how much of a role direct air capture has in solving global climate change.

That’s what the company set its sights on from the outset.

“We always had this big vision of building up technology that could impact one of the biggest challenges humanity ever faced, which is climate change,” said co-founder Jan Wurzbacher in a 2017 promotional video.

Climeworks has grown a lot through time. They started in one facility and now have 16 plants around Europe, ranging from Iceland to southern Italy. The company has a visionary culture and a website replete with sweeping views of the Swiss countryside and an explanation of the technology at work: Huge fans suck in air and pull it through a filter. The filter extracts carbon dioxide, which is then stored, its website explains.

But some wonder whether the technology can be scaled up to have a real impact.

The company’s biggest plant in Switzerland removes 900 tons of carbon dioxide a year, the carbon sequestration equivalent of around 36,000 trees. Beuttler said their goal is to scale up to several billion tons, what he refers to as a “climate relevant scale.”

Reaching gigaton levels of capture seems like a far-off dream right now because removing 1 ton of carbon costs between $600 and $800. They need to bring costs down and expand their market. Right now, they sell some carbon dioxide to Coca-Cola Co. to put in soft drinks, and they sell some carbon to a local industrial greenhouse to boost plant productivity.

To make a real difference, Beuttler said, they need much bigger customers and to make the technology a lot cheaper. 

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Right now, they’re raising money by selling subscription packages to individuals and businesses who want to pay them to remove tons of carbon.

“I think you could essentially view it in a way that, we are a bit like Tesla. We have built a Model S [electric vehicle], and it works. It's nice, but it's still expensive. We now need people who want to engage so we can one day have a Model 3 that can save the world.”

Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks

“I think you could essentially view it in a way that, we are a bit like Tesla,” Beuttler said. “We have built a Model S [electric vehicle], and it works. It's nice, but it's still expensive. We now need people who want to engage so we can one day have a Model 3 that can save the world.”

While saving the world is a lofty goal, scientists do agree that pulling carbon dioxide out of the air in some way is necessary to limit global warming to manageable levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said hundreds of billions of tons of carbon need to be removed from the atmosphere to prevent disastrous levels of warming.

Whether direct air capture could be a significant piece of that is still up in the air.

Monica Lupion, carbon capture expert at the University of Buffalo, said on a technical level, Climeworks is doing something amazing.

“I liked the technology. I think the technology is beautiful,” she said. “They managed to achieve a very difficult task, which is capturing carbon dioxide from a very dilute atmosphere. So, I think that's great.”

But Lupion said she’s skeptical that taking carbon dioxide directly out of the air will ever be able to make a big difference because it’s inefficient.

“The CO2 is very diluted, and the more diluted it is, the more difficult it is to capture. I don't have anything against the technology.”

Monica Lupion, University of Buffalo

“The CO2 is very diluted, and the more diluted it is, the more difficult it is to capture,” Lupion said. “I don't have anything against the technology.”

Lupion said there’s another style of carbon capture technology that’s making more of a difference in terms of how much carbon is stored.

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A more widespread use of carbon capture technology is in the form of machines that scrub up to 90% of carbon dioxide from the exhaust fumes at power plants and high-emission industrial factories, where carbon dioxide is much more concentrated.

There are around 60 of these facilities in the world, and their impact right now is small, but if scaled up, the International Energy Agency projects they could cut global emissions by up to 14% by 2060. Power plants and industrial processes currently account for over 60% of the world’s emissions.

That approach is also much cheaper. One ton of carbon removal can cost as little as $36.

Just this past week, Norway released a proposed $2.6 billion 25-year carbon capture plan that would drastically cut emissions from a power plant and a cement factory and then bury the captured carbon under the seafloor off the country’s coast, at a cost of around $140 per ton of carbon.

The problem with this climate solution is a lot of people aren’t interested in fixes that are so tied to the oil and gas industry.

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“This is an industry that has an established track record of having obfuscated or ignored the science of climate change.”

Mark Brownstein,  Environmental Defense Fund

“This is an industry that has an established track record of having obfuscated or ignored the science of climate change,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Like many environmentalists, he argues carbon capture shouldn’t distract from the goal of lowering emissions in the first place.

“We likely need both,” Brownstein said. “And we need both quickly if we're going to avoid tripping dangerous thresholds of warming.”

Noah Deich, director of Carbon180, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for carbon removal, is hopeful that Climeworks’ efforts will help change the conversation around climate solutions.

“I'm optimistic that it will present an opportunity for the environmental community that has neglected to engage on carbon capture and storage or has been very opposed to it, to reengage in a new way that's just essential for the climate math,” Deich said.

Ultimately, Deich promotes every form of carbon capture, ranging from sequestration through trees or soil, to the most advanced technologies, like what Climeworks is doing. He said he thinks distancing from oil and gas companies is a legitimate stance for carbon capture companies to take.

“Climate policy is not values-neutral, it’s inherently values-driven,” Deich said. “It’s not just about finding the lowest cost pathway. We also need to consider who makes decisions. Who is empowered to drive our climate policy is a really essential component of the system.”

 

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