The Wild, Uncertain Future of Carbon Dioxide Removal

The Wild, Uncertain Future of Carbon Dioxide Removal
The Orca plant in Iceland, the largest direct air capture plant in the world. (Photo: HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP, Getty Images)

A group of powerful companies on Monday announced a new venture to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Meta, Alphabet, Stripe, Shopify, and McKinsey are pledging together to buy $US925 ($1,284) million worth of carbon removal over the next nine years, a move they say will create a market that will help develop needed technologies to get CO2 out of the air and the ocean.

“Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make clear there is currently no pathway to keeping global temperature increases within 1.5°C without permanently removing gigatons of CO₂ already present in the atmosphere and ocean,” the release reads, adding that the move will send a “strong demand signal to researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors that there is a market for carbon removal.”

Last week’s “now or never” IPCC report does include, for the first time, a whole section on carbon dioxide removal, or CDR. It’s clearer than ever that, in order to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, the world will need to figure out a way to remove some of the CO2 we’ve already put into the atmosphere. Given the incredibly nascent nature of carbon dioxide removal technologies — all the direct air capture in the world combined can only remove about 10,000 tons a year, a tiny amount — it’s also crucial that we figure out how to scale up the strategies we have and innovate new ones.

But what is actually needed from carbon dioxide removal technologies remains a question mark, and the big numbers thrown around in press releases risk distracting from the actual task at hand of cutting emissions with technologies we already have. And as exciting as announcements like the Frontier project are, there are dangers to big businesses and technocrats shaping the future of an industry that will ultimately be crucial to cleaning up our planet.

“The report clearly says that we will need CDR to reach [the Paris Agreement] targets,” said Toly Rinberg, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University specializing in the science and governance of CDR. “The question is how much we will need, and how we should deploy it.”

Crucially, the IPCC’s focus in this report is not on using carbon dioxide removal as a fix-all tool, but rather as a complement to deep cuts to emissions. In other words, the report sees CDR technologies as helping us get closer to net zero while hard-to-decarbonize industries, like steel, petrochemicals, and cement, work on getting their act together.

“There are a bunch of parts of the economy where we have an idea of how we might completely eliminate CO2 emissions, but it’s going to take a long time,” said David Morrow, director of research for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University. “While we work on that, we can also be working on building CDR capacity so we can close that gap sooner. The sooner you get to net zero CO2 emissions, the sooner you stop temperatures from rising further. That’s the key idea.”

The IPCC report also outlines the types of carbon removal techniques that are at our disposal, like forest-based methods (planting a bunch of trees), direct air capture (machines that suck CO2 from the sky), and ocean-based techniques (using stuff like kelp farming and alkalinity management to remove CO2). Each of these proposed solutions, Morrow said, has their own complications.

“With something like reforestation, we know how to do it — that’s easy,” he said. “What’s uncertain is how durable that sequestration would be. If those forests get cut down or die, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and it’s harder to measure how much carbon that’s taken up.”

Direct air capture, meanwhile, is technologically reliable but incredibly expensive. That technology “might optimistically be where solar panels were in the 70s,” Morrow said. “There’s a long, long road before you get to a really large scale and possibly more affordable technology, but if we can get there, then we know that it could permanently remove CO2.” Finally, there’s a black box of other techniques that could yield results in the future, like sprinkling rocks in soil and ocean fertilisation, but are simply too new and have too many questions about their side effects.

While it’s clear that carbon dioxide removal technologies need to scale up, there’s a huge span of possible numbers at play when it comes to figuring out the amount of carbon we’re going to have to remove from the atmosphere. We simply don’t yet know for sure how much we’re going to need. Scenarios range from removing single-digit gigatonnes each year, in conservative estimates that only factor in emissions from those hard-to-decarbonize industries, to 10 to 15 gigatonnes per year by the end of the century on the higher end.

And there’s an emerging and perverse incentive for some technocrats to focus on the higher number in order to hype an emerging industry. Bill Gates, for example, has gone all-in on investing in various CDR methods, while dismissing investment in existing technologies proven to cut emissions — what he has called “the easy stuff.” Oil companies have also gotten into the game, with major players like Chevron and Exxon pouring money into various initiatives. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s X-Prize, which pushes new and emerging carbon dioxide removal tech, claims that we’ll need 10 gigatonnes per year by 2050 — a number Rinberg said is at the much higher end of the range of outcomes.

“My position is that people calling for the double-digit gigatonne scale carbon dioxide reduction, whether they like it or not, are aligning with the narrative and incentives from polluting industries and for-profit interests,” Rinberg said. “By saying that carbon dioxide reduction will be big in the future, it reduces political pressure to sharply decarbonize today.”

Listening to Musk and Gates, one might walk away thinking that growing existing carbon dioxide removal techniques and developing new ones is somehow easier than cutting emissions, but there are a lot of complications. For starters, the lower estimates of how much carbon we need to remove would require a huge amount of resources to achieve. A primer Rinberg co-authored estimates that removing just a gigatonne — a billion tonnes — of CO2 each year would require planting 80 million hectares of forest, about 800,307 , which is larger than the state of Texas. Removing that same gigatonne using existing carbon dioxide removal technology, meanwhile, would require using about 10% of the world’s total electricity consumption. (For some context, the world’s largest direct air capture plant, which opened last year, can only remove about 4,000 tonnes per year.)

And even though all the speculative money being funneled into this nascent industry will certainly do some good, there are legitimate reasons to be alarmed. Silicon Valley’s almost singular obsession with funding CDR technology means that much of the budding scientific work is being treated like a tech development: as intellectual property for companies seeking gain venture capital dollars, not as scientific processes open to public review and improvement.

Meanwhile, existing technologies like direct air capture are getting mammoth attention from investors, based partially on the premise that they will be profitable in the future — despite the very real possibility that this technology could never be a money-making venture. Making matters worse, there’s essentially zero oversight of the growing CDR industry, meaning that we could be heading into a situation where governments and businesses are basing their climate goals on technologies and processes that have no public oversight. (Bloomberg reported that the Frontier project will use a “pool of experts” to evaluate the efficacy of projects pitched to the fund. “While we’re unlikely to publish the technical evaluations themselves, we will continue to publish supplier applications to Frontier, as well as the names of experts carrying out reviews and regular research on how the field is evolving,” a spokesperson from Frontier told Earther when we asked whether or not the fund would make the scientific review process public.)

The IPCC makes it clear that we’re going to need carbon dioxide removal, which means that it might be worth dreaming up a different vision of how the industry could develop. There’s 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 nary a VC in sight; where there’s a robust and thorough vetting process for new technologies before companies and governments are allowed to purchase credits and offsets or claim them as part of net-zero plans (we know how well those go).

But that would require reorienting how we think of climate progress, taking innovation out of the hands of the private sector and defining it squarely as a public interest. And regardless of how the industry develops, the science is clear that the larger focus needs to be on decarbonizing now, using technologies we already have: namely, renewable energy.

“This report was much clearer than any of the others in saying that getting to net zero and avoiding overshoot will require carbon removal,” 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 people working on or thinking about CDR sometimes miss. It’s not a replacement for cutting emissions — that’s where almost all the work gets done.”


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.