All Buck, No Bang: The Truth About Direct Air Capture
OAKLAND, CA — Climeworks recently announced their goal to capture 1% of annual emissions by 2025. I ran some numbers to see what that would take, and was surprised by what I found: In order to remove 1% of annual carbon dioxide emissions, we need 500,000 machines running nonstop at current state of the art of 1 tonne per day. And that is for estranged carbon dioxide, that is, the 54% of emissions that does not get absorbed by the land or ocean.
This calculation exposes clear limits on the present state of direct air capture of carbon dioxide. If we want to win by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we must focus on small, niche, applications. This means no “restoration-scale” gigatonne-scale removal. We have proof that tonnes per year can work. We have no proof that gigatonnes per year can work, not even within several orders of magnitude.
An investment will go further if applied to supporting an economic system that does not release the carbon dioxide in the first place. Investments are needed in present-day technologies like local agriculture, coastal resilience, and zero emissions transportation. We need to offer better jobs than Amazon and the other companies who rely on the air as a free garbage dump.
By investing in direct air capture to capture carbon dioxide at climate-affecting scale, we are investing in the same old system. Shell and Exxon-Mobil are some of carbon capture’s biggest investors. There is nothing radical about it. What is radical is changing perspectives on what type of industrial activities are acceptable and what are not. Kicking our addiction to fossil fuels is radical.
Don’t get me wrong: Carbontech is important. We still need to understand the carbon cycle, and build products and services that are circular and safe. We need to reduce emissions, we need to reduce the levels of greenhouse gas in the air, and we need clean energy jobs.
By valuing carbon dioxide for businesses and for customers, we can create an economy that likes carbon dioxide better when it is not estranged in the sky and acidifying the ocean. We can do this with Carbontech.
We will succeed by setting realistic targets, and changing course when we reach conclusions that contradict our previous path. Before we invest in climate-impacting “restoration-scale” approaches, let’s check presently available ways to introduce the new system. How about a product certification that represents the carbon dioxide emissions represented by a product or service?
Matthew C. Eshed is the Co-Founder of Impossible Labs, Co-Organizer Climate Change + Tech Meetup Group, and Co-Creator of AirMiners, creators of the first product made using atmospheric carbon dioxide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org