The Earth has too much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, which leads directly to a warmer climate. The solution seems easy enough — take some of that carbon dioxide out of the air and put it someplace where it can’t harm the environment. Of course, there is another solution — stop treating the Earth as a cesspool, but that’s a non-starter because the global economy depends on being able to pollute without any limitations. Plastics, fertilizers, carbon emissions — piffle. Can’t disrupt the economy to avoid our own extinction now, can we? So rather than doing the hard work of lowering emissions, we focus instead on ways to undo the damage after it has already been done. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but arguably not the best way to deal with the problem.
Enter Climeworks, a Swiss startup that proposes to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere using an array of boxes the size of shipping containers. Mount some standard industrial fans in them to force air through special filters that capture carbon dioxide, rinse the filters with hot water to remove the CO2, then pump the resulting slurry deep underground where it will eventually harden into rock.
Its first test facility, called Orca, is now operational on a lava flow in southwest Iceland. To most of us, “orca” is another name for a killer whale, but it is phonetically identical to the Icelandic word for energy. The installation began operating on September 8th and is expected to capture 4000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually at a cost of around $800 a ton. Scientists say we will need to remove a billion metric tons of the stuff every year to prevent a climate catastrophe.
This may seem like an expensive drop in the ocean, but let’s look at it this way. 15 years ago, getting electricity from solar panels was wildly expensive too, but today the President of the United States is proposing a plan that would source nearly half of America’s electricity from solar panels. A lot can happen in a decade or so and carbon capture doesn’t have quite the scary side effects associated with more drastic measures like geoengineering. It may not work, but at least it won’t make things worse.
“This is a market that does not yet exist, but a market that urgently needs to be built,” Christoph Gebald, co-founder and co-director of Climeworks, tells the Washington Post. “This plant that we have here is really the blueprint to further scale up and really industrialize.” He says the technology needs to cost under $150 per ton in order to be profitable without government subsidies but claims the subsidies California currently offers to EV purchasers are equivalent to $450 for every ton of carbon dioxide they prevent from going into the atmosphere.
The current costs reflect both the handbuilt nature of the technology and also the large amounts of energy needed to power the CO2 capture process. One of the reasons Iceland was selected for the company’s first prototype installation is the availability of abundant geothermal energy. Another is the land near near the facility is ideal for the underground sequestration process, which will be managed by Carbfix. For more on sequestration, see the video below.
Gebald thinks prices for the Climework technology will get cheaper. By 2030, he expects prices around $200 to $300 per ton. By the late 2030s, he says they will be half that, which will make the process a competitive method of reducing global emissions.
“That’s really the main problem, whether you can make it cheap enough. And there’s reason to believe that it could be possible,” Stephen Pacala, director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, tells the Washington Post. If the technology were to cost $100 per metric ton of carbon dioxide and the aviation industry paid to offset the emissions from its aviation fuel, it would increase the cost of fuel by about $1 a gallon, well within the range of seasonal price fluctuations, he said, adding it “could be a big deal. It could be a really big business. ”
Yes it could, and we support any and all measures designed to keep humans from dying in massive numbers as the world warms. The problem is, the Earth won’t wait while the technology matures. People who get a gleam in their eye about what wonders await us in 20, 30, or 40 years pretty much miss the point. The latest IPCC report makes it crystal clear that we have run out of time. We have to slash carbon emissions now, not somewhere down the road.
We wish Christoph Gebald and Climeworks well. We really do. But the big concern is that trumpeting the news about such pie in the sky possibilities gives the fossil fuel crowd more ammunition to say, “See? There’s nothing to worry about, folks. Everything will be fine. We can burn every molecule of coal, oil, and unnatural gas we can find and somebody else will clean up our mess. We’re going to find a way to science our way out of this. Go back to sleep.”
Someday in the not too distant future, a whole lot of us — billions of people — are going to wake up dead if we continue using the Earth as a communal toilet for our waste products. That’s the part that should concern us, but our political leaders seem incapable of comprehending that simple, basic truth. By the time Climeworks aligns its business model with the strictures of capitalism, it will be too late. And you can take that to the bank.