We have the tech to suck CO2 from the air–but can it suck enough to make a difference?
In a field on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama, giant fans perched on top of a shipping container pull the outside air into chambers that soak up carbon dioxide. Over a year, the equipment can capture 4,000 tons of CO2, roughly as much as the pollution emitted by 870 cars. Run by a startup called Global Thermostat, the facility is currently the largest commercial “direct air capture” plant in the world–early proof of a technology that could help avoid the worst impacts of climate change if the captured gas is used to make carbon-neutral products or permanently stored underground. To succeed, a tiny new industry will have to radically grow.
The cutting-edge technology could be a pivotal piece of the larger solution for the climate crisis, and it’s at a point where it could potentially attract the investment to make that possible. Some climate researchers have criticized the tech, arguing that it’s unproven at a large scale, and that it could even constitute a moral hazard if polluting companies and countries rely on it as an excuse to avoid cutting emissions directly. A writer from the nonprofit Post Carbon Institute called it a “magic show” that distracts us from making more radical changes like limiting growth. But the UN’s climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggests that using some type of technological means for “negative emissions” is necessary. Even if we do everything else possible to cut and capture emissions, the math doesn’t add up without it.