Some of us don’t give the odourless gas a second thought, but it’s destroying our planet. The Paris Climate Agreement is trying hard to limit the impact of carbon dioxide, but there are limits to its power – especially when the leader of the free world doesn’t see it as a priority.
But now climate scientists have an innovative new idea of how to deal with our carbon problem: a plant in Iceland has managed to be the world’s first negative emissions project, sucking up carbon dioxide and turning it into stone.
In the ground-breaking trial backed by the EU in Hellisheidi, scientists have been able to capture CO2 from ambient air and inject it into the ground for permanent storage. Whilst still only in the pilot stage, the team at Climeworks hope that the process can be rolled out across the globe.
The process works by capturing the CO2 from ambient air using the Climeworks’ patented filter. The geothermal power plant then heats up the filter using low-grade heat in order to extract the pure carbon dioxide. It’s then bound to water and sent 700 metres deep into the ground. When the gas finds its way into the basaltic bedrock, the CO2 reacts with the bedrock and forms a permanent solid mineral. By burying harmful greenhouse gases underground, the idea goes, we can reduce global temperatures.
While exciting, it’s still early days and the process isn’t cheap for a relatively small payoff. The company estimates that it costs $600 to extract just a ton of carbon dioxide from the air, with Climeworks saying that the full capacity of the plant will only be 900 tonnes by the end of 2017 – equivalent to the annual emissions of only 45 American people. Given Climeworks’ last prototype could only displace the carbon emissions of 33 Canadians, that’s quite an improvement. But the company remains hopeful that this is just the start.
“The potential of scaling-up our technology in combination with CO2 storage, is enormous,” founder and CEO of Climeworks, Christoph Gebald said.
They also have ambitions to cut costs to $100 a tonne and capture 1% of manmade carbon emissions every year by 2025. It’s unclear how they’re going to do this exactly, but the recent huge investments into research for ‘direct air capture’ has been astronomical. Sources from the government, the European Space Agency and even Bill Gates have meant tens of millions of dollars has gone into funding projects like this very one.
But the news of potentially temperature-reducing technology should not distract us from the goal to cut global emissions. In fact, sitting on our bums and pinning all our hope on “negative emission” technology is a dangerous mindset, especially as data from the UN shows that we are way off track to being able to reach the 2 degrees celsius limit set by the Climate Agreement. To be blunt, we really don’t want to be left relying on this technology to bring us back from the brink, and everyone should still look to play their part.