To control climate change, experts say, we’re going to have to start absorbing a lot more carbon dioxide from the air that warms the planet. And we have to start doing it fast.
Over the last decade, climate pollution has continued to grow, warming the planet. It’s gotten to the point where not one, but two major climate reports released last week say we’ll have to turn to a still controversial new technology called Direct Air Capture. (CAD) to keep our planet habitable. Finding ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is “inevitable,” to report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he says.
We already have some direct air capture installations that filter carbon dioxide from the air. Captured CO2 can be stored underground for safekeeping or used to make products such as soda, concrete, or even aviation fuel.
But this type of carbon removal is still done 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 capture only 0.01 million metric tons of CO2. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need many more facilities with much higher capacity, according to a recent study report of the International Energy Agency (IEA). By 2030, direct air capture plants must be able to extract 85 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. By 2050, the goal is a whopping 980 million metric tons of CO2 captured.
It’s hard to understand how massive that kind of growth is, so we decided to draw it. The small black box below is the amount of CO2 that existing direct air capture plants currently remove from the atmosphere. The next generation of direct air capture plants is supposed to be much larger, with a single plant capable of capturing the equivalent of all the blue boxes (plus the black box) combined: 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year.
Fast-forward to 2030, and if the IEA’s vision comes true, there will be many more of those giant facilities. The blue and orange boxes below represent 85 million metric tons of CO2 captured, the IEA’s goal for the end of the decade.
But 2030 is just a milestone on the way to a much bigger goal. By 2050, in a best-case scenario, humans should have balanced their carbon emissions. That means getting rid of fossil fuels, first and foremost. (For this scenario to work, carbon removal cannot become a crutch for the fossil fuel industry, something activists are very concerned about.) Any stubborn greenhouse gas emissions that remain will need to be captured. Ideally, that should only come from heavy industries that can’t easily turn to renewable energy, such as cement manufacturing, which accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
So in addition to reducing emissions, IEA projects will need to drastically increase carbon removal. More than 30 new direct air capture plants would need to be built each year, on average, to reach its 2050 goal. Each of those plants would need to be able to extract 1 million metric tons of CO2 per year, for a total of 980 million metric tons per year in 2050.
In the image above, blue is what a futuristic DAC plant could capture, orange is the amount of CO2 that needs to be captured by 2030, and pink represents the 2050 target for CO2 captured.
Again, what we can capture now is only one hundredth of that blue square. And the first plant big enough to capture as much CO2 as that blue square represents isn’t expected to come online until the mid-2020s. So we’re already behind schedule when it comes to plans for the IEA, and speeding things up is expected to come at a steep price (right now, it typically costs more than $600 to capture a ton of CO2).
On top of that, there’s the question of what happens to all that carbon once it’s pulled out of the air. In addition to building the plants, you must design pipelines to transport the captured CO2. And then you have to find places to safely store the greenhouse gas. Some proponents of carbon removal want to bury CO2 at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, for example. As you can imagine, plans to build new pipelines and dredge the seabed have already been angry people.
Despite all this, companies, industries and think tanks continue to point to direct air capture as a key piece of the puzzle to stop climate change. It could be possible. But looking at the magnitude of the problem is an important reality check. From where we are now to the expansive future these new reports envision, carbon removal technologies face a long and bumpy road.