Carbon capture technology seems almost like a too-good-to-be-true solution to climate change: Technology under development in labs, startups and the research arms of fossil fuel companies would suck the carbon out of the air or keep it from getting there in the first place, and find ways to put it into specially engineered rocks or underground containers.
But it’s not a fairy tale. The technology already exists, and is capturing and storing 40 megatonnes of CO2 annually as of Jan. 2021, according to a report by international climate think tank Global CCS Institute. That’s only about 0.1% of the world’s current emissions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is relying on the technology, in fact. The amount of carbon captured and stored must increase at least 100-fold by 2050 to meet the scenarios laid out by the Panel, according to the Institute’s report.
There are a couple of big problems in reaching that goal. The first one is financial. Carbon capture and especially storage faces a classic Valley of Death, say experts and scientists on the front lines. There are existing technologies — like huge fans that keep power plants from releasing carbon into the atmosphere — but they are expensive. Building underground storage infrastructure could also be challenging. Meanwhile, research into new lower-cost technologies is too far away from being marketable to attract the private financing that would fund its development.
“If you look at the investment, it’s almost a straight line up this year. But it’s only about an eighth of the funding that’s needed,” said Sarah Cone, founder and managing partner of Social Impact Capital, whose investments include Prometheus Fuels, an electrofuels company that recently closed a B round at a $1.5 billion valuation with investments from large companies including Maersk. “My feeling is that we don’t really have 10 years. We need more that can happen now.”
Some billionaries, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have stepped forward to try to solve that part, though their involvement carries some risks. And the Biden Administration is putting more research dollars toward carbon capture. Private investment is also growing: In the past five years, venture capital investment in global climate tech has grown more than five-fold to $32.3 billion, Quartz has reported, citing not-for-profit London & Partners and Dealroom.co, a data provider on startups.
The second problem faced by carbon sequestration technology — a problem that is just emerging now — is political. If the politics takes off in the wrong direction, innovation could be stymied. The emerging opposition reminds some of the deeply politicized fight over nuclear energy, which pitted environmental activists against big companies, with the government in the middle.
The Deep Tech Trap
The uncertain nature of early stage scientific research — the kind that leads to big breakthroughs that invent a new technology, bring down the price or make a product scalable — means that it’s usually funded by the U.S. government. The U.S. federal government invests about $125 billion in research and development per year as of 2019, according to Washington D.C.-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The government share of the GDP that goes toward R&D has been on a decline since it peaked in the 1960s. Hundreds of billions of dollars more is necessary to match what the budget once was — for example, to reach the levels of the 1980s, the budget would need to increase by $100 billion per year, according to the ITIF.
“I’ve talked to venture capitalists who are ready to throw down 10 times what a normal research budget would look like, if you had a project that was ready for commercialization,” said Harry Lisabeth, an energy geosciences researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “But the issue is we need many small projects to figure out even what direction to throw the big resources into.”
Proposals to increase government R&D funding, including for climate change, are contained in two huge spending bills, one labeled a “hard infrastructure bill” and the other the “Build Back Better” plan. Lawmakers are debating them this month in Washington, D.C.. But fears are rising that the toxic climate in Washington, D.C., will forestall or curtail action.
What the Market Looks Like Now
The Paris Accords encourage market-based solutions, whereby big emitters of carbon can buy offsets. But because today’s technology is mostly expensive, many large companies that are big emitters are choosing the cheapest offset: planting trees. But “A tree doesn’t necessarily sequester the carbon permanently,” Cone, the investor, pointed out. They can be cut down or burn down; and indiscriminate tree-planting can also be harmful to ecosystems.
On average, trees cost about $14 per ton to use as an offset. Other technologies can cost as much as 10 times more, she said.
She said that a handful of big companies that want to encourage innovation in the space are buying a mix of offsets: some trees and some more expensive solutions, like offsets from Climeworks, whose massive fans suck 900 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year.
Ironically, the big energy companies that are currently the worst offenders may ultimately make money from the carbon offset markets, because they are investing the most in technologies to sequester it, from membranes to physical and chemical solvents. Data from the patent research firm Patent Seekers, cited in an article in Chemical and Engineering News, show that oil companies have gotten the largest number of carbon-capture patents in recent years, followed by government agencies and research institutes, universities, and engineering and technology companies.
But some startups are also innovating in the space. The start-up Svante raised $75 million in February to advance a design for cement plants. Social Impact Capital is also invested in Aether Diamonds, which turns sequestered carbon into diamonds.
The next technological challenge is capturing carbon directly from the air, which is particularly energy intensive. One of the most mature companies doing this is Carbfix in Reykjavik, Iceland, where they have a large source of geothermal power, Lisabeth said. Carbfix’s technology liquefies the carbon dioxide, injecting it into the basaltic rock underwater, where the CO2-water reacts and forms a solid rock, according to its website.
The company, which was started in 2007 as a subsidiary of Reykjavik Energy and has since become its own entity, is one of the promising carbon capturing sites, Lisabeth said.
Elsewhere, too, people are working to vacuum CO2 out of the air. Just outside of Zurich, Switzerland, Climeworks, which works with Carbfix, has raised $100 million from investors such as Microsoft and Audi for its fans. At the University of Arizona, technology that acts like ‘mechanical trees’ are working to directly capture the CO2.
