Governments around the world are trying to figure out how to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere. But with carbon dioxide (CO2) levels at their highest in history, reaching zero emissions may not be enough.
A report by the International Panel on Climate Change has warned that in order to successfully keep average global temperature increases below the 2° benchmark set out by the Paris Climate Agreement, countries should be aiming to contribute ‘negative emissions’. Essentially, that means we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere that has already been emitted.
At the moment, the easiest way to recapture historic carbon emissions is by planting forests and developing ecosystems that naturally take in and store carbon. Tree-planting has become a popular initiative for companies pledging to reduce their environmental footprint – it’s sometimes referred to as ‘carbon off-setting’ – but recapturing carbon in this way comes nowhere close to achieving the levels of carbon reduction necessary to stop climate change.
Luckily, there’s another way. Rather than relying on natural processes, engineers have developed a method called ‘direct air capture (DAC)‘ to mechanically strip C02 from the air. Also known as ‘carbon capture’ technology, these systems essentially work by using giant fans to draw in air, and then chemically filter out CO2 particles. In some cases, the Co2 is then stored underground, while other systems compress the particles for use in other industry processes.
A lot of big names in green technology see carbon capture as the great hope for achieving global emissions targets. The Centre for Energy Research recently published a paper modelling a ‘wartime-like crash deployment’ of direct air capture, while earlier this week Elon Musk announced he would be offering $100 million to whoever could come up with the ‘best’ carbon capture technology.
Some estimates say that the carbon capture market could reach up to $100 billion by 2030, but there’s a reason that Elon Musk is offering such a big prize to anyone who can nail the process. The technology comes with some serious challenges. It’s expensive and energy intensive, meaning early systems are proving difficult to scale up, leaving the industry with a way to go before it can make a serious dent in our CO2 emissions.
Supporters of carbon capture are optimistic that over the next decade investment and technological advances will see the technology play an increasingly important role in helping the world achieve its zero emissions targets. And with last year tied for the hottest year on record, there’s no time to lose.
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