Microsoft has announced it is to use Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal technology to help it achieve negative emissions by 2030, and to remove the company’s historic emissions by 2050. And Elon Musk has offered $100 million prize for the best scalable technology to achieve the same goal. So, can carbon capture and storage really save the planet from overheating?
Why do we need to snatch carbon from the air?
Current plans by nations to address global heating are insufficient and lead to around a 3°C average global temperature rise since 1800 – not enough to avoid major disasters.
It is therefore necessary to develop technologies, other than planting trees, which will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or from industrial processes, and either store it underground or turn it into a useful product for sale.
Elon Musk and Virgin’s Richard Branson – who launched the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007, offering $25 million for commercially viable carbon capture solutions – both have their eyes on a substitute for aviation fuel, currently a form of kerosene.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also pledged a year ago to give $10 billion to environmental organisations and scientists to fight climate change, partly with carbon capture solutions, as has online payment system Stripe.
This might seem encouraging but you could argue the super-rich want business as usual – and see carbon capture as the key.
What is carbon capture?
Carbon capture can be divided into three types of varying impact on climate change and pollution:
- Carbon capture and storage: usually buried underground – the carbon is out of the atmosphere permanently (carbon negative), but there is no direct income stream from the operation
- Carbon capture to make products that are useful, lasting and carbon negative: includes concrete substitutes and similar materials that can be used in buildings and infrastructure, thereby providing permanent storage and a direct income stream
- Carbon capture to make products that are useful but temporary (carbon neutral): examples include aviation fuel and plastic substitutes, which have benefits and are carbon neutral over their lifecycle but the product nevertheless pollutes the environment.
Research and development in these areas include Carbon Engineering’s work with Occidental Petroleum Corp to build a plant that can capture 1 million tons (0.907 tonnes) of carbon dioxide each year.
How much carbon dioxide do we need to take from the atmosphere to reach 1.5°C?
This corresponds to the allowable amount of additional emissions, known as the “carbon budget”.
Estimates vary from between 28 and 800 gigatonnes in the next eight years. [Note: there are 1 billion tonnes in a gigatonne.]
To get an idea of the scale of the challenge, about close to 10 billion tonnes of concrete are produced every year, embodying 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 on balance, and nearly 380 million tonnes of plastic embodying 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2.
As for aviation fuel, 915 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted in pre-pandemic 2019.
So, even if all of this was substituted by products made from carbon dioxide captured from the air, it would be well short of what we need to achieve in the required timeframe.
And it would be pricey. Today, sucking one tonne of carbon using direct air capture can cost $600 – about 15 times the price of carbon traded in Europe’s market.
We know, because Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, Switzerland’s Climeworks, and Global Thermostat in the USA have each built working pilot plants to capture carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon Engineering has used it to make a test batch of synthetic fuel.
What about using trees in construction?
Trees have the advantage of already existing and being cheap. Using trees in construction also takes atmospheric carbon and stores it away in buildings. Again, this is one more weapon in our arsenal in the climate war. But it’s not enough to meet the challenge.
This example illustrates why: even if the entire population of Europe (750 million) lived in timber apartments (three people per apartment), then around 40–50 million hectares of forest would be required to renew those buildings every 50 years, about 25–30 per cent of Europe’s forest.
For every tonne of wood used in construction, 3.9 tonnes of CO2 emissions are avoided. So, again, on its own this would not be nearly enough.
Anyway, there’s a limit to how many forests can be planted to naturally absorb CO2.
These figures demonstrate that all types of carbon capture and reuse, using all of the above methods, will not be nearly enough to help us reach the climate goals.
Only speedy implementation of renewable energy and energy efficiency will do this, and an end to fossil fuels by 2030.
Nevertheless this shouldn’t stop us trying to do everything we can to sequester carbon.
Stripe is backing a project that traps carbon dioxide in concrete, one that buries it in basaltic rock, one that will manufacture bio-oil, and a fourth that may support the ocean to store more carbon dioxide.
Virgin’s finalists were announced in 2011 but none met the criteria – which included being scalable to at least a billion tonnes of CO? a year and commercially viable at that scale. Many of the solutions still have advantages and are listed here.
The Carbon XPrize, started in 2015, has 10 finalists competing to convert CO2 into products ranging from hand sanitisers to vodka (no, it’s not Russian, it’s a Brooklyn-based company). The winner is expected to be announced this year.
What is Microsoft doing?
Microsoft announced its goals this time last year along with plans to cut its emissions “by more than half” by 2030 and since then has been investigating which negative emission technologies to use.
Four criteria were applied to assess technologies: scalability, affordability, commercial availability and verifiability. Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal solution was judged to fulfil all criteria and will receive some of Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund.
Microsoft will also base executive pay partially on meeting sustainability goals and internal divisions pay $5 for each ton of carbon emitted by suppliers or customers’ use of products and services – a great incentive for efficiency.
Last year Microsoft released 11,164,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent and purchased contracts to capture 1.3 million metric tonnes of CO2, over 11 per cent of its total, by planting forests.
Microsoft’s cash will expand the Climeworks project in Hellisheiði, Iceland, where CO2 is captured from air with direct air capture technology. Climeworks’ partner Carbfix then mixes the CO2 with water, pumps it underground and through the process of rapid underground mineralisation the CO2 is stored safely and permanently.
“We like the fact that they are not only thinking about capturing it from the air but how to use the carbon dioxide that is recovered,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. “If we get this going in Europe it may be able to move faster because we see more customers and businesses there wanting to purchase these kinds of services.”
“Climeworks’ direct air capture technology will serve as a key component of our carbon removal efforts. Their application set a high bar for technical rigor – especially the permanence of their solution, and we are looking forward to helping further scale their work with this purchase,” said Microsoft’s Elizabeth Willmott, carbon program manager.
The rich want their “get out of jail free” card
Reports have it that when Greta Thunberg told Davos that the rich and powerful really needed to do something about climate change, many of the super-rich subsequently asked their wealth advisors to buy up secure boltholes for them to retreat to when the climate shit really hits the fan.
It’s the rich who, research shows, are most responsible for climate change.
Between 1990 and 2015 the richest 1 per cent of people drove 15 per cent of climate-changing emissions while 7 per cent was emitted by the poorest half. The richest 10 per cent accounted for 52 per cent of emissions over that period, according to an Oxfam charity report.
The report’s author Tim Gore, head of climate policy, said change would not come from individuals voluntarily acting alone. “This has to be driven by governments,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We need tough measures to curb over-consumption by the world’s rich”.
There are some people who might say that instead of burying carbon dioxide, we might achieve more by burying at least the habits of the top 10 per cent.
David Thorpe is the author of Energy Management in Industry and ‘‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.