Policy, money, and innovation are going to drive a surge in carbon dioxide removal initiatives around the globe over the next year.
Businesses and investors have committed roughly $2 billion to companies, funds, and projects that are all designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere for either sequestration (storage) or reuse. And regulators are drafting legislation to ensure that the technology is able to find buyers in a market where costs still need to come down significantly.
Carbon dioxide removal technologies involve harnessing biological, geological and chemical innovations to remove carbon dioxide (the most abundant greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere in an effort to reduce the severity of climate change.
Whether it's the announcement from Alphabet, McKinsey, Meta, Stripe and Shopify that they would collectively commit $925 million to carbon removal projects, or the $650 million that the direct air capture technology developer, Climeworks, announced this month, or the new $350 million carbon removal investment fund announced by LowerCarbon Capital money is flowing into carbon removal technologies.
The initiatives that this money supports are different from a generation of carbon capture and sequestration technologies deployed by the oil and gas giants of the past as a means to justify continuing fossil fuel use.
Those projects, like Shell's Alberta, Canada carbon capture and storage project which actually emitted more gases than it sequestered, are based on legacy technologies and are tied to a single source of emissions. The (not terrible) idea behind those projects is to capture emissions at the source and keep them from escaping into the atmosphere.
By contrast, the projects and technologies that giants in tech, consulting, and investment are funding are meant to be rolled out alongside renewable energy technologies to reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon rather than keep additional CO2 from reaching the atmosphere.
"Sadly, we spent most of the last 50 years running out the clock while gorging ourselves at an all-you-can-eat petrochemical buffet. One option is to not do anything. But left to its own devices, Earth could take up to 100,000 years to cool back down to safe levels. It’s going to be hard to watch season 37 of Succession from underwater, so we need a better option," Chris Sacca, the co-founder of LowerCarbon Capital wrote in a blog post announcing his firm's new fund.
"Thus, in addition to dramatic emissions reductions, we need to suck CO2 back out of the sky and put it back into the ground. Let’s be clear, we aren’t talking about offsets like paying someone to not chop down their trees. Those can be helpful, but they’re not going to put a dent in the problem," Sacca wrote. "Removal means removal. It means mopping up the 170 years of extractive sludge milk we’ve already spilled. Removal means we grab CO2 pollution already out there and sock it away permanently."
All of this activity is happening as the agencies and institutions that monitor and help craft policy for global energy markets make the case that carbon dioxide removal -- including direct air capture technologies -- are vitally important to solving the world's climate crisis.
"Direct air capture plays an important and growing role in net zero pathways. Capturing CO2 directly from the air and permanently storing it removes the CO2 from the atmosphere, providing a way to balance emissions that are difficult to avoid, including from long-distance transport and heavy industry, as well as offering a solution for legacy emissions," the International Energy Agency wrote in a report earlier this week.
"In the IEA Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, direct air capture technologies capture more than 85 Mt of CO2 in 2030 and around 980 MtCO2 in 2050, requiring a large and accelerated scale-up from almost 0.01 MtCO2 today," the agency wrote. "Currently 18 direct air capture facilities are operating in Canada, Europe and the United States. The first large-scale direct air capture plant of up to 1 MtCO2/year is in advanced development and is expected to be operating in the United States by the mid-2020s."
And these technologies may be able to provide materials necessary to make modern industry more circular. The CO2 captured from the atmosphere could be used to make products that currently rely on new fossil fuels for their production.
These are things like the plastics, paints, chemicals, filters, membranes, and components that most modern goods are made from -- or use.
"Air-captured CO2 can also be used as a climate-neutral feedstock for a range of products that require a source of carbon," the IEA wrote.
Already companies are trying to harness captured CO2 in their manufacturing processes to make these building blocks of industrial production.
They're businesses like LanzaTech and Twelve, which are working on ways to make ethanol and polypropylene (a chemical found in pretty much everything). Or companies like Mars Materials and SkyNano Technologies, which are turning captured carbon dioxide into industrial components for things like wastewater treatment and carbon fiber replacements for steel and plastics in cars and planes.
"Our process aims to rebalance the overabundance of carbon in our environment and instead reuse it for meaningful applications,” said LanzaTech CEO Dr. Jennifer Holmgren of the partnership with Twelve.
In Texas, Carbonfree Chemicals and Solugen are both looking to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock to make industrial chemicals and solvents.
"We have to make massive cuts in CO2 emissions across the board, but we also have to invest in some technologies that can directly use it,” Charlotte Williams, the chief executive of the utilization company Econic Technologies and an Oxford University researcher told Nature earlier this year.