Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as the countries of the world committed themselves to do under the Paris climate accord, is impossible without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which set the Paris goals, concedes this. But the panel has neglected to suggest how to do it.
If we want to survive climate change, we must double down in research manpower and dollars to find and improve technology to remove carbon dioxide — or at least reduce its effects on the climate. We now emit 41 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already high enough to bring about a warming of more than 2 degrees after it has worked its way through the climate system, so if we want to save the Paris accord, we must either reduce our emissions to zero, which is not yet possible, or combine a significant emissions reduction with the physical removal of about 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year indefinitely.
As I outline in my book, “A Farewell to Ice,” this is because we have a carbon dioxide “stock-flow” problem: temperature rise is closely associated with the level of the gas in the atmosphere (the stock), but we are only able to control the rate at which new gas is emitted or removed (the flow). Carbon dioxide, unlike methane, persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, so even if we reduce our emission rate, the level of the gas will keep going up. At the moment, measurements show that this carbon level increase is exponential — it is accelerating.
Currently, the best way to save our future is to remove carbon dioxide through direct air capture, a process that involves pumping air through a system that removes carbon dioxide and either liquefies it and stores it or chemically turns it into a substance either inert or useful. Enterprising researchers have already developed systems that work by passing air through anion-exchange resins that contain hydroxide or carbonate groups that when dry, absorb carbon dioxide and release it when moist. The extracted carbon dioxide can then be compressed, stored in liquid form and deposited underground using carbon capture and storage technologies.
The challenge here is to bring the cost of this process to below $40 per ton of carbon removed, since this is the estimated cost to the planet of our emissions. At the moment, most methods cost more than $100 per ton, but there are dramatic developments which promise great improvement. Three companies have opened pilot plants — Global Thermostat (United States), Carbon Engineering (Canada) and Climeworks (Switzerland).
Climeworks is the trendsetter. After building a small plant which fed absorbed carbon dioxide into a greenhouse, they have opened a small-scale commercial plant in Iceland. This is aimed to remove 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air per year and pump the carbon dioxide, with water, down into basalt rocks underground, using Iceland’s abundant geothermal power as a source of energy. Here the carbon dioxide is literally turned to stone — it mineralizes rapidly because of the type of rock and the pressure. The carbon dioxide, turned to stone, is out of the planet’s energy system for millions of years. This is an enormous breakthrough.
Even in Houston, the home of the oil industry, climate innovation is taking place. In October, using an approach called the Allam cycle, a company called NET Power opened a plant that burns natural gas to produce power, but it captures all the carbon dioxide produced because the carbon dioxide is itself the working fluid — a new concept. This is not carbon drawdown but is a totally renewable energy source based on a fossil fuel.
In theory, cooling air so as to liquefy its carbon dioxide content could also be used to remove it. This could involve setting up plants on high polar plateaus such as Antarctica or Greenland but has yet to be investigated.
A compelling criticism of carbon removal is that it discourages us from even trying to reduce our carbon dioxide emission levels and instead shifts our focus to unproven “emit now, remove later” strategies. It doesn’t help that the unfortunate reality is that as a global population, especially in the West, we are reluctant to give up the comforts and conveniences of a fossil fuel world. Climate change will not wait for us to become more enlightened.
Effective and impactful carbon dioxide removal operations will need to be in place by around 2020. To keep global temperature rise within acceptable limits, we’ll need to remove half the current human emissions, which means extracting about 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, indefinitely. If we can manage this, we can save our society and our children’s futures. After all, if carbon dioxide is the chief cause of climate change, its removal would be our salvation.
This is an exciting time. The Iceland and Houston plants show us that man’s ingenuity, when turned loose on the problem of getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, can achieve success and maybe save the world from the plight into which our misapplied technology of the past has cast us. We just need to spend more — a lot more — on helping this process along. If we don’t, then in 20 or 30 years, the world will be a different and much nastier place than it is now.
Peter Wadhams is professor of ocean physics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, U.K.