Scaling Up Carbon Capture Tech is a Race Against the Climate Clock
As part of a Sustainability & Resilience virtual event hosted by SPUR on June 23, a group of climate action leaders discussed the promise and pitfalls of capturing carbon. No longer just a pipe dream by tinkering engineers, the technology has already moved beyond the experimental level but is nowhere near ready for prime time.
As the effects of climate change in the form of natural disasters, heatwaves, agricultural losses and droughts continue to escalate, it has become clear to many that cutting reliance on fossil fuels alone is no longer adequate and that the drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is needed. With the atmospheric burden of CO2 at about 419 parts per million and rising, and over 20 billion tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere by humans so far in 2021, removing it is no small order.
Yet, that’s just what several companies springing up worldwide are aiming to do with burgeoning carbon capture technology. As a techno-fix employed to solve a problem caused by supposed human progress, it’s a controversial approach to solving climate change primarily because it’s untested at scale and could bolster excuses to keep burning fossil fuels.
However, another issue is that the technology currently can’t handle the job. Orca, a new direct air capture plant in Iceland by Climeworks, can capture about 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. And it’s expensive. In 2019, Climeworks said its capturing costs were between $500 and $600 per ton, MIT Technology Review reported. Closer to $100 per ton is economically viable, according to Arizona State University research fellow Habib Azarabadi and ASU Center for Negative Emissions Director Klaus Lackner.
Another company, Global Thermostat, has set a lofty goal of scaling up its carbon capture technology to remove up to 40 gigatons, or 40 billion metric tons of CO2 from the air annually in ten years, according to the company’s CEO and co-founder Graciela Chichilnisky, who spoke at the SPUR event and was an author of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Chichilnisky cited a United Nations report that concluded if all the available space on Earth were covered in trees, it would only remove 10% of the anthropogenic CO2 added to the atmosphere annually, necessitating other negative emissions solutions.
“It is important to understand that this is not a choice,” Chichilnisky said of carbon capture technology.
Global Thermostat’s technology works by using the heat generated by industrial processes such as metal smelting, cement production and petrochemical refining to power the capture of CO2 from the air or other sources. The technology is also modular, so instead of having a massive plant capturing gigatons of CO2, many small-scale units would operate, reminiscent of how many turbines make up a wind farm. Chichilnisky said she could envision homes having carbon capture units just as rooftop solar panels have become common.
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While many carbon capture projects aim to sequester the captured CO2 underground, Global Thermostat intends to use it commercially to produce synthetic gasoline and polymers. So far, the company has raised $70 million from companies like Exxon Mobil and Siemens Energy.
Negative emissions projects like carbon capture facilities are industrial uses that communities don’t necessarily welcome with open arms. California Air Resources Board Deputy Executive Officer Rajinder Sahota, responsible for directing CARB’s team working on an update to California’s Assembly Bill 32 — the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 — said community opposition has been a barrier to implementing new technologies to help solve climate change.
“We continue to see ambitious goals being set forth by many environmental organizations, many interested parties, but when we go to actually help companies and private investors put some of these technologies to work on the ground, we are facing local opposition,” Sahota said.
Some of the opposition stems from a pervasive distrust of private enterprise and industry that has profited for many decades from the causes of climate change. There’s also concern about the novel status of technologies like carbon capture.
“We are going into uncharted territory,” Chichilnisky said. “And even though we have proven that the technology works, there is always the reality that there is something there that we don't know because we have not operated at a scale that matters.”
Ellie Cohen, CEO of The Climate Center, said that from conversations with environmental justice community leaders, concern about new technologies from communities that have been exposed to greenhouse gas emissions and production pollution for decades is understandable.
“We need to test these technologies on a small scale, and we need to do it in ways that are both environmentally beneficial and can be shown not to be harmful, especially to the frontline communities,” Cohen said.
While community support and proper testing are essential, the urgency is ever-present. Giana Amador, Policy Director and co-founder of Carbon 180, a nonprofit that’s working to scale a portfolio of global carbon solutions, said that when the organization got started in 2015, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released a report containing an assumption that to meet climate goals, emissions not only needed to be drastically and rapidly reduced but that the carbon already in the atmosphere needed to be cleaned up.
Whether it’s solutions in forestry or agriculture or direct air capture, we know that the whole portfolio of solutions is needed to reach the scale that the climate models tell us we need to, Amador said.
Carbon capture may be necessary, but it’s not a panacea based on a study in Nature Climate Change, which found that one ton of emitted carbon isn’t equivalent to one ton of captured carbon, Carbon Brief reported. The study found that more CO2 would need to be removed than was emitted to compensate for asymmetries in the climate response, and the higher the emission, the larger the asymmetry. In other words, despite net-zero pledges by companies and governments, due to cascading impacts of CO2 in the atmosphere, it’s better not to emit in the first place than to emit and then remove.
The asymmetry may be troubling and a strong case for continuing to expand renewable energy sources; however, it’s likely that carbon capture will still be necessary.
Sahota said that even if all fossil fuel use were phased out by mid-century, there would still be greenhouse gas emissions from other sources such as refrigerants that would need to be balanced with carbon sinks. Another greenhouse gas on the rise, sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, is used as insulation by the electrical industry and is 23,500 times more potent than CO2 in terms of atmospheric warming potential.
“Even though it's pointed out how to get to the mid-century carbon neutrality target, the models indicate that all the action to lay the path to those targets happens in this decade,” Sahota said. “So this is a make it or break it decade for achieving carbon neutrality.”
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