CO2 capture is expensive and too small to fight climate change

  • The world’s largest CO2 capture facility – which sucks carbon dioxide out of the air – has just opened.
  • A UN report says carbon capture technology is necessary if the world is to be carbon neutral by 2050.
  • However, many experts consider the technology to be too expensive and not scalable in the next few decades.

Framed by volcanoes, a semicircle of giant fans in Iceland sucks in air, overheats it and then filters out the carbon dioxide.

This carbon capture and storage facility called Orca went into operation two weeks ago after more than 18 months of construction. The fans are embedded in shipping container-sized cardboard boxes, and once the carbon dioxide is separated it is mixed with water and then travels through winding, fat pipes deep underground, where the carbon cools and solidifies.

Through this process, Orca can capture and sequester 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year – making it the largest facility of its kind in the world (although only two are currently in operation).

“Think of it like a vacuum cleaner for the atmosphere,” Julio Friedmann, a Columbia University energy policy researcher who attended the plant’s opening ceremony, told Insider. “Nothing else can do what this technology does.”

According to the recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), carbon capture and storage is a necessary part of our best climate scenarios. But currently, plants like Orca only negate part of global emissions.

The climate researcher Peter Kalmus has calculated it: “If it works, in a year it will capture three seconds of mankind’s CO2 emissions.” he wrote on Twitter.

In other words, Kalmus told Insider: “It will capture a ten-millionth of the current emissions of mankind at any point in time.”

“It is remarkable to me that it is considered part of these plans,” he said of the IPCC report.

“Probably the most expensive solution”

Texas CO2 Capture Plant

Carbon dioxide capture equipment at an NRG Energy coal-fired power plant in Thompsons, Texas on January 9, 2017.

Ernest Scheyder / Reuters


The Orca plant works differently than the carbon capture technologies built into some power plants, steel mills, and industrial plants. These collect the carbon produced during production before it is released into the air. It can then be converted into materials like concrete or stored underground.

More than 20 facilities around the world are currently doing this, most of them in the United States. But that just prevents more carbon from building up in the atmosphere. Orca, on the other hand, is an attempt to deal with the greenhouse gas that is already there.

This technology, known as Direct Air Capture, is still in its infancy. The Swiss company Climeworks, who built Orca, has the only functional game in town; the other plant is in Switzerland. Previously, the technology had little use in spacecraft and submarines.

Two more plants are in the planning stage: The Canadian company Carbon Engineering, which is backed by Bill Gates, started planning a similar plant in north-east Scotland three months ago. There are also plans to start building a facility in Texas next year. Each of these facilities could remove up to 25 times more carbon per year than Orca.

climeworks carbon capture plant switzerland

A Climeworks system for separating carbon dioxide on the roof of a waste incineration plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, 18 July 2017.

Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters


But as with many new technologies, direct air separation is expensive. Christoph Gebald, co-founder of Climeworks, told the Washington Post that it costs at least $ 600 to capture a ton of carbon dioxide because overheating the air uses a lot of energy.

These costs would need to be cut to a quarter of their current levels in order to bring them in line with technologies like wind and solar in terms of their carbon reduction – the extent to which they reduce emissions. To sell carbon commercially – such as to beverage companies that make carbonated beverages – the price would have to go even lower, likely between $ 65 and $ 110 per tonne.

Friedmann believes it will likely drop below $ 200 by 2030, and drop to $ 100 two decades later. By that point, he said, the market for the carbon removal market – companies that pay to reduce their emissions – will have grown significantly.

But even at that price of $ 100, eliminating all of mankind’s annual carbon emissions would cost more than $ 5 trillion a year, according to Gates’ book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. This would require 50,000 orca plants.

“It’s probably the most expensive solution,” Gates wrote.

Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland.  Climate change has profound effects on Greenland with the retreat of glaciers and the Greenland ice cap.

Icebergs melt near Ilulissat, Greenland.

Ulrik Pedersen / NurPhoto via Getty Images



There is also the question of timing. The IPCC report says that without capturing significant amounts of carbon in the next 30 years it will be impossible to bring humankind to net zero emissions by 2050 – and consequently limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But Mathew Barlow, a climate scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said three decades are not enough for the technology to be widespread.

“There’s no way to scale on this timescale,” Barlow, who contributed to the IPCC report, told Insider. “We’re at the point where you need to get the technology off the shelves instead of building it up.”

“Fossil fuel companies love carbon capture”

However, plants like orca outperform their natural counterparts – trees.

“The Orca system does the work of 200,000 trees in 1,000 times less space,” said Friedmann.

In addition, a facility like this is sealed off as soon as it stores its carbon. When trees burn, the ingested carbon is released.

Afforestation in Leiria Portugal 2018

A reforestation project in Leiria, Portugal in 2018.

Carlos Costa / Getty Images


However, trees bind carbon at a much lower cost of $ 50 per tonne.

Kalmus believes that carbon capture will ultimately distract the world from other solutions that would place a greater burden on emissions, such as investing in renewable energy and regulating the fossil fuel industry.

“Fossil fuel companies love carbon capture because they really let it off the hook,” he said.

Friedmann, however, thinks it is possible to expand the infrastructure for CO2 capture to the point where it makes a difference. If the Senate Infrastructure Bill were passed in the House of Representatives, $ 3.5 billion would be allocated to direct air collection facilities in the United States. Elon Musk also announced earlier this year that he is funding a $ 100 million carbon capture competition.

“We now know that we can do it,” said Friedmann. “Now we’re just haggling over the price and literally asking how much we’re willing to pay to save the earth.”

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