A step forward for CO2 capture
Iceland’s unique volcanic geology provides an ideal environment for technology to filter air and store carbon
The air we breathe has a carbon problem. But in Hellisheidi, Iceland, a geothermally active plateau just outside of Reykjavik, a new technology is taking a small but mighty step toward fixing it.
A plant called Orca, built by Climeworks, is the first-ever facility where CO2 is being filtered directly from the air and stored permanently underground.
Orca’s carbon-capturing devices resemble giant transistor radios. They fit right into an already larger-than-life Icelandic landscape, where the wind blows fierce even on a rare day when sunlight gleams off the icy mountaintops.
Though the plant has only been operational since September, its air-straining technology, known as direct air capture, has been a point of contention among environmentalists for much longer. Vacuuming up carbon dioxide was once considered a last resort, but it’s looking like we’re headed toward a future where last resorts are a must-have.
“The combination of direct air capture and storage is very likely what the world will need at a massive scale if we want to be compliant with Paris climate targets,” said Jan Wurzbacher, the CEO and co-founder of Climeworks.
Carbon removal, by math and magic
By “Paris” targets, Wurzbacher was referring to the global goal of limiting emissions to two degrees Celsius (or ideally 1.5 degrees), established under the 2015 Paris Agreement. To meet that goal, the United Nations has estimated that 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide will need to be removed from the atmosphere annually by 2050. That number is a best-case scenario, assuming that aggressive cuts in emissions are achieved through other means. Without enough cuts, the need for carbon removal could be even higher.
“It’s relatively simple climate math,” Wurzbacher explained on a video call from Zurich, Switzerland, where Climeworks is based. “By mid-century, we need to remove 10 billion tons of CO2, if everything else goes well. We might end up needing to remove 20 billion tons, because we can’t ramp down fast enough coal power plants and other stuff.”