The world is one step closer to making a business out of vacuuming carbon dioxide from the sky
- Climeworks got third-party sign-off on its technology for sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky.
- Carbon removal is a key climate fix because greenhouse-gas emissions aren't dropping fast enough.
The latest climate win came in the form of an audit.
The Swiss company Climeworks this month hit a milestone when, for the first time, an independent third-party verified the startup's novel technology for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it underground.
The sign-off marked a huge step forward in the nascent world of direct air capture, said Christoph Beuttler, Climeworks' head of climate policy.
The plant in Iceland that delivered the carbon removals for paying customers Stripe, Microsoft, and Shopify is the only commercial direct-air-capture facility in operation, Beuttler told Insider. Certifying its scientific methods and disclosing them to the public builds trust and sets a pathway for the industry to scale, he said.
"It's super important that we agree on what ton of carbon-dioxide removal is," Beuttler said. There are different ways to remove emissions, including by planting forests — what scientists call afforestation — so establishing a common measurement is essential.
"We need a standard, because a ton of carbon dioxide removed by Climeworks is not the same as, for example, afforestation. Maybe the trees burn or decompose. They may not last 1,000 years or even 100 years, let alone millennia like what we do."
Carbon-dioxide removal is key to helping solve the climate crisis because countries and companies aren't on track to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2050, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Without removals, it will be all but impossible to achieve the Paris agreement target of limiting global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects from a warmer planet.
While planting trees and restoring wetlands can soak up carbon, nature can't be the only solution because there simply isn't enough space on Earth, scientists have found. That's where direct air capture comes in, though it's still early stages: Beuttler said the technology is where solar and wind was in the 1980s.
About 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are being removed from the atmosphere each year, nearly all of which is from forests, according to a new, first-of-its-kind report led by the University of Oxford. New technologies like direct air capture represent a fraction of that and need to remove hundreds of times more carbon dioxide by 2050 to help countries reach their climate goals, the report says.
Global carbon dioxide emissions rose to an estimated 40.5 billion metric tons in 2022, according to research by the Global Carbon Project.
"The next decade is crucial because the amount of deployment required in the second half of the century will only be feasible if we see substantial new deployment in the next 10 years," Gregory Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a coauthor of the report, said during a press call.
Climeworks, for its part, told Insider that its Iceland plant has the capacity to capture 4,000 metric tons. The company expects to bring another plant with 10 times that capacity online by 2024. Climeworks uses fans that suck in air through filters to capture carbon dioxide, and works with CarbFix to permanently store the carbon underground in rock formations.
The sector needs more government support to bring down the price of a ton of carbon removed, Beuttler said. Climeworks keeps the price confidential under agreements with its corporate buyers. The International Energy Agency pegged market prices between $600 and $1,000 a ton.
"All of our corporate buyers like Microsoft and Swiss Re are amazing, but we're talking about scaling to the size of the oil and gas industry in order to achieve the cleanup that's necessary," Beuttler said. "We need the government to essentially buy down these technologies."
The Inflation Reduction Act raised the tax credit for permanent carbon removal to $180 a ton to help attract investors, and the Energy Department plans to spend $3.5 billion over five years on four large-scale, direct-air-capture hubs. The European Union is laying the groundwork for its own strategy, but few other countries have plans to scale up carbon-dioxide removal.
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