“The people in the oil and gas industry are savvy,” Lisabeth said. “They see the writing on the wall…they’re starting to sharpen those tools right now, as the progression from hydrocarbon source energy is replaced by other sources. I think that the oil and gas industry and oil field operators stand to gain a lot by some sort of priced carbon economy.”
The Problem with Billionaires
Private individuals are also stepping into the breach, trying to turn the tools of software and traditional tech innovation to the challenge of climate change. Elon Musk pledged $100 million to the best carbon capture invention early this year. Perhaps the largest leader, Bill Gates, committed more $1 billion last month to fighting climate change through his Breakthrough Energy, which he started in 2016. That includes investments in direct air capture innovation.
“Half the technology needed to get to zero emissions either doesn’t exist yet or is too expensive for much of the world to afford,” Gates stated in a press release. “Catalyst is designed to change that and provide an effective way to invest in our clean technology future.”
But the key criticism of their initiatives — though it’s rarely spoken aloud — is that today’s tech magnates tend to fund hard innovations, like inventions or software. Meanwhile, their fame means they lead the conversation away from soft innovations — in trust building or communications — that might be necessary, but not flashy. An example is the United States’ halting vaccination campaign. Scientists had the technology to produce the vaccines, but the breakdown in America’s society means too many people don’t trust it.
Meanwhile, opposition to carbon capture and storage is beginning to mount, reminding some of the potent opposition to nuclear power.
Environmental Groups Object
In July, hundreds of climate and social justice organizations, including international group 350.org, the Bemidji, Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network and Boulder, Colorado-based Clean Energy Action, signed a letter to President Biden, stating that focusing on technology that captures and stores carbon before it’s in the air will just allow people to continue burning fossil fuels. Part of their argument echoes some of the political opposition to nuclear power: that the infrastructure to build carbon capture storage is more dangerous than people realize (current technology has carbon being injected into geologic formations deep underground). The letter also argues that infrastructure — such as pipelines — will be built in disadvantaged communities.
“These dangers are systematically overlooked in discussions on carbon capture. Transporting and storing carbon dioxide (CO2) involves a massive network of perilous pipelines connected to underground injection sites, each with their own set of dangers. Pipelines can leak or rupture; compressed CO2 is highly hazardous upon release and can result in the asphyxiation of humans and animals,” the letter reads.
One of the key arguments is that development of carbon capture and storage — or even the hope of it — will mean less attention paid to developing alternatives to fossil fuels.
“As long as fossil fuel companies are operating in business as usual and continuing to extract and pollute, CCS is an impractical and expensive false solution that fails to tackle the root of the climate crisis,” wrote Thanu Yakupitiyage, the U.S. communications director for 350.org, in an emailed statement. “Our political priority is the solutions that are proven, affordable and ready to go — massive investment in renewable energy and efficiency. We are building political will for that, and CCS is not a good substitute.”
The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which was established by President Biden to advise the U.S. government’s efforts to address environmental injustice, also notes that carbon capture and direct air capture will not benefit communities in its final recommendations on guidelines the federal government should follow to avoid harm to communities.
Yet, most experts agree that the world can’t slow climate change without carbon capture technology. “We’ve been trying now for 30 years to handle this through government,” Cone said. “My view is that we have to invest in solutions that work with markets.”
Especially for industries reliant on fuel and energy, such as aviation, shipping and other heavy industrial sectors, capturing carbon before it goes into the air could be key, said John Northington, the director of the National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville, Alabama, which is funded by the Department of Energy. As the world goes down the pathway of decarbonization, it will only get more difficult as companies must change entire processes.
The Last Increment
“That’s where some of the solutions that we’re working to develop now, from a negative carbon standpoint, like direct air capture, could play a critical role — a suite of technologies in that space to help us kind of get that last increment or percentage of decarbonization, as we work our way towards net zero,” Northington said.
The National Carbon Capture Center is funded by $350 million, the bulk of it from the Department of Energy. Over the center’s 12 years, its staff of 100 has developed 70 technologies and reduced cost of carbon capture and storage by 40%, Northington said.
“Being able to partner with the federal government, and then with other partners, whether that be other utilities, or oil and gas members, that leveraging of funding, and helping to de-risk the technologies is really important and really critical,” Northington said.
The Department of Energy recently announced $24 million that will fund carbon capture directly across nine research projects at U.S. universities.
Quieter Innovation in Business Process
Meanwhile, a few people have their eyes on the question of process — and the soft innovations in that space. The technological advances won’t do much good — or be installed quickly — if companies haven’t figured out how to implement them.
In order to cut emissions, business operations will have to change as we know it, said Jacqueline Amable, the managing director of venture for Rochester, New York-based For ClimateTech. It will take a full restructure of manufacturing processes to reduce the co2 let out into the air.
“We have taken decades perfecting and creating these global supply chains from a corporate and from a business level, and then we’re asking people to essentially stop doing business the way they know how and adjust in real time.”
“A lot of the work we do would be sped up and a lot of the innovations that we know already exist, are possible or scalable, would move faster if we had innovation in policy,” Amable said. “I think first and foremost seeing that adjustment, not just here in the United States, but globally, I think it’s going to be critical. We’re starting to see some waves, but we need true political leadership and will there.”