The race to reduce carbon emissions is increasing, much like the planet itself. But reducing emissions alone will not be enough to stop what is happening.
It is not even enough to achieve the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement of limiting this globally to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century.
However, there is technology that is being touted as a way to get us there faster – sucking carbon out of the atmosphere – and now big investors are piling up.
In front of the gates of Zurich, more than a dozen huge fans are in operation and clean the air of carbon dioxide. So-called direct air capture is at the forefront of what is possibly the largest environmental industry aimed at saving the planet.
The company behind it, Climeworks, is one of the few that offers the technology to basically suck up the atmosphere of carbon. According to Chris Beuttler, head of politics at Climeworks, the plant in Switzerland removes around 900 tons of carbon dioxide per year. For comparison: we are emitting 40 billion tons worldwide.
Beuttler calls the facility a “drop in the ocean,” but the bucket is growing fast as new companies like Climeworks and governments try to monumentally expand what is known as direct carbon capture.
“That has to be several gigatons in the order of magnitude and not just technologies such as direct air separation, but all solutions for carbon removal together. We need everything, ”said Beuttler.
Carbon Engineering, based in Canada, has been working on direct air separation since 2015. Arizona State University and Silicon Kingdom Holdings use a proprietary carbon capture technology that acts like a tree. “[It’s] a thousand times more efficient in removing CO2 from the air, “says the ASU website.
Climeworks’ system is a box with a huge fan on one end and a filter inside that only attracts carbon dioxide. The fan sucks the air through the filter and as soon as the filter is saturated, the box is closed. It is then heated to 100 degrees Celsius and the pure carbon dioxide is released and collected. The captured carbon can either be buried deep underground or sold for other uses.
Climeworks installed the Zurich system in 2017 and had raised $ 100 million from Microsoft, Audi, Shopify and Stripe by 2020. It is now building a much larger plant in Iceland.
“It has to be a trillion dollar market. And I think those are the types of investors who see it pay off in the long run,” Beuttler said.
He compares it to the rapid rise of electric vehicles, solar panels and wind farms. Now the state of California is working on plans to use carbon capture to meet its aggressive goal of carbon neutrality.
“We have to try to keep going. There is no other choice. We have to sequester carbon to a high degree,” said Ken Alex, director of project climate at the Center for Law, Energy and Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.
Carbon capture technology has been around for some time, but was considered too expensive.
“The price has already come down dramatically, and while it is rising, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to see this as a viable opportunity,” he said.
Alex estimates the world will need about 50,000 carbon capture systems by 2050, which would cost about $ 10 trillion. It’s a whopping investment without a doubt, but with plenty of potential returns – beyond saving the planet, of course.
The trapped carbon dioxide can be used to make fuel, plastics, and even bubbles. Climeworks sells some of its captured carbon to Coca-Cola. Ironically, oil producers like Exxon and Chevron invest heavily in carbon capture, as the carbon can be used to release trapped oil underground.
“These opportunities are part of the investment momentum,” said Alex. “It’s a new industry that is just getting wet feet, but I think the possibilities are pretty big.”
The removal of CO2 also presents a new opportunity for the emission allowance market. Currently, companies can get credits for avoided or lower emissions, but in a net-zero world they need to not only cut carbon but also remove it.
Now they can buy these credits from moving companies like Climeworks. Because of this, big names like Microsoft, which has announced plans to cut its emissions by 2030, are buying into it.
“In order to stay in the safe range of global warming, we have to expand it,” said Beuttler. “It’s not a question of can? It’s a question of must.”