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The Wild, Uncertain Future of Carbon Dioxide Removal

The Wild, Uncertain Future of Carbon Dioxide Removal

Orca plant in Iceland, the largest direct air capture plant in the world.

Orca plant in Iceland, the largest direct air capture plant in the world.
picture: Haldor Kolbin / Agence France-Presse (Getty Images)

A group of strong companies on Monday announce A new project to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Meta, Alphabet, Stripe, Shopify and McKinsey are jointly pledging to buy $925 million worth of decarbonization over the next nine years, a move they say will create a market that will help develop technologies needed to take carbon dioxide out of the air and ocean.

“Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that there is currently no path to keeping global temperature increases within 1.5°C without permanently removing the gigatons of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere and oceans,” the statement read. , adding that the move would send “a strong demand signal to researchers, entrepreneurs and investors that there is a market for decarbonization”.

past weeks “Now or never” The IPCC report includes, for the first time, an entire section on carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. It is clearer than ever that in order to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, the world will We need to figure out a way to remove some of the carbon dioxide we’ve already put into the atmosphere. Due to the incredibly emerging nature of CO2 removal technologies – all direct air capture operations in the world combined can only remove approximately 10000 tons per yeara small amount – it is also important that we figure out how to expand the range of strategies we have and invent new ones.

But what is actually essential Carbon dioxide removal technologies remain a question mark, and the large numbers put out in press releases risk distracting from the actual task at hand of cutting emissions with the technologies we already have. And as exciting as ads like Project Frontier, there are big risks Companies and technocrats Shaping the future of the industry will ultimately be critical to cleaning up our planet.

The report clearly says that we will need to reach out to the Council for Development and Reconstruction [the Paris Agreement] Objectives,” said Tolly Renberg, Ph.D. student at Harvard University who specializes in CDR science and governance. “The question is how much will we need, and how should we deploy it.”

Crucially, the IPCC’s focus in this report is not on using CO2 removal as a tool to fix everything, but rather as a complement to deep emissions reductions. In other words, the report finds that CDR techniques help us get closer to net zero in the process Industries that are difficult to decarbonizesuch as steel, petrochemicals and cement, are working to consolidate their businesses.

“There are a bunch of parts of the economy where we have an idea of ​​how to completely eliminate carbon dioxide emissions, but it will take a long time,” said David Morrow, director of research at the Institute for Decarbonization Law and Policy. at American University. “As we work on it, we can also work on building CDR capacity so we can close this gap sooner. The sooner we get to net zero CO2, the sooner we stop the warming. That is the basic idea “.

The IPCC report also identifies the types of decarbonization technologies at our disposal, such as forest-based methods (planting groups of trees), direct air capture (machines that suck carbon dioxide from the sky), and ocean-based technologies (using objects Such as kelp culture and alkaline management to remove carbon dioxide). Moreau said that each of these proposed solutions has its own complexities.

“With something like reforestation, we know how to do it — and that’s easy,” he said. “What is uncertain is how long this confinement will last. If those forests are cut down or die, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and it is difficult to measure how much carbon is being absorbed.”

Meanwhile, direct air capture is technically reliable, but very expensive. Morrow said the technology “may be optimistically where solar panels were in the 1970s.” “There’s a long, long way to go before we get to a really large scale and possibly affordable technology, but if we can get there, we know it can permanently remove CO2.” Finally, there is a black box of other technologies that can yield results in the future, such as scattering rocks in the soil And ocean fertilizationbut it is very new and has a lot of questions about its side effects.

While it’s clear that CO2 removal technologies need to expand, there are a large number of potential numbers that come into play when it comes to figuring out how much carbon we have to remove from the atmosphere. We simply don’t know yet for sure how much we’ll need. Scenarios range from removing single-digit gigatonnes per year, in conservative estimates being the only factor in emissions from those industries where decarbonization is difficult, to 10 to 15 gigatons per year by the end of the century on the higher end.

There is an emerging and perverse incentive for some technocrats to focus on the larger number in order to make noise in a nascent industry. Bill Gates, for example, has done his best Investing in the various Council for Development and Reconstruction Methods, while refusing to invest in existing technologies have proven to reduce emissions – what is call The easy things. Oil companies are also in the game, with big players like Chevron and Exxon pour money in various initiatives. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s X-Prize, which promotes new and emerging carbon dioxide removal technology, Claims We will need 10 gigatons each public by 2050 — a number that Rainberg said is at the much higher end of the results range.

“My position is that people who advocate reducing carbon dioxide on the double-digit gigaton scale, whether they like it or not, align with the narratives and incentives from polluting industries and for-profit interests,” Renberg said. “By saying that CO2 reduction will be significant in the future, it reduces the political pressure to decarbonise sharply today.”

Listening to Musk and Gates, one might go away thinking that growing existing CO2 removal technologies and developing new ones is somehow easier than cutting emissions, but there are Much of complications. For starters, lower estimates of how much carbon we need to remove requires an enormous amount of resources to achieve. a primer Renberg has co-authored estimates that removing just gigatons—one billion tons—of carbon dioxide each year would require planting 80 million hectares of forest, about 309,000 square miles, larger than Texas. Meanwhile, removing the same gigaton using current CO2 removal technology would require the use of about 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption. (For some context, the world The largest direct air capture plantwhich opened last year, can only remove about 4,000 tons per year.)

And while all the speculative money being pumped into this nascent industry will certainly do Some Good, there are legitimate reasons for concern. almost silicon valley Unique Obsession with Funding CDR . Technology It means that much of the emerging scientific work is treated as technical development: as the intellectual property of companies seeking to earn dollars in venture capital, rather than as scientific processes open to review and general improvement.

Meanwhile, existing technologies such as live air capture are being acquired Huge interest from investors, based in part on the premise that it will be profitable in the future – despite the very real possibility that this technology could never be a money-making venture. To make matters worse, there is no oversight of the growing CDR industry, which means we could be heading for a situation where governments and companies base their climate goals on technologies and processes that are not subject to public oversight. (Bloomberg mentioned That Project Frontier will use a “group of experts” to assess the effectiveness of projects submitted to the Fund. “While we are unlikely to publish technical evaluations ourselves, we will continue to publish supplier applications to Frontier, as well as the names of experts who conduct reviews and regularly research how the field is evolving,” a Frontier spokesperson told Earther. When we asked whether or not the fund would announce the scientific review process.)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear that we will need to remove carbon dioxide, which means that it may be useful to dream of a different vision of how the industry will evolve. There is a version of the future where direct air capture is treated as a public utility, funded like garbage collection or water treatment; where new scientific processes and technologies are open to public review and government funding, with no venture capital in sight; Where there is a robust and comprehensive vetting process for new technologies before companies and governments are allowed to purchase or claim credits and reimbursements as part of net-zero plans (We know how well they go).

But this will require reorienting the way we think about climate progress, taking innovation out of the hands of the private sector and defining it squarely as a public good. No matter how the industry develops, the science is clearly greater The focus should be on decarbonization right Nowusing technologies we already have: renewable energy.

“This report was much clearer than any other in saying that getting to net zero and avoiding overshoot will require decarbonisation,” Morrow said. “It’s now just one of the pieces that we have to get, but it’s just a small piece of the puzzle, and that’s the big picture that I think some peoplePle work on or think of CDR sometimes miss. It is not a substitute for reducing emissions – and that is where almost all the work is done.”

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