To get climate change under control, experts say: we’re going to have to suck a lot more planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. And we need to start quickly.
Over the past decade, climate pollution has continued to grow, making the planet warmer. It’s gotten to the point where not one but two major climate reports released in the past week say we should resort to a still controversial new technology called Direct Air Capture. (DAC) to keep our planet habitable. Finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is “unavoidablesays a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
We already have a number of direct air capture facilities that filter carbon dioxide from the air. The captured CO2 can then be stored underground for preservation or used to make products such as: Soft drink† concrete, or even jet fuel†
But this kind of carbon removal is still happening on a very small scale. There are only 18 direct air capture facilities spread across Canada, Europe and the United States. In total, they can only capture 0.01 million tons of CO2. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need many more facilities with a much greater capacity, according to a recent study report of the International Energy Agency (IEA). By 2030, direct air capture installations should be able to extract 85 million tons of the greenhouse gas. By 2050, the target is 980 million tons of captured CO2.
It’s hard to understand how massive that kind of growth is, so we decided to draw it out. The small black box below shows how much CO2 existing direct air capture installations remove from the atmosphere today. The next generation of direct air capture plants should be much larger, with a single plant capable of capturing the equivalent of all the blue boxes (plus the black box) together – 1 million tons of CO2 per year.
Fast forward to 2030, and if the IEA’s vision comes true, there will be many more of those mammoth facilities. The blue and orange boxes below represent 85 million tons of captured CO2, the IEA’s target for the end of the decade.
But 2030 is just a milestone on the road to a much bigger goal. By 2050, if the best scenario comes true, people should have compensated for their CO2 emissions. In the first place, that means throwing away fossil fuels. (For this scenario to work, carbon removal must not become a crutch for the fossil fuel industry – something activists are very much aware of worried about.) The persistent greenhouse gas emissions that remain must be absorbed. Ideally, that should really only come from heavy industries that can’t easily switch to renewable energy – like cement manufacturing, which is responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions†
So, in addition to cutting emissions, the IEA projects we need will dramatically scale up carbon removal. To meet the 2050 target, an average of more than 30 new air capture plants would need to be built each year. Each of those plants should be able to extract 1 million tons of CO2 per year, for a total of 980 million tons per year by 2050.
In the above image, the blue is what a futuristic DAC factory could capture, the orange is how much CO2 should be captured by 2030, and the pink represents the 2050 target for captured CO2.
Again, what we can capture now is only one-hundredth of that blue square. And the first plant large enough to capture as much CO2 as that blue square represents isn’t expected to come online until mid-2020. So we’re already behind schedule when it comes to the IEA’s plans, and speeding things up is expected to come with a hefty price tag (at the moment it typically costs more than $600 to cut off just a ton of CO2). to catch).
Plus, there’s the question of what happens to all that carbon once it’s sucked out of the air. Besides building the factories, you have to build pipelines to transport the captured CO2. And then you have to find places to safely store the greenhouse gas. For example, some proponents of carbon removal want to bury CO2 at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As you can imagine, plans to build new pipelines and dredge the seabed have already pissed people off.
Despite all that, companies, industries and think tanks continue to pose direct air capture as an important piece of the puzzle to stop climate change. It might be possible. But looking at the sheer magnitude of the problem is an important reality check. From where we are now to the vast future envisioned by these new reports, carbon removal technologies are ahead of a long — and bumpy — road.