Direct Air Capture - Boon or Bane?

Published on: 29 August 2022
by KnowESG
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The world is witnessing the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions which have caused havoc in the global climate. Be it floods, drought, rise in sea levels, wildfires or unusual temperatures, the alarming rate at which harmful emissions are being thrown into the atmosphere has not only the environmental scientists sweating but also the governments and the corporate world. Direct air capture (DAC) aims to reverse the ill effects of carbon emissions, amid significant buzz. 

So, what’s it about? In simple terms, DAC refers to a type of technology that uses chemical reactions to directly extract CO2 from the atmosphere. One might point out that there are already various natural methods to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such as planting trees, reducing deforestation, installing solar panels, and so on. However, here is the catch: the CO2 captured via DAC can be used in food processing or can be combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels. 

Unlike other natural methods of carbon removal, DAC (at current scale) uses minimal space, so it can be built on less land or close to geological storage sites to minimize the need for CO2  pipelines. DAC uses two methods to remove carbon dioxide directly from the air. First is the solid method where solid sorbent filters chemically bind with CO2 , after which the filters are heated and placed under a vacuum where they release the concentrated CO2  which is then captured for storage or for use. Second is the liquid method where the air is passed through chemical solutions which remove the CO2 , but the process involves reintegrating chemicals back by applying high-temperature heat while returning the rest of the air into the environment. 

DAC has seen exponential growth through investments made by large corporations like Microsoft, Shopify, Stripe, and Swiss Re, who have purchased future DAC removal to offset their CO2  emissions. According to reports, United Airlines is directly investing in DAC in accordance with its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050, along with Microsoft which has purchased DAC removal from Climeworks, with 15 DAC systems placed across Europe and, as such, is one of the largest DAC operators in the world. Some DAC companies are also offering small to medium-sized companies the option of commercial offset services where the companies will have to pay a recurring subscription to have CO2  removed from the atmosphere and stored underground on their behalf. The price of the subscription depends upon the amount of CO2  removal purchased. 

Fast-growing companies in the field like Carbon Engineering are aiming toward constructing a large-scale single facility in the Permian Basin (West Texas) which is capable of capturing 1 million tonnes of CO2  annually by 2023-2024. Other companies like Skytree and Infinitree are developing innovative solutions for removing CO2  emissions from the atmosphere. 

After this extensive research, one might reach the conclusion that DAC is indeed a boon in the context of climate change. However, this is far from reality. The main problem with DAC is that it is quite costly. The technology and process costs are expensive when compared to other natural methods of removing carbon emissions from the climate. The cost of DAC varies from 250-600 dollars per tonne depending upon the technology choice, low-carbon energy source, and the scale of deployment, whereas reforestation costs less than 50 dollars per tonne. 

On a scale of technology readiness DAC has scored six points, which means that it is still in the developing stages and is not fully ready for commercial deployment. As a result, the time available to scale up and reverse the effects of carbon emissions is at a much slower rate when compared to the continuous global CO2  emissions which are increasing every year. Presently, there are only nineteen DAC plants operational in Europe, the United States, and Canada, all small-scale plants capturing CO2  and selling it to be used in carbonated drinks. This poses a major challenge in combating climate change, since as per recent reports the globe is emitting more than 30 billion tonnes of CO2  every year, and for DAC to have a meaningful impact it could cost an enormous amount of money in capture costs along with exorbitant energy requirements for the whole process. 

One of the largest DAC plants is currently being developed in the United States and it is projected to capture up to 1 million tonnes of CO2  every year. However, the plant will only be fully operational by late 2024 and time is of the essence here. At present, there are few DAC companies and projects which are even at the initial phase, and corporations are still learning about the technology. Although adopting DAC technology could be helpful in reducing costs, it is not a viable solution for long-term climate control plans. DAC might, however, offer quantifiable and permanent storage as compared to natural carbon removal methods such as afforestation, which might be threatened by climate change-induced wildfires and drought. 

DAC may become a game changer, but the question is at what scale the technology can be leveraged to make credible inroads into carbon drawdown. The inherent danger is in pinning hopes on technological fixes that, while possibly effective to some extent, do little to address the systemic root causes of the climate emergency: namely those of collective societal behaviour, short-termist economics, and the fervent belief that we can tech our way out of a predicament instead of fully accepting it.

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