Department of Energy aims to reduce cost of removing carbon from the air


GLASGOW – The U.S. Department of Energy will unveil its biggest effort yet to dramatically reduce the cost of technologies that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on Friday, acknowledging that current strategies to reduce greenhouse gases could not enough to avoid the worst effects. of climate change.

Speaking at the United Nations climate summit, Jennifer Granholm, the secretary of energy, planned to announce that her agency will invest in research in the emerging field of carbon elimination, with the aim of making reduce the cost to less than $ 100 per tonne by 2030. That’s well below the price tag for many current technologies, which are still in the early stages of development and can currently cost up to $ 2,000 per tonne.

The ultimate goal is to identify techniques capable of removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and storing it permanently in places where it will not warm the planet.

“By reducing costs and accelerating the deployment of carbon dioxide removal, a crucial clean energy technology, we can take massive amounts of carbon pollution directly from the air and fight the climate crisis.” Ms Granholm said in a statement.

The idea of ​​extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, once considered to be science fiction, has gained increasing interest in recent years. Hundreds of countries and companies have now pledged to achieve “net zero” by mid-century, essentially a pledge to stop adding greenhouse gases to the air, to limit global warming. climatic to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold beyond which many scientists say the planet will suffer the catastrophic effects of heat waves, droughts, forest fires and floods. The planet has already warmed by around 1.1 degrees Celsius.

But reaching net zero may require two strategies. First, countries will need to significantly reduce their emissions from the combustion of oil, gas and coal in power plants, factories and cars, and switch to cleaner sources of energy. But they may also need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset emissions from hard-to-clean sources, like agriculture.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the world may have to remove 100 to 1 trillion tonnes in this century to stay below 1.5 degrees, in part because countries have been so slow to reduce their emissions.

However, current techniques are not up to the challenge. One popular option is to plant trees, which naturally absorb carbon from the air. But trees take years to mature, land is limited, and forests can burn in forest fires, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

More recently, a number of companies have cobbled together technological solutions such as direct air capture, which involves using giant fans to extract carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground. (This is different from carbon capture and storage, another nascent technique that traps carbon dioxide in the stacks of power plants and factories before it enters the atmosphere.)

Climeworks, a Swiss start-up, recently opened the largest direct air capture installation to date in Iceland. But that first plant only has the capacity to remove 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – the equivalent of emissions from 870 cars – and Climeworks’ current costs are around $ 600 to $ 800 per tonne, though. that she hopes to lower that price over time as it builds more factories and refines the technology.

Other ideas are even more expensive. Stripe, a payment services company, voluntarily donated $ 9 million over the past two years to a variety of carbon removal start-ups, including a company that grows carbon-absorbing kelp and buries it deep in the ocean. But many of these techniques cost between $ 200 and $ 2,000 per tonne of carbon dioxide, and it is not known whether they work well.

As part of its new effort, the Department of Energy plans to lead scientists in its national laboratories to research different approaches and fund demonstration projects so engineers can understand how to cut costs. The agency will also develop standards to assess whether carbon removal techniques are working as advertised.

The program is modeled on the Obama era Sunburn Initiative, which helped bring solar power into the mainstream during the 2010s. The agency has shifted research efforts towards reducing costs and working with private companies to lessen barriers to deployment.

The ad is part of the Biden administration Earthshots Energy Initiative, which aims to accelerate the deployment of emerging technologies to fight climate change. Earlier this year, the ministry announced similar efforts to reduce the costs of the two clean hydrogen fuels and advanced batteries that can support wind and solar power.

In an interview, Jennifer Wilcox, senior assistant secretary in the agency’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said investments in carbon elimination should not be seen as an excuse for countries and companies are slackening their efforts to reduce their fossil fuels. fuel emissions, not least because there was still no guarantee that carbon removal would be viable on a large scale.

“The elimination of carbon will never replace the need to reduce our emissions quickly,” said Dr. Wilcox. “But scientists tell 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 impacts of climate change. And if we don’t start investing in solutions today, we won’t get there by mid-century.

The agency, Dr Wilcox added, does not plan to prioritize specific technologies from the start. Instead, officials will study a wide range of approaches to see which ones look the most promising. This could include the direct capture of air, but it could also include, for example, testing how certain minerals might absorb carbon dioxide when they were crushed and sprinkled over large areas, through a process known as improved weathering.

Dr Wilcox also noted that some natural carbon removal techniques, such as planting trees or farming methods that sequester carbon dioxide in the soil, were often advertised at prices well below $ 100 per tonne. today. But researchers have yet to determine the reliability of these techniques and whether carbon can be stored for long periods of time.

“Part of that effort is being able to show the true price of these approaches once you add in the costs of long-term verification and monitoring,” she said.

The Department of Energy may soon have huge sums of money available for this effort. President Biden has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in its budget for various carbon removal and storage techniques. And the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently pending in Congress provides $ 3.5 billion to create four direct air capture “centers” across the country where new technologies can be demonstrated.

“It’s surprising how quickly this has become mainstream,” said Erin Burns, executive director of Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on eliminating carbon. “Just a few years ago, hardly anyone was talking about removing carbon. Now he enjoys broad bipartisan support.

Ms Burns said the Department of Energy’s goal of costing less than $ 100 per tonne by 2030 was an ambitious but plausible target. At that cost, phasing out carbon could become a viable industry, supported both by government incentives and by the growing number of companies looking to erase their emissions as part of their net zero commitments.

The elimination of carbon has its detractors. Some climate activists having worried that companies can count 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 championed the idea as a way to offset emissions from pumping more crude.

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

“That shouldn’t distract us from the work of reducing emissions, I agree,” said Jake Higdon, US climate policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. “But if there are safe, responsible and affordable ways to eliminate carbon, we need to find it as quickly as possible. “

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