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Three companies are working on carbon removal technology to directly take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into zero carbon fuels. The problem is that none of them know how to make a profit yet.

Air Quality

Is There A Business Case For Carbon Removal Technology? (W/Video)

Three companies are working on carbon removal technology to directly take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into zero carbon fuels. The problem is that none of them know how to make a profit yet.

Three startup companies — Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat, and Climeworks — are touting carbon removal technology that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. What they need now is a way to make that technology carbon removal technology commercially viable. You would think people and governments would be rushing to promote their activities but that’s not the case, at least not yet.

Carbon Engineering is building an industrial plant in Squamish, British Columbia, that it says will capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. The company says it plans to construct enough similar facilities to remove millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air in a bid to limit or even reverse global warming.  The company was founded by Harvard physicist David Keith and is supported in part by funding provided by Bill Gates.

“How do you power global transportation in 20 years in a way that is carbon neutral?” asks Geoff Holmes, business development manager at Carbon Engineering. “Cheap solar and wind are great at reducing emissions from the electricity. Then you are left with the transport sector.” As part of a demonstration project financed by Audi, Swiss based Climeworks has captured carbon dioxide from the air and provided it to Sunfire, a German company that recycled it into zero carbon diesel fuel.

Global Thermostat is located in New York City. It is headed by Peter Eisenberger, a Columbia University professor and former researcher for Exxon and Bell Labs, who says the company has recently received an infusion of capital from an unnamed US energy company. All three companies talk about a hypothetical future in which carbon removal will harvest carbon dioxide from the air and transformed into low carbon fuels using renewable energy.

Even though all three companies have been around for a decade or more, none have a practical business model yet. At this time, no one is willing to pay them the billions of dollars it would take to remove enough carbon dioxide to make a noticeable difference at the global level. There are few uses for carbon dioxide commercially, which means it has little market value to build a business around.

Still, climate experts say carbon removal technologies deserve more attention. A review of climate intervention technologies published by the National Academies of Sciences in February described direct air capture as “an immature technology” and called on the US government to invest in research “to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a significant global climate impact.” Fat chance of that happening with Trump in the White House.

“Scientists are increasingly convinced that we are going to need large scale removal systems to fight climate change,” says Noah Deich, who recently started the Berkeley, California, nonprofit Center for Carbon Removal. “I’m excited about direct air capture. It could be a really important technology to add to the portfolio.”

Things may be about to change, however. Recent studies show that climate change is already having an impact on plant and animal species. “The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2C but we can still make it if we act now — is scientific nonsense,” says Oliver Geden, head of research at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere will be essential if the world hopes to meet the goal of the Paris climate agreement to stay within the 2C limit.

For now, progress on implementing the Paris accords is moving along but slowly. There is still a lack of urgency when it comes to investing in climate change technology. That’s unfortunate. The governments of the world spend billions each year in direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies. One would think thoughtful leaders would want to stop those subsidies and invest the money in clean technology. Perhaps the word “thoughtful” is the stumbling block in an era where most leaders are dependent on fossil fuel companies for their jobs.

The International Monetary Fund estimates the total of all direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies is $5 trillion a year. That includes the monetary cost of treating the diseases that occur as a result of polluted air, land, and water, not to mention the value of the millions of lives that are cut short prematurely each year thanks to fossil fuel pollution.

Lots of people are blasé about climate change. They think that when the need gets critical, a group of smart people will step forward and “science out” a way to magically undo the most disastrous effects of climate change. Unfortunately, the time to do that was about 20 years ago. While mankind is fiddling, the earth is slowly burning. In generations to come, our heirs will look back at this time in human history and wonder how as a species we could have been so unremittingly stupid to not use every tool at our disposal to head off a foreseeable and preventable disaster.

Source: The Guardian

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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