The Ministry of Energy aims to reduce the cost of removing carbon from the air

GLASGOW – The US Department of Energy will on Friday unveil its biggest effort to date to drastically reduce the cost of technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, recognizing that current strategies to reduce greenhouse gases may not be enough to ward off the worst effects of climate change.

Jennifer Granholm, energy secretary, planned when she spoke at the UN climate summit to announce that her agency will invest in research in the incipient field of carbon removal with a goal of pushing costs below $ 100 per tonne. tons in 2030. It is far below the price tag for many current technologies, which are still in early stages of development and can currently cost up to $ 2,000 per tonne. ton.

The ultimate goal is to identify techniques that can remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and permanently store it in places where it will not heat the planet.

“By cutting costs and speeding up the spread of carbon dioxide removal, a crucial clean energy technology, we can take huge amounts of carbon pollution directly from the air and fight the climate crisis,” Granholm said in a statement.

The idea of ​​extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, once considered a science fiction substance, has attracted increasing interest in recent years. Hundreds of countries and companies have now promised to reach “net zero” emissions by the middle of the century, essentially a promise to stop adding greenhouse gases to the air, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. This is the threshold above which many scientists say the planet will experience catastrophic effects from heat waves, droughts, forest fires and floods. The planet has already been warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

However, reaching net zero may require two strategies. First, countries will have to cut back deeply on their emissions from burning oil, gas and coal in power plants, factories and cars and switching to cleaner energy sources. But they may also need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate for emissions from hard-to-clean sources, such as agriculture.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the world may eventually have to remove 100 billion to a trillion tonnes in this century to stay below 1.5 degrees, partly because countries have been so slow to reduce their emissions. .

Yet the current techniques cannot match the challenge. A popular option is to plant trees that naturally absorb carbon from the air. But trees take years to mature, there is only so much soil available, and forests can burn in forest fires and release carbon back into the atmosphere.

Recently, a number of companies have been tinkering with technological solutions such as direct air capture, which involve using giant blowers to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and bury it underground. (This is different from carbon capture and storage, another incipient technique that traps carbon dioxide at the flues of power plants and factories before it enters the atmosphere.)

Climeworks, a Swiss start-up company, recently opened the largest direct air capture plant in Iceland to date. But the early plant has the capacity to remove only 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to the emissions from 870 cars – and Climeworks’ current cost is around $ 600 to $ 800 per year. tons, though it hopes to bring the price down over time as it builds more facilities and refines the technology.

Other ideas are even more expensive. Stripe, a payment service company, has voluntarily paid $ 9 million over the past two years to a variety of start-up companies that remove carbon, including a company that grows carbon-absorbing seaweed and buries it deep in the ocean. But many of these techniques cost between $ 200 and $ 2,000 per person. tons of carbon dioxide and it is uncertain how well they work.

As part of its new effort, the energy department plans to lead scientists at its national laboratories to research different approaches and fund demonstration projects so engineers can figure out how to reduce costs. The Agency will also develop standards to assess whether carbon sequestration techniques work as advertised.

The program is modeled after the Obama-era Sunshot Initiative, which is credited with helping bring solar energy into the mainstream during the 2010s. The agency focused its research efforts on reducing costs and worked with private companies to ease barriers to implementation.

The announcement is part of the Biden administration’s Energy Earthshots Initiative, which aims to accelerate the spread of new technologies to combat climate change. Earlier this year, the department announced similar efforts to reduce the cost of both pure hydrogen fuels and advanced batteries that can stop wind and solar energy.

In an interview, Jennifer Wilcox, Primary Assistant Secretary to the Agency’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said that investing in CO2 removal should not be seen as an excuse for countries and companies to facilitate efforts to reduce their fossil fuel emissions. at least because there was still no guarantee that carbon offsets would be viable on a massive scale.

“Carbon removal will never replace the need to quickly reduce our emissions,” said Dr. Wilcox. “But scientists are telling us that we will probably have to remove billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050 if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. And if we do not start investing in solutions today, we will not get there. the middle of the century. ”

The agency, added Dr. Wilcox, does not plan to favor any specific technology early. Instead, officials will study a wide range of approaches to see which ones seem most promising. It could include direct air entrapment, but it could also include, for example, testing how certain minerals can absorb carbon dioxide when crushed and sprinkled over large surfaces, through a process known as improved weathering.

Dr. Wilcox also noted that some natural carbon removal techniques, such as planting trees or agricultural methods that bind carbon dioxide in the soil, were often advertised at prices far cheaper than $ 100 per hectare. tons today. But researchers still need to find out how reliable these techniques are and whether the carbon can be stored for long periods of time.

“Part of this effort is to be able to show the true price of these approaches when you add the cost of verification and long-term monitoring,” she said.

The Ministry of Energy may soon have huge sums for the effort. President Biden has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in his budget for various carbon removal and storage techniques. And the two-part infrastructure law currently pending in Congress provides $ 3.5 billion to create four direct-flight air hubs across the country where new technologies can be demonstrated.

“It’s surprising how quickly this has become mainstream,” said Erin Burns, CEO of Carbon180, a nonprofit organization focused on carbon removal. “Just a few years ago, there was almost no one talking about carbon offsets. Now it has broad bipartisan support.”

Ms. Burns said the Department of Energy’s cost target of less than $ 100 per. tonnes in 2030 was an ambitious but plausible target. At that price, carbon offsets can become a viable industry, supported by both government incentives and the growing number of companies seeking to erase their emissions as part of their net zero promises.

Coal removal has its critics. Some climate activists have worried that companies may rely on the uncertain promise of such technologies in the future to avoid the hard work of reducing emissions today. They also point out that a number of oil companies have advocated the idea as a way to offset emissions from pumping out more crude oil.

Still other environmentalists say the world will need to explore as many options as possible to curb the growing damage from climate change.

“This should not distract us from the work to reduce emissions, I agree,” said Jake Higdon, head of U.S. climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “But if there are ways to remove carbon that are safe, responsible and affordable, then we need to find out as soon as possible.”

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