The world’s largest carbon direct air capture facility has started construction in Iceland, run by Swiss startup Climeworks AG.
When construction finishes in 18-24 months, their facility, named “Mammoth,” will be able to remove 36,000 tons of CO2 from the air per year – which is .0001% of the 36 billion tons of CO2 emitted per year by humanity.
Climeworks currently operates their “Orca” plant which captures 4,000 tons per year and began operations last year. This new plant will increase their capacity by an order of magnitude.
Direct air carbon capture is the concept that carbon can be sucked out of the air through industrial and chemical processes. Climeworks’ new plant will use geothermal power to operate, sucking carbon from the air and mixing it with water, then injecting it into the ground where it reacts with basalt to form solid carbonate rock.
It is favored by large polluters like Exxon as a way to reverse the enormous damage they continue to cause, though currently it is “too expensive” to be scaled in any meaningful way.
Due to this expense and difficulty of scaling, environmentalists question its usefulness. The fear is that the promise of this technology will delay action in reducing carbon emissions today, as humanity may think that a technological answer will eventually come for the chaos we are currently causing to our world.
At the scale of this plant, a million similarly sized plants would be needed just to get humanity carbon neutral. But that’s just net zero – we would then need even more plants to bring CO2 down from the current 420ppm back to 350ppm, which is the number we need to hit to bring the climate back into stasis. To get to this concentration, we need to remove roughly half a trillion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere in total.
Climeworks sells credits for the carbon they remove from the air at a price of 1,000 euros ($1,048) per ton, and companies like Microsoft, Audi, and Shopify have already purchased credits to offset their impact. This is one of the world’s most expensive carbon credits, and is much higher than EPA estimates of the social cost of carbon and Exxon’s “target” number of $100/ton.
Climeworks hoped to get this number down to $100/ton by somewhere in the latter half of this decade, at which point they would like to be responsible for removing 1% of carbon from the atmosphere. But given that these predictions were made 5 years ago, progress doesn’t seem to be going as quickly as they’d like (or as all of us need).
Now, the company seems to be aiming for a facility to capture about half a million tons of CO2, another order of magnitude increase from their Mammoth plant, by the end of this decade.
Even at $100/ton which may or may not be achieved, the total cost of the carbon we are adding to the atmosphere is $3.6 trillion per year globally and it would cost over $50 trillion to bring atmospheric CO2 back to 350ppm. Multiply those numbers by ten to see the costs at Climeworks’ current price of 1,000 euros per ton.
This is why emissions reduction is so necessary. It’s a lot harder and more expensive to make a mess and then clean it up than it is to just not make the mess in the first place. We don’t know how well or cheaply we’ll be able to scale direct air capture, but we do know that there is a very effective form of carbon storage already happening – oil is in the ground, and has been there for millions of years, and it can just stay there indefinitely if we’d just stop taking it out of the ground and burning it.
But some sort of carbon removal and sequestration will be necessary to get humanity carbon negative, and the eye-watering costs of this underline just how mind-bogglingly stupid it is for us to continue emitting carbon at all today. The world seems to be coalescing around a target of ~2050 for net zero carbon, which means we’ll continue emitting for another 30 years, which we will then in turn have to spend even more to remove from the atmosphere.
Which is why among other things we need to mandate a carbon price at greater than the cost of cleanup, so that the companies and people responsible for high emissions are also the ones paying to clean up the damage they cause. And that money should be spent on immediate carbon reductions to get us to net zero as quickly as possible, because the later we act, the more costly it will be. If you make a mess, you are responsible for cleaning it up – a simple lesson we should have learned in kindergarten.
This also incentivizes emissions reduction, because if people see that it is more expensive to pollute and clean it up than it is to invest in emissions reductions, they’ll do the latter instead of the former. If we keep making it cheap to pollute (or rather, allowing the expense to be offloaded onto everyone else), then people and companies will pollute.
Carbon pricing has been considered politically unviable by many, especially in a time where people are concerned about rising gas prices. But a majority of Americans in every congressional district support making oil companies pay a tax on carbon, and regardless of political viability, the discussion of global warming is a matter of physics.
Physics does not care about political viabilities, only how much carbon is in the atmosphere, and it will not bend to your timeline or pause and wait for you to resolve supply chain issues or territorial conflicts or midterm elections. Climate change will continue no matter what short-term situation humanity is in and action to reverse it is needed today, not in 30 years.
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