A Swiss company that developed a technology that can suck CO2 out of the air has partnered with an Icelandic company that can mix it with water and inject it underground, where it turns into rock. The new plant will have the capacity to extract 36,000 tons of CO2 per year.
The problem with climate change is that we’re already passing the threshold where things could be alright. Even if human society does everything right from here onwards (which seems very unlikely at the moment), the inertia of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted already will still heat the planet significantly. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t have an incentive to act: quite the opposite — the difference between acting and not acting is massive, and not tackling climate change could even threaten our civilization. But if we wanted to return our planet’s climate to its “natural” state, to where it would have been without our emissions, how would we go about it? Or even more pressingly, if we wanted to reduce some of the already emitted carbon and reach our climate targets, how would we do it?
Taking CO2 out of the air is easier said than done. It’s a technological challenge, and it’s expensive — certainly more expensive than not emitting it in the first place — but it’s something that some scientists believe is “unavoidable” if we truly want to avoid a climate catastrophe in the long term.
In the past couple of years, Iceland has become an unlikely hotspot for this type of project. Iceland’s geology offers an advantage when it comes to storing CO2, as researchers have shown that a CO2 solution can be injected into the porous, subsurface Icelandic basalt, where it turns solidifies and stays out of the atmosphere. The proof of concept was already done, but scaling operations up is still a big problem.
The new plant will try to address this problem. Over the course of the next 18-24 months, the plant will start running, using 80 large fans and a bunch of filters to extract CO2 from the air. The entire project will be powered by geothermal energy, which is another advantage of Iceland — it doesn’t make sense to run a project like this on fossil fuel energy because you’d be producing the very greenhouse gases you’re trying to eliminate; with its bounty of clean geothermal energy, Iceland is excellently suited for this type of plant.
This all sounds great until you realize that 36,000 tons of CO2 is a very very small fraction of the some 36 billion tons of CO2 the world emits every year. In other words, you’d need a million of these plants around the world to nullify the emissions the world is producing.
It’s also very expensive. Climeworks, the Swiss company behind the project, already sells carbon removal credit to companies. This is how, even if your company activities produce carbon dioxide, you can still be “carbon neutral” — you pay someone else to take an equivalent amount out of the air. But the cost for it is huge: around $1000 per ton. For comparison, many economists have proposed a tax in the ballpark of around $50 per ton of emitted CO2, and economists are, in general, in support of a carbon tax.
Nevertheless, with the way things are currently going, the odds are we’ll end up needing this type of technology down the road, and perhaps, scaling can actually reduce the costs to a more palatable level.
This isn’t the only carbon capture project of this nature under development. There are over a dozen such projects around the world, with more planned or underway. Occidental, a US oil company, has said they will launch a large-scale facility in 2024 that can collect 1 million tons per year. If the plans actually come to fruition (which again, is a big ‘if’), it would be the world’s largest by far, though still insufficiently to significantly affect global greenhouse gas emissions.
Taking CO2 out of the air won’t save us from the climate crisis. We’re better off focusing on reducing our emissions and reaching net zero as quickly as possible instead of hoping for a magic technology to save us. But somewhere down the line, carbon capture could play an important role. Hopefully, it can help, but for now, we shouldn’t rely on it.