“Wartime” investment in carbon capture must start now, researchers say

What could wartime levels of emergency funding buy us in the fight against global warming?

A visualization of carbon being added to the air by humans. Carbon visuals, Flickr
2 March 2021
2 March 2021

Despite a 7 percent drop in global carbon emissions as a result of the pandemic in 2020, the UN Emissions Gap Report predicts that, by the end of the century, we are on course for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels.

But what might be possible if politicians not only promoted a “green recovery” from the pandemic but also launched a massive spending program to rival the emergency budgets of World War Two? Could this “crisis mindset” somehow help us curb global warming?

More than six years ago, the IPCC established that we would need global net negative emissions by 2050, and broader public support for the idea that we need rapid and massive investment in negative emissions technologies is catching on. In February, Elon Musk pledged a USD 100 million prize fund for carbon capture inventions that can scale to the gigaton level. 

As promising as this sounds, computer models designed by a team led by researchers at the University of California San Diego recently found that it represents only 0.0001 percent of the annual investment needed to transform negative emissions technology from science fiction to reality in time to prevent runaway climate change.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has called the climate crisis “our third world war.” The UC San Diego team asks, “What if we treated it like one?”

“Trash removal for the skies”

The study modeled the effects on the climate of “wartime-like crash deployment” of a negative emission technology (NET) called direct air capture, DAC. Ryan Hanna, a researcher in energy systems and lead author of the study, describes DAC as “trash removal for the skies.” 

ClimeWorks is one of the companies helping to research and develop this young carbon capture technology. At its facility in Switzerland, huge fans suck the ambient air into a chamber, where the carbon dioxide binds to a special filter. It is then heated to 100 degrees Celsius and collected to be recycled as a fuel or fertilizer or buried deep underground. The process is highly energy-intensive, but the overall impact on emissions is negative.

A 3D printed carbon capture device that can be placed in the adsorption column to reduce heat, which helps covert carbon dioxide from gas to liquid. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Flickr
A 3D printed carbon capture device that can be placed in the adsorption column to reduce heat, which helps covert carbon dioxide from gas to liquid. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Flickr

As ingenious as DAC sounds, the results of the UC San Diego climate model were sobering, according to Hanna. “In many scenarios, even a massive level of funding like 5 percent of GDP for direct air capture, on top of all of the conventional mitigation we might do, is still not going to stop warming at 2 degrees,” Hanna explains, citing the ceiling for temperature rise as stated in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Although massive deployment of DAC could “substantially hasten the onset of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions,” the model suggests that only “concurrent deep mitigation of emissions” would help us meet the Paris Agreement target. This optimistic scenario, based on the most ambitious of the IPCC’s Shared Socioeconomic Pathways, envisages that we have already hit peak carbon dioxide and methane emissions and that global population growth will also slow dramatically. 

Even if negative emission technologies like DAC are a huge success, it is clear that we must still make far-reaching changes to our societies and our economies. But, of course, there is no guarantee that negative emissions technologies will be a huge success.

Mid-century mission

We would not expect a two-year-old to engineer a bridge, analyze viral DNA or write a sonata (Mozart notwithstanding). Similarly, the UC San Diego study suggests that DAC must go through a lengthy development period before we see significant carbon capture in the decades after 2050.

“Even though the IPCC models tell us that we don’t need negative emission technologies until mid-century,” Hanna explains, “it’s important to build up our knowledge now so that, when we have to rapidly scale up these new technologies, we can.”

Despite the fact that DAC uses vast amounts of energy, the study also found that, counter-intuitively, we should not wait for a fully decarbonized energy system. “If we run DAC on gas, then we’ll still pull out around 60 to 80 percent net carbon,” says Hanna. “It’s true that you’ll remove more net carbon dioxide if the electricity is renewable, but that’s missing the larger point that DAC is effective now.”

A new form of alliances

Hanna believes that, ultimately, governments will have to take responsibility. “Unfortunately, there’s no economic case to be made right now for storing the carbon dioxide underground,” says Hanna. 

Although extracted carbon dioxide could be sold to oil companies to enrich petroleum, or even used to heat greenhouses as the ClimeWorks facility in Switzerland does, the reality is that there is not a huge market demand for carbon dioxide. According to Hanna, most DAC companies will end up having to bury their product underground. “Governments will need to pay for negative emissions as a public good, in the same way that they pay for water and sewer systems,” Hanna says.

DAC also offers individual governments the opportunity to act unilaterally against rising emissions. The atmosphere is a globally shared resource, so 2000 DAC plants in, say, Switzerland would decarbonize the air as effectively as 2000 DAC plants spread all around the globe. This could greatly reduce the diplomatic wrangling that has historically mired efforts at conventional mitigation.

Indeed, Hanna hopes that a “club of democracies” will pool resources to invest in large-scale negative emissions technologies in the same way that nation states form military alliances like NATO. Furthermore – and to develop the military metaphor – such an investment would serve as reparation to a world suffering from the heedless industrialization of the wealthiest nations.

As Joseph Stiglitz wrote in 2019, “When the US was attacked during the second world war no one asked, ‘Can we afford to fight the war?’ It was an existential matter. We could not afford not to fight it. The same goes for the climate crisis.”


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