We know we’re currently pumping too much carbon dioxide into the air. But wouldn’t it be amazing if we could find a way to suck it all up and send it back deep underground?Effectively it’s a solution that works. I think, things are moving much more quickly than people expected. Climate scientists are now saying that without such technology, we won’t hit our climate targets.
Can this actually work? And why is the money for this coming from the most unlikely source – big oil companies?
So where did this crazy idea come from?
Turns out, this seemingly cutting edge idea to capture carbon is actually decades old!
The US Navy used capture as a way to clear the air inside submarines and space shuttles, that filled up with CO2 from the breath of soldiers and astronauts. “You may remember that scene from the movie Apollo 13, where suddenly they had to build a CO2 scrubbing system.” “Those CO2 levels are gonna be getting toxic. Well, I suggest you, gentlemen, invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole.” “And they dumped all this stuff out on the table and said, guys, we have three hours to figure out how to make a CO2 scrubber. They had the technology already on the spacecraft. We know how to do these things.” Modern carbon capture technology is basically this CO2 scrubber on a bigger scale – like this plant in South India.
First, the polluted air is sucked into the industrial system through internal fans. After being cleaned for impurities, it is transported towards the absorption plant. Where it is cooled and then sent through a liquid solvent that absorbs CO2, which is then moved further into the plant for processing, while the clean air, which is mostly only water vapour is now released.
The CO2 is later stripped out of the solvent and can be used to make other products – like soda ash. Or it is used to heat greenhouses or even as a fuel. You can capture CO2 right at the source of the pollution – like the Indian factory – where they burn coal, and strip the CO2 out of the emitted smoke, and divert it to the adjoining soda ash factory.
This is called point source capture. Hundreds of pilots and small-scale facilities, and over 50 large-scale plants around the world are currently doing this. Then there is direct air capture, where big fans suck large amounts of polluted air directly out of the atmosphere. 15 plants are currently doing this worldwide – but experts say the potential is huge. Even if the CO2 is emitted again, like when the fuel is burned, it is considered ‘carbon neutral’, as it hasn’t added to the CO2 that would have entered the air anyway.
The better thing to do for the environment, of course, is to prevent emissions from ever entering the air – so companies are now working to inject carbon deep into the ground in a process called sequestration – that can preserve it there indefinitely.
This is considered “carbon negative”, as it actively removes carbon from the atmosphere. And this also has pretty ironic consequences. But more on that later.
“We know from the arithmetic of climate that we need all of these things and we need as much of them all as we can get. In the next 30 years, we have to start removing about 10 billion tons of CO2 every year.”
Julio Friedmann is one of the foremost experts on carbon capture, who served in the US Department of Energy. He says massive CO2 removal needs to start now. And the leading climate body, the IPCC agrees. In their latest report, they declare that the world will not meet its climate target without active carbon capture and removal.
The original carbon suckers, aka trees, can play a role. But considering the space and water needed – and the fact that they are always at the risk of being cut down anyway – experts believe they can only play a fractional role.
So with the focus is now on the tech version of trees – Direct Air Capture machines – that are springing up around the developed world. Canadian Company Carbon Engineering plans to launch the biggest commercial capture plant in 2022. “We’re building a plant capable of removing one million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.
Currently direct air capture companies worldwide capture 9000 tons of CO2 per year, so Carbon Engineering’s goals are massive.
Effectively, it’s a solution that works with different technologies available, but it’s a question of can we scale the market right now? And I think that brings me back to what Carbon Engineering’s focus is at the moment, which is making it possible to have policy incentives.” And that’s the reason not everybody is already sucking carbon out of the air all over the world. Estimates vary, but at the moment it costs over $200 to remove a ton of CO2 through Direct Air Capture.
To scale up the industry, companies say there need to be better financial incentives. These can come either in the form of credits offered by the government in exchange for removing the harmful substance from the air.
Or when captured CO2 can be traded at a good price on the market.
Plus: it could also come from taxing companies that allow their carbon dioxide fumes to escape.
And there is place where a combination of these measures has worked. Norway introduced a tax on pollution almost 30 years ago, which has now incentivized a number of large companies to capture their carbon, setting them on a quick path towards carbon neutrality.
Sequestration has also been carried out and monitored in Iceland for over 20 years, allowing experts to conclude that the process is safe for all practical purposes.
And the space available underground is virtually limitless. Other companies in Europe, as well as Canada and the US are catching up. But it’s early days. And this brings us to the not so climate-friendly consequences of sequestration. In the absence of large incentives from governments, all capture and sequestration companies are collaborating with – paradoxically – big oil companies.
“What do you need for sequestration, you need somewhere that you can store the carbon dioxide, and one of the best places to store that, is old oil fields and where the owners of those assets can be oil and gas companies. Well, that’s a very strategic route for them to go down to use their existing assets.”
At the same time: putting the captured CO2 into the ground builds up pressure and makes it easier for even more oil to be extracted – in a process called enhanced oil recovery. Up to 88% of carbon captured and sequestered at the moment, is used to extract more oil. And this makes investing in carbon capture financially viable for these oil companies. “I certainly worry about the big oil role in carbon capture.”
Dan Kammen is an expert on clean energy, who has spoken out about the big problems with this kind of model. Fossil fuel companies can continue to emit, and we just suck up some of their pollution and waste.
There are many other problems with the fossil fuel industry. In addition to greenhouse gases, there is local air pollution, there’s water pollution, there’s environmental injustice. So finding a way to extend the life of fossil fuel is essentially finding a way to continue poisoning the planet.
The science is clear in that we need to actively remove carbon from the air.
But, without broad public support or government incentives, these technologies remain in the hands of private investors – who will only go where the profits are. To keep the technology going, we need to ensure a clever combination of incentives for non-oil companies, taxing polluters, and pricing CO2 higher. “I am optimistic. I think that in 2030 we will see something in the order of 10 to 50 million tons a year of removal and the cost will be below a hundred dollars a ton. I know that we can get there, and I hope we will.”
So carbon capture does work, and we will need it to slow down the rate of climate change. But it’s not the silver bullet. Our priority still needs to be polluting much less in the first place.