Despite growth, big leaps needed for direct air capture tech

Chief Europe Correspondent
Source: International Energy Agency

Technology that’s able to capture carbon dioxide directly from the sky is advancing rapidly, but it needs to grow much more to fill its role in combating climate change, a new International Energy Agency report finds.

The analysis comes alongside a recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifying the technology (known as direct air capture, or DAC) as critical to the world’s attempts at avoiding dangerous overheating.

Eighteen DAC plants are operating worldwide: in Canada, Europe and the United States. Collectively, this means the world can absorb almost 8,000 tons of CO2 per year, according to the IEA. It’s significant progress compared to 2010, when the total volume stood at only 500 tons of CO2 per year.

But current numbers pale in comparison to what scientists say is needed to make a difference. DAC technologies need to be scaled to capture more than 85 million tons of CO2 per year by 2030 and about 980 million tons of CO2 a year by 2050 if the world wants to cut emissions to net zero, the IEA said.

The main obstacle is cost, especially without a carbon price that can financially measure the environmental impact of our emissions, as Cipher explored in an earlier edition.

The first large-scale DAC plant is currently in the works in the U.S., according to the IEA. It will be able to suck up to 1 million tons of CO2 a year and could become operational as of 2024.

Most of the plants currently operating are small and sell the captured CO2 for reuse, including for beverage carbonation and for the creation of various chemicals and fuels.

At the Orca plant in Iceland, Swiss company Climeworks and the academic-industrial partnership Carbofix capture CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into rocks through mineralization—the first time such a technology is being used. That plant was expanded last year, making Orca the world’s largest DAC plant. This also explains the bump CO2 captured in 2021.