Elon MuskMicrosoft has announced it is to use Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal technology to help it achieve negative emissions by 2030, and to remove the company’s historic emissions by 2050.

And Elon Musk has offered $100 million prize for the best scalable technology to achieve the same goal.

So is carbon capture and storage our ticket to saving the planet as many say it is? Let’s look at the numbers….

Why snatch carbon from the air?

Because current plans by nations to address global heating are insufficient and lead to around a 3°C average global temperature rise since 1800 – not enough to avoid major disasters.

So we need technologies, other than planting trees, to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or from industrial processes, and either store it underground or turn it into a useful product for sale.

Musk – and Virgin’s Richard Branson (who launched the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007, offering $25 million for commercially viable carbon capture solutions) – both have their eyes on turning it into a substitute for aviation fuel – kerosene.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also pledged a year ago to give $10 billion to environmental organizations and scientists to fight climate change, partly with carbon capture solutions, as has online payment system Stripe.

The super-rich want business as usual – and see carbon capture as the key.

What is carbon capture?

Carbon capture can be divided into three types, of varying impact on climate change and pollution:

  • Carbon capture and storage: usually buried underground – the carbon is out of the atmosphere permanently (carbon negative), but there is no direct income stream from the operation.
  • Carbon capture to make products that are useful, lasting and carbon negative: includes concrete substitutes and similar materials that can be used in buildings and infrastructure, thereby providing permanent storage and a direct income stream.
  • Carbon capture to make products that are useful but temporary (carbon neutral): examples include aviation fuel and plastic substitutes, which have benefits and are carbon neutral over their lifecycle but the product nevertheless pollutes the environment.

Research and development is going on in all these areas. One example is Carbon Engineering’s work with Occidental Petroleum Corp. to build a plant that can capture 1 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

How much carbon dioxide do we need to take from the atmosphere to reach 1.5°C?

One way of answering this is to say it corresponds to the allowable amount of additional emissions we have left to avoid that temperature rise, known as the “carbon budget”.

Estimates vary from between 28 and 800 gigatonnes in the next eight years. [Note: there are 1,000,000,000 tons in a gigatonne.]

To get an idea of the scale of the challenge, about 10 billion tons of concrete are produced every year, embodying 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 on balance, and 380 million tons of plastic embodying 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2.

As for aviation fuel, 915 million tonnes of CO₂ were emitted in pre-pandemic 2019.

So if even all of this was substituted by products made from carbon dioxide captured from the air, it would be several orders of magnitude below what’s needed in the required timeframe.

And it would be pricey. Today, sucking one ton of carbon using direct air capture can cost $600 – about 15 times the price of carbon traded in Europe’s market.

We know, because Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, Switzerland’s Climeworks, and Global Thermostat in the USA have each built working pilot plants to capture carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon Engineering has used it to make a test batch of synthetic fuel.

What about using trees in construction?

Trees are great for many reasons. For starters they have the advantages of already existing and being cheap. And they support whole ecosystems. But could we plant enough to absorb all that carbon dioxide?

Using trees in construction takes atmospheric carbon and stores it away in buildings. It’s true, this is an important weapon in our arsenal in the climate war.

But it’s not enough to meet the challenge.

This example illustrates why: even if the entire population of Europe (750 million) lived in timber apartments (three people per apartment), then around 40–50 million hectares of forest would be required to renew those buildings every 50 years – about 25–30 per cent of Europe’s forest. [Check out that link – it’s full of fascinating facts about trees.]

And for every tonne of wood used in construction, 3.9 tonnes of CO2 emissions are avoided.

Anyway, there’s a limit to how many forests can be planted to naturally absorb CO₂.

These figures demonstrate that even if we used all types of carbon capture and reuse, substituting all the polluting products with carbon neutral ones, it would still be less than 1 per cent of what’s needed to reach the climate goals.

Only [1] speedy implementation of renewable energy, [2] energy efficiency, and [3] an end to fossil fuels will do this by 2030.

Of course, this shouldn’t stop us doing everything we can to sequester carbon.

The online payment system Stripe is backing a project that traps carbon dioxide in concrete, one that buries it in basaltic rock, one that will manufacture bio-oil, and a fourth that may support the ocean to store more carbon dioxide.

Virgin’s finalists for it’s Earth Challenge were announced in 2011 but none met the criteria – which included being scalable to at least a billion tonnes of CO2 per year and commercially viable at that scale. Many of the solutions still have advantages and are listed here.

The Carbon XPrize, started in 2015, has 10 finalists competing to convert CO2 into products ranging from hand sanitizers to vodka (no, it’s not Russian, it’s a Brooklyn-based company). The winner is expected to be announced this year.

What is Microsoft doing?

Microsoft announced its goals this time last year along with plans to cut its emissions “by more than half” by 2030 and since then has been investigating which negative emission technologies to use.

Four criteria were applied to assess technologies: scalability, affordability, commercial availability and verifiability. Climeworks’ carbon dioxide removal solution was judged to fulfil all criteria and will receive some of Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund.

Microsoft will also base executive pay partially on meeting sustainability goals and internal divisions pay $5 for each ton of carbon emitted by suppliers or customers’ use of products and services – a great incentive for efficiency.

Last year Microsoft released 11,164,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and purchased contracts to capture 1.3 million metric tons of CO2, over 11 percent of its total, by planting forests.

Microsoft’s cash will expand the Climeworks project in Hellisheiði, Iceland, where CO2 is captured from air with direct air capture technology. Climeworks’ partner Carbfix then mixes the CO2 with water, pumps it underground and through the process of rapid underground mineralization the CO2 is stored safely and permanently.

“We like the fact that they are not only thinking about capturing it from the air but how to use the carbon dioxide that is recovered,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. “If we get this going in Europe it may be able to move faster because we see more customers and businesses there wanting to purchase these kinds of services.”

“Climeworks’ direct air capture technology will serve as a key component of our carbon removal efforts. Their application set a high bar for technical rigor – especially the permanence of their solution, and we are looking forward to helping further scale their work with this purchase,” said Microsoft’s Elizabeth Willmott, carbon program manager.

All good. But here’s the nub of it:

The rich want their “get out of jail free” card

Reports have it that when Greta Thunberg told Davos that the rich and powerful really needed to do something about climate change, many of the super-rich subsequently asked their wealth advisors to buy up secure boltholes for them to retreat to when the climate shit really hits the fan.

It’s the rich who, research shows, are most responsible for climate change: between 1990 and 2015 the richest 1 per cent of people drove 15 per cent of climate-changing emissions while 7 per cent was emitted by the poorest half. The richest 10 per cent accounted for 52 per cent of emissions over that period, according to an Oxfam charity report.

Its author Tim Gore, head of climate policy, said change would not come from individuals voluntarily acting alone. “This has to be driven by governments,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We need tough measures to curb over-consumption by the world’s rich”.

It’s over-consumption that causes high ecological and carbon footprints. It’s over-consumption that has brought on the depletion of nature.

Dare I say, that perhaps instead of burying carbon dioxide, it would be far cheaper and easier to bury the top one per cent?

Written by David Thorpe, the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company.