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What Iceland’s historic carbon phase-out project means for the fight against climate change


When the world’s largest facility to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and bury it underground opened in the Icelandic countryside last week, it perhaps looked like a miracle cure for climate change.

But while the world’s first commercial carbon removal and sequestration plant represents a breakthrough in the goal of achieving zero net global emissions by mid-century – as well as a beacon to ultimately phasing out greenhouse gases. greenhouse atmosphere – the technology will not be economically viable on a large scale for some time. Importantly, scientists say, it will only prevent catastrophic climate change if it is used in addition to, rather than in place of, massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other cheaper technologies.

“It’s a small step, but it’s a small step that will be remembered if the industry ever transforms into a mature industry,” David Morrow, research director at the Institute for Carbon, told Yahoo News. American University Removal Law and Policy.

Hellisheidi geothermal power station in Iceland. (Arnaldur Halldorsson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

First, it is important to understand what carbon removal is used for and how it differs from older and more widely deployed carbon capture technology. Carbon capture occurs when emissions are captured at the source – the stack of a coal-fired power plant, for example. The CO2 can then either be reused for something else or, if the objective is to fight against climate change, stored underground. There are already natural gas processing plants in Wyoming and Texas, for example, that capture millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year and inject the gas into oil fields to force the oil out of the wells. (The net result of this process is a decrease in emissions, but not enough to meet the goals that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, deems necessary.)

The new plant in Iceland, on the other hand, performs the more difficult task of finding carbon in the atmosphere and removing it.

So far, however, the Icelandic plant is on track to remove just 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. For comparison, U.S. net emissions in 2019 were 5.8 billion metric tonnes. And while Climeworks, the Swiss company that built the plant, sells credits to companies like Microsoft who want to go carbon neutral, it currently costs the plant $ 600-800 per tonne of carbon removed from the plant. atmosphere, more than 10 times what it costs. carbon offsets are traded on the market.

Removing carbon is a very energy intensive process. In Iceland, abundant geothermal energy is cheap and clean, but in the United States, which still burns fossil fuels for electricity and heat, the carbon footprint of carbon removal could currently represent up to a quarter of the carbon removed.

What Iceland’s historic carbon phase-out project means for the fight against climate change

The ‘Orca’ direct air capture and storage facility, operated by Climeworks AG, in Hellisheidi, Iceland on Tuesday, September 7, 2021. (Arnaldur Halldorsson / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But experts say that doesn’t mean phasing out carbon won’t be viable when it becomes relevant. “It’s hard to extrapolate from this very early plant to what the technology might look like in 10, 20, 30 years,” Morrow said.

This is when carbon removal may be really necessary. According to the IPCC, staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming – the level that scientists say would trigger a cascade of disasters – requires reaching net zero emissions by mid-century. Carbon can be extracted from the air by natural means, such as planting trees, but at this point science increasingly suggests that there will also be a need for projects that perform “direct capture in the air.” air ‘carbon, like that in Iceland.

Currently, the money that would be spent to suck carbon from the air using fossil energy sources would provide a greater environmental benefit if it were spent to replace these fossil fuels with solar or wind power, electrify cars, etc.

Once the transition to renewable energy sources is undertaken, the shift from a low-carbon economy to one with net zero or even net negative emissions is where carbon elimination comes into play. It could compensate for the most difficult to manage sources of climate pollution. eliminate, like agriculture or airplanes, and even reverse the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, so that if the world goes above 1.5 degrees Celsius, it could eventually drop below.

What Iceland’s historic carbon phase-out project means for the fight against climate change

Wind turbines at the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm in Whitewater, Calif., June 3, 2021 (Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Are negative emissions important? Absoutely. It’s gonna be almost impossible to reach absolute zero [emissions]that’s why people talk about net zero, ”said Howard J. Herzog, senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative. But, he warned, “Negative emissions are not a substitute for reducing emissions. [We] need to reduce emissions as much as possible.

There are already promising signs of falling prices and increasing the amount of carbon a plant can remove, scientists say.

Climate scientists say that as the world decarbonizes, the price and energy efficiency of removing carbon could improve dramatically. Climeworks units that extract carbon are built one by one. “If you imagine an auto company trying to build their cars by hand, each one is going to be very expensive, but their goal is to mass produce these things,” Morrow said.

“What you see in new technology is that it’s not very efficient, but you have the potential to be 20 times more efficient before you bump into the laws of physics,” Klaus Lackner said. , director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. . “In a way, direct air capture is much better positioned than renewable energy was in the 1960s and 1970s. [Wind and solar] were 100 times too expensive, and they took the learning curve and did it. Direct air capture is 10 times too expensive.

Ultimately, the deployment of these technologies will depend as much on politics as it does on science. Capturing and storing carbon at the source of emissions is less expensive than removing carbon from the atmosphere. The reason the former hasn’t passed on all coal or gas-fired power plants is political: as long as it’s free to dump your carbon pollution into the air, that’s what services audiences will.

“You need a regulatory framework that says you don’t have to release CO2 into the atmosphere,” Lackner said. “If you don’t have that, of course it’s always cheaper to ignore the problem.”


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