Known as Direct Air Capture (DAC), this technology enables scientists to literally suck CO2 out of the air by separating it from other molecules and converting it to solid matter.
Carbon Engineering, one of a handful of companies leading the development of these technologies, and a recipient of Gates Foundation funding, claims their current prototype technology can remove 1 million tons of pure CO2 from the air each year.
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While this technology could play a part in the fight to reduce climate change, its exorbitant costs pose a serious challenge. According to a 2011 paper, the cost of removing one single ton of atmospheric CO2 is anywhere from $600-$1,000.
Experts estimated that total CO2 emissions in 2017 were around 37 billion tons, which means the world would need about 370,000 of Carbon Engineering’s plants to absorb all emissions.
The discrepancy between cost and effectiveness is tempering scientists’ enthusiasm for DAC as a long-term solution to human carbon-emissions. However, Carbon Engineering has developed a potential solution to this problem by creating a highly-valuable byproduct from their carbon removal process: clean fuel.
Carbon Engineering predicts that fully-operational commercial plants would be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere at a cost of only $100-$150 per ton.
Some scientists are concerned that focusing on DAC technology could also prohibit scientists from finding a much more more affordable and logical solution: reducing and preventing CO2 from entering the atmosphere in the first place.
Jon Gibbins, the director of the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre told the Guardian that working to clean up emitting industries should be the number one goal.
“Cutting emissions from existing sources at the scale of millions of tonnes a year, to stop the CO2 getting into the air in the first place, is the first priority,” he said. “We need to get to net zero emissions before the sustainable CO2 emissions are used up.”
Disclosure: Bill Gates is the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.