The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Turning Back Our Carbon Clock

origami image of a smoke stack

Amidst talk of reaching global net-zero emissions by 2050, an important piece of the puzzle has mostly been left out of climate action — removing carbon dioxide directly from the biosphere. 

Even if humanity never emitted another gram of carbon dioxide, our planet is still in serious trouble. Hovering around 420 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory, our background CO2 concentrations are close to double what they were before industrialization.  

Scientists can reconstruct atmospheric profiles from hundreds of thousands of years ago by examining trapped bubbles of air in ice cores taken from the remaining ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Significant variations in chemical composition can help pinpoint climatic shifts and allow for the cross-reference between different cores, creating a continuous record of our atmosphere almost 800,000 years long.  

That reconstructed record shows that our carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been within the past 800,000 years. Sedimentation records reveal that it was not before the Pliocene, almost 3 million years ago, that carbon dioxide was back at levels we are experiencing today. An entirely different climate regime, it should serve as a wake-up call for the permanent and potentially irreversible damage we are inflicting on our planet. 

While the effects of global warming are becoming more apparent this summer as we blow by 1ºC global temperature anomalies, the warming we’re experiencing today will not be temporary. Carbon dioxide, unlike other gasses like methane, has an effective unlimited lifetime in the atmosphere. That’s because the carbon continuously cycles through the biosphere with short lifetimes, before quickly returning to the atmosphere. 

Unlike methane, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other human-induced emissions, carbon dioxide does not chemically decompose like other gasses. The only efficient long-term carbon sink resides in the deep ocean and sediments, and there’s evidence the ocean is losing its ability to absorb carbon dioxide at the rate it has been. 

On top of the direct effects from increased carbon dioxide on global temperatures, an increasingly warming planet opens the door to potential rapid climate transitions, known as “tipping points.” Once crossed, these could result in irreversible changes to our climate, with some points ranging from concerning (Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation collapse) to outright cataclysmic (West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse). 

In order to outright avoid these possibilities, it is crucial that we rapidly increase our Direct Carbon Capture capabilities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Currently, around 40 commercial DCC are operating around the world with a capturing capacity of 45 million tons. However, if we are to achieve our climate goals of net zero (carbon emissions minus carbon sequestration = 0) by 2050, that capacity would need to increase by almost 100-fold

The massive scale-up for DCC is an intricate process. Direct Carbon Capture involves the use of chemical processes to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or emission sources. This is achieved through various methods, such as using liquid solvents, solid adsorbents, or membranes that selectively capture CO2 molecules. Once captured, the CO2 is then separated from the capturing agent, compressed, and transported for storage or utilization. Whether it is injected deep underground into geological formations or used to produce synthetic fuels or other valuable products, the goal remains the same: to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, mitigating its contribution to global warming. 

The sheer complexity and cost of scaling DCC to the necessary capacity presents significant challenges. These technical and financial hurdles make it clear that the private sector is not equipped to deal with a problem of this magnitude. While the commercial development of these DCC facilities is encouraging, there is little economic incentive guiding DCC towards cheaper and more efficient methods. As the capacity of carbon sequestration increases, so does the cost, which becomes increasingly prohibitive as we scale up DCC to levels required for climate change mitigation. 

This is a similar story that played out for photovoltaics (solar panels) in the early 2000s. As the need for a transition to renewable energy became more clear, there was skepticism that solar panels would become economically viable. What skeptics of the time failed to appreciate was the role that government intervention and subsidies would play in shaping the landscape of renewable energy. 

The success story of solar panels is a testament to the power of government policy in driving technological innovation. As nations recognized the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels, subsidies were introduced to offset the high initial cost of solar panel manufacturing and installation. This provided the necessary economic incentives to make solar energy a viable option for many consumers. 

As the market for solar panels expanded, the economics of scale began to take effect. With increased production and competition, the costs of solar panels began to decrease rapidly while the efficiency skyrocketed. Between 2010 and 2020, the cost of solar power dropped by 5-fold while the efficiency increased by 30%, making it not only a feasible choice but a financially attractive one. This was made possible through consistent investment in research, development, and the scaling up of manufacturing, much of it funded by government incentives and subsidies. 

The road to cheap and efficient solar energy illustrates the blueprint that direct carbon capture can follow. Currently, DCC technology is where solar panels were a couple of decades ago: promising but hindered by high costs and limited scalability. However, the lessons learned from the solar panel success story show us the way forward. 

The US Department of Energy has already announced $12 million in funding for research & development of DCC technology and recently announced a “Notice of Intent” to fund a $3.5 billion program to advance carbon sequestration in association with the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill passed in 2021. While the support from the US Department of Energy signifies a crucial step in advancing DCC technology, it is imperative to underscore that Direct Carbon Capture is not a silver bullet in our fight against climate change. It should complement, not replace, our efforts to reduce emissions.  

Fossil fuel companies may seize on DCC as a means to delay true decarbonization, promoting it as a sole remedy. However, a balanced approach that emphasizes both emissions reductions and responsible carbon management, like DCC, is essential. Alongside DCC, continued investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and transitioning away from fossil fuels remains vital in achieving our climate goals. 

The urgent need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere calls for decisive and visionary leadership. By embracing the lessons from the past and recognizing the potential of subsidizing Direct Carbon Capture, we can turn the promise of a more sustainable future into a reality, ensuring a safer and cleaner planet for all. 

Tyler Ory is a student at Harvard University studying government and politics. You can read more of his work at The Harvard Crimson.

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