GLASGOW — The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday will unveil its biggest effort yet to drastically reduce the cost of technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, in a recognition that current strategies to lower greenhouse gases may not be enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.
Jennifer Granholm (energy secretary) announced at the United Nations climate summit that her agency will invest in research into the emerging field carbon removal. Her goal is to reduce the cost to $100 per ton by 2030. That’s far below the price tag for many current technologiesThey are still in their early stages of development, and can currently be as high as $2,000 per ton.
The ultimate goal of this project is to find ways to permanently store carbon dioxide in places that will not heat the planet, and remove billions of tons from the atmosphere.
“By slashing the 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 combat the climate crisis,” Ms. Granholm said in a statement.
The idea of pulling carbon dioxide away from the atmosphere, once thought to be science fiction, is now reality. has attracted increasing interestRecent years. Hundreds of countries and companies have now pledged to reach “net zero” emissions by midcentury, essentially a promise to stop adding greenhouse gases to the air, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which many scientists say the planet will experience catastrophic effectsDue to heat waves and droughts, wildfires, flooding, and other factors, the planet has warmed by approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius.
But reaching net zero may require two strategies. First, countries will need to drastically reduce their emissions from burning oil and gas in power plants, factories, and cars. Second, they will need to switch to cleaner energy sources. They may also need carbon dioxide to offset emissions from other sources, such as agriculture.
The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the world may ultimately have to remove 100 billion to one trillion tons this centuryKeep the temperature below 1.5 degrees partly because countries have been slow to reduce their emissions.
However, the current methods are not up to the task. Trees, which absorb carbon naturally from the air, are a popular option. But trees take years to mature, there’s only so much land available and forests can burn in wildfires, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.
Recent developments have seen a lot of companies experimenting with technological solutions, such as direct air captureThis involves using giant fans to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it underground. (This is different from carbon capture and storageAnother emerging technique that captures carbon dioxide in the smokestacks of factories and power plants before it enters into the atmosphere is called.
Climeworks, a Swiss start up, has recently opened the largest such direct air capture plant to date in Iceland. But that early plant has the capacity to remove only 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year — equivalent to the emissions from 870 cars — and Climeworks’ current costs are around $600 to $800 per ton, though it hopes to drive down that price over time as it builds more plants and refines the technology.
Other options are even more costly. Stripe, a payment service company. has voluntarily paid $9 millionIn the past two years, there have been a number of carbon removal start ups. One such company is one that grows carbon-absorbingkelp and bury it deep in the sea. Many of these techniques can cost between $200-$2,000 per ton of CO2 and their effectiveness is unknown.
The Energy Department will direct scientists at its national laboratories to study different approaches and to finance demonstration projects to help engineers reduce costs. The agency will also establish standards to evaluate whether carbon removal techniques are effective.
The Obama-era model is used for the program. Sunshot InitiativeThe agency is credited with helping to bring solar power into mainstream use in the 2010s. The agency coordinated research efforts to lower costs and worked with private firms to remove barriers to deployment.
The announcement is part of the Biden administration’s Energy Earthshots InitiativeThe department will accelerate the deployment of new technologies to combat climate change. Similar efforts were made earlier in the year by the department to reduce both costs. clean hydrogen fuels advanced batteriesIt can also be used to support solar and wind power.
In an interview, Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the agency’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, said that investments in carbon removal should not be seen as an excuse for countries and businesses to ease up on efforts to reduce their fossil-fuel emissions, not least because there was still no guarantee that carbon removal would be viable on a massive scale.
“Carbon removal won’t ever replace the need for quickly cutting our emissions,” Dr. Wilcox said. “But scientists are telling us that we are likely going to need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050 if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And if we don’t start investing in solutions today, we’re not going to get there by midcentury.”
Dr. Wilcox said that the agency does not intend to endorse any particular technology at this point. Officials will instead study a wide range of approaches to determine which ones are most promising. This could include direct air capture. However, it could also include testing how certain minerals absorb carbon dioxide when crushed and sprinkled on large surfaces. This is known as enhanced weathering.
Dr. Wilcox noted that natural methods of carbon removal, such planting trees or farming methods that sequester the carbon dioxide in soil, are often advertised at prices much lower than $100 per ton. However, researchers are still trying to determine how reliable these techniques really are and whether they can be stored for a long time.
“Part of this effort is being able to show the true price tag of these approaches once you add in the costs of verification and long-term monitoring,” she said.
The Energy Department could soon be able to spend huge sums of money on this effort. President Biden has proposedHe has allocated hundreds of millions of money to various carbon removal and storage methods. And the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently pending in Congress provides $3.5 billion to create four direct air capture “hubs” 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 organization focused on carbon removal. “Just a few years ago, hardly anyone was talking about carbon removal. Now it has broad bipartisan support.”
Ms. Burns said that the Energy Department’s cost target of less than $100 per ton by 2030 was an ambitious but plausible goal. This price could make carbon removal a viable industry if it is supported by both government incentives, and the availability of capital. increasing number of companiesThey are pledging to eliminate their emissions as part their net zero pledges.
Carbon removal has its critics. Some climate activists have worriedCompanies may be able to rely on the uncertain promise that such technologies will in the future to avoid the hard work required to reduce emissions today. They also point out the fact that many oil companies are headquartered in Canada. have championed the ideaAs a way to offset the emissions from producing more crude oil.
Other environmentalists agree that the world needs to explore all possible options to limit the damage from climate change.
“This shouldn’t distract us from the work of cutting emissions, I agree,” said Jake Higdon, manager for U.S. climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “But if there are ways to do carbon removal that are safe, responsible and affordable, then we need to figure that out as quickly as possible.”