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The Minus Sign: pulling carbon from the air

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
The innovative Climeworks factory, Switzerland The innovative Climeworks factory, Switzerland Climeworks
05 Oct
2017
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at carbon capture and storage options

Let’s tell the blunt truth: the world’s climate goals are simply not attainable. Keeping global warming below the fabled 2°C mark is remarkably wishful thinking. True, growth in fossil fuel emissions has stalled over the past three years. In the same time frame though, the atmosphere has witnessed the addition of another 110 billion tons of CO2. It’s time to start making subtractions.

Carbon capture and storage technology has long been a favourite refrain for politicians and polluters daydreaming of retrofitted smokestacks capable of making coal magically ‘clean’. After much initial fanfare, investors have since retreated and governments (Britain included) have scrapped their projects, as capturing CO2 turned out to be a hellish endeavour and storing it a nightmarish one. Only Norway is pushing ahead with its plan to store carbon dioxide in subsea caverns, in spite of a €1.4billion tally (and €100million annual operating costs).

Enter Climeworks, a Swiss company with a brave idea: instead of capturing CO2 from industrial chimneys, why not suck it out of the atmosphere? Instead of burying it underground, why not commercialise it? Its first plant in Zurich can already collect 900 tons of carbon dioxide per year, to be piped into a nearby greenhouse to help vegetables grow. That same CO2 could be employed in producing carbonated drinks, synthetic fuels and, theoretically, bricks. Separate research projects at UCLA and MIT have demonstrated the possibility of employing the very molecule that endangers our future as a raw commodity for construction materials. In the long-term, it could even partially displace cement production, one of the most carbon-intensive industrial processes out there.

However, the huge Climeworks machine can subtract the equivalent emissions of a mere 200 cars. We would need a bigger version, and hundreds of thousands of them all over the world, to make a difference to the climatic algebra. Needless to say, we already have a wondrous technology for going negative – photosynthesis. Halting deforestation altogether would still be the smartest way to make the subtractions. Yet, after almost two centuries of burgeoning additions and the chance of a catastrophic sum by the end of the current era, the more subtraction operators we have at our disposal, the better.

This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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