Direct Air Capture is Ready for its Close-up

Climeworks direct air capture plant in Hinwil    Photo: Climeworks

By Dr. Julio Friedmann

As Congress prepares major climate legislation and President Biden looks to take more executive action, net-zero emissions has become the science-based star of the show. That show features a climate solution that is often overlooked – undiscovered and waiting in the wings. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which pulls carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and oceans, should be featured in that first act of the 117th Congress, addressing climate change, creating economic growth and jobs, advancing a range of natural and technological strategies that capture excess carbon dioxide and restore a healthy balance of CO2 in our atmosphere.

To be clear, CDR should never be a solo act. It must always be part of a climate-saving troupe, sharing the spotlight with other deep decarbonization options. The unforgiving math of net-zero demands both ambitious emission reductions and robust carbon removal. Neither on its own is sufficient. CDR is a critical part of Plan A. Every comprehensive assessment aiming to reduce the impact of climate change – including those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) – includes a massive drawdown of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. How massive? IPCC prescribed CDR on the order of 100 to 1000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) over the 21stcentury; and the National Academies suggested “removing ~10 Gt/yr CO2 globally by midcentury and ~20 Gt/yr CO2 globally by the century’s end.” – twice the size of the global oil & gas industry.

These climate models make clear that technologies like direct air capture (DAC) are necessary to achieve net-zero emissions and to restore our climate. Serving like turbocharged, space-age trees, DAC devices look like air conditioning units stacked sideways. Their fans suck excess carbon dioxide from ambient air and oceans and safely store it deep underground where it is naturally absorbed over time. This is a featured role, not a bit-part or understudy, in the net-zero pageant.

DAC technology exists – we just need to scale it up. Climeworks already operates 14 DAC facilities across Europe and sells CO2 removal subscriptions; Global Thermostat is building the technology in Oklahoma; and Carbon Engineering will replicate its British Columbia operation, building the world’s largest DAC plant in west Texas. Once captured, CO2 can be recycled in a wide variety of products like concrete, clean fuels, carbonated drinks, even fish food. Most captured CO2 will be stored deep underground, permanently trapped in the bedrock from where it came – only getting more dense and secure as it goes down, shrinking by 400 times. The EPA has required monitoring CO2 injection since 2010, and there has never been a leak of any significance. And the U.S. is uniquely positioned, with an estimated geologic capacity of 8.5 trillion tons of carbon storage – enough to store all the global emissions ever emitted.

Natural strategies like reforestation and conservation are important, and not just for climate – they maintain biodiversity and provide ecosystem services to the world. They are also not enough – there just isn’t enough land, enough time, or enough money. In comparison, one direct air capture facility can remove as much carbon dioxide from the air as 36,000 trees.  Still, it would be a mistake to prioritize one CDR strategy over others. We need them all, so we should support and develop them all. The fact is, to save our planet from the point of no return, we’ll likely need every tool in our toolbox: soils, trees, tech and more.

Wide deployment of DAC would be much more than a climate solution; it would be a jobs engine. Recent studies reveal the United States would create hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs and surge demand across markets by expanding the DAC industry with purpose – at full scale, an estimated 350,000 DAC operations jobs by mid-century, plus many more manufacturing, construction, and engineering jobs to build these facilities.

Just as we achieved with wind and solar energy development over the past decade, policies and investments can speed the market adoption of critical innovations. Research and demonstration of technology like DAC and incentives like the 45Q tax credit will spur private-sector investment and innovation so we’ll have the tools we need when we need them.  And we need them urgently. The longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult deployment will become. Thankfully, this is an opportunity for bipartisan, cross-government, and multisector unity.

The Biden administration and policymakers on both sides of the aisle have done this math and see DAC as an essential player in any serious climate plan. In her nomination hearing, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm emphasized DAC as one of several technological solutions essential to stabilizing the climate, pledging to “continue to push on carbon management solutions that get to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050…like direct air capture.” Even before Biden took office, the bipartisan Energy Act authorized $447 million in research and development (R&D) funds for large-scale commercial CDR projects – the first-ever dedicated CDR R&D program. The private sector – led by United Airlines, Microsoft, and others – also sees this need, and the value of DAC, putting millions of dollars into the technology.

But there is so much more investment needed – and the federal government needs to lead. As noted by World Resources Institute and the National Academies, a DAC R&D agenda for the next decade should match with a federal investment of $150 million on average per year paired with an average of $483 million per year for tax credits – a modest amount compared to other annual R&D investments in Energy Department programs; for FY21, Congress set aside $1.5 billion for nuclear energy R&D.

To serve its role, DAC and other CDR approaches need the weight of federal funding to rapidly flow from development to the deployment stage. The show must go on! Act III, Scene IV is here and we’re racing to the mid-century crescendo of construction and implementation of this climate-saving technology.

Let’s combine a construction agenda with a reduction agenda. CDR is ready for its close-up.

Dr. Julio Friedmann is a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA and served as President Obama’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy.

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