The wild, uncertain future of carbon dioxide removal

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

The Orca plant in Iceland is the largest direct air capture plant in the world.
Photo: Halter Colbeans / AFP (Getty Images)

A group of powerful companies on Monday Announced A new attempt to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Meta, Alphabet, Stripe, Shopify and McKinsey promise to buy $ 925 million worth of carbon emissions over the next nine years, and they say the move will create a market that will help them develop the technologies needed to get CO2 out of the air. The sea.

“Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that there is currently no way global warming could rise to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius without permanently removing existing gigatons of CO₂ from the atmosphere and sea,” the statement said. “Send a strong demand signal to researchers, entrepreneurs and investors that there is a market for carbon emissions.”

Last week “Now or never” The IPCC report, for the first time, covers the entire section on carbon dioxide removal or CDR. This is clearer than ever, to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, the world desire We need to find a way to remove some of the CO2 we already have in the atmosphere. Considering the incredible newness of carbon dioxide removal technologies – all direct air traps in the world can only be eliminated if combined. 10,000 tons per yearA small amount – it is also important to figure out how to measure the strategies we have and invent new ones.

But what really Required Carbon dioxide removal technologies remain a question mark, and the large numbers thrown at press releases run the risk of diverting us from the actual task of reducing emissions with existing technologies. No matter how exciting announcements like the border project are, there are big risks Businesses and Technicians Designing the future of a business will ultimately be crucial to cleaning up our planet.

“The report clearly states that we need a CDR [the Paris Agreement] Goals, ”said Dolly Rinberg, a Ph.D. A Harvard University student specializing in CDR’s science and administration. “The question is how much we need and how to use it.”

Importantly, the IPCC’s focus in this report is not on using carbon dioxide removal as a fix-by tool, but as a filler for deep cuts in emissions. In other words, the report sees CDR technologies helping to bring the net closer to zero. Hard-decarbonized industriesSteel, such as petrochemicals and cement, work to integrate their action.

“There are some parts of the economy where we have an idea of ​​how to completely eliminate CO2 emissions, but it will take a long time,” said David Morrow, director of research at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy. At an American university. “As we work on it, it may also work to build CDR capacity, so that gap can be closed quickly. The sooner you reach net CO2 emissions, the sooner the temperature will stop rising. That’s the main idea.”

The IPCC report also outlines the types of carbon removal techniques such as forest-based methods (planting a bunch of trees), direct wind capture (machines that absorb CO2 from the sky) and marine-based techniques (application). Such as kelp farming and alkalinity management to remove CO2). Morrow said each of these proposed solutions has its own problems.

“Again, with things like afforestation, we know how to do it — it’s easy,” he said. “The uncertainty is how long that sorting will take. If that forest is cut down or dies, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and it’s hard to measure how much carbon is being taken away.

Meanwhile, direct flight capture is technically reliable, but incredibly expensive. That technology “can be relied on where solar panels were in the 70s,” Morrow said. “There is a long, long road ahead before you get a large-scale and potentially cheap technology, but we know that if we get there, it will permanently remove CO2.” Finally, there is the black box of other techniques Can Will yield results in the future Sprinkling rocks in the soil And Marine fertilizationBut they are very new and there are many questions about their side effects.

While it is clear that carbon dioxide removal technologies need to increase, there is a huge gap in potential numbers when it comes to determining the amount of carbon we need to remove from the atmosphere. Not sure yet how much we need. Since the removal of single-digit gigatons each year, according to conservative estimates, emissions from hard-to-carbon industries have only been a factor, with high-end to 10 to 15 gigatons per year by the end of this century.

And there is a growing and paradoxical incentive for some technologists to focus too much on exaggerating the emerging industry. For example, Bill Gates has gone through everything Investing in various CDRs Methods of rejecting investment in current technologies that have been proven to reduce emissions Has called “Simple things.” Oil companies have also entered the game with major companies such as Chevron and Exxon Pouring money In various endeavors. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s X-Prize promotes new and emerging carbon dioxide removal technology, Claims Will require 10 giga tons per Year By 2050 – a number, Rinberg said, is at an all-time high in the range of effects.

“My position is that people who call for a double-digit gigaton level carbon dioxide reduction, whether they like it or not, agree with the story and incentives of polluting industries and profit motives,” Rinberg said. “Saying that carbon dioxide reduction will be bigger in the future reduces the political pressure to decontaminate drastically today.”

Listening to Musk and Gates, one can turn away from thinking that developing existing carbon dioxide removal techniques and creating new ones is somehow easier than reducing emissions. A lot Problems. In the beginning, we will need more resources to achieve lower estimates of how much carbon we need to eliminate. A Primer Rinberg estimates that 80 million hectares of forest, about 309,000 square miles, must be planted larger than the state of Texas each year to remove one gigaton — one billion tons — of CO2. Removal of the same gigaton using existing carbon dioxide removal technology, meanwhile, should use up to 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption. (For some context, of the world Largest direct air capture plantOpened last year, can only remove about 4,000 tons per year.)

Even if all the speculation paid off in this new industry, it would definitely do Some Well, there are good reasons to be cautious. Silicon Valley almost Individual obsession with funding CDR technology Much of the emerging scientific work is considered technological development: intellectual property for companies seeking venture capital dollars, not scientific processes open to public review and development.

Meanwhile, current technologies such as direct flight capture are being obtained Great attention from investors, Despite the real possibility that this technology will never be a money-making endeavor, is based in part on the premise that they will be profitable in the future. To make matters worse, the oversight of the growing CDR industry is zero, which means we are moving towards a situation where governments and businesses base their climate goals on technologies and processes that do not have public oversight. (Bloomberg Reported The Frontier project will use a “panel of experts” to evaluate the effectiveness of the projects funded. “While we may not be able to publish technical ratings ourselves, we will continue to publish supplier applications to Frontier, as well as the names of experts who carry out reviews and routine research on how the sector is evolving,” Frontier’s spokeswoman Earther told Earther. When we asked whether or not to make this financial science review process public.)

The IPCC makes it clear to us that we need to eliminate carbon dioxide, which means it is worth dreaming of a different perspective on how the industry will grow. There is a future version where catching live air with funding such as garbage collection or water purification is considered a public utility; New scientific processes and technologies are open to public review and government funding, from a VC perspective; There is a robust and thorough testing process for new technologies before companies and governments purchase credits and offsets or claim ownership as part of a net zero scheme (We know how well they go)

But we need to rethink how we think about climate change, take innovation from the hands of the private sector and define it as a public good. It is clear that science is big, regardless of how the industry develops Focus on decarbonizing NowUsing technologies we already have: i.e., renewable energy.

“This report was much clearer than the others in stating that carbon removal is required to achieve net zero and avoid exaggeration,” Morrow said. “This is one of the pieces we need to get right now, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle, and some people think it’s the big pictureWorking on CDR or thinking about it can sometimes be missed. This is not an alternative to reducing emissions – almost all work is done here. “

Leave a Comment