Researchers say governments around the world must invest now in direct air capture technology, which would scrub greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and — hopefully — thwart global warming.
(CN) — The latest proposed solution to combat the ongoing climate crisis comes from researchers from the University of California, San Diego, who found that rising temperatures can be substantially reversed with a significant investment in direct air capture (DAC) technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
In their study published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, the UC San Diego team demonstrated that with a large enough deployment of DAC technology, CO2 can be extracted from the air and stored underground. When coupled with effective government regulations on emissions, the technology could reverse and mitigate the damage of climate change by 2100.
The year 2020 was a poster year for climate disaster, breaking records for the worst fire seasons, most destructive storms, spiking temperatures and melting polar ice, declining ocean health, unequal distribution of climate consequences, and too many more for comfort.
Luckily it was not all doom and gloom. Studies such as this one have produced promising avenues for climate recovery, and as a result of the multiple lockdowns and CDC recommendations to combat Covid-19, emissions saw a 7% decrease from 2019. But without aggressive measures to undo the worsening effects, experts fear it won’t be enough.
Mitigating climate change must be a collaborative effort of immediate and meaningful reform from governments and a willingness to adapt and upgrade from large contributors. Policies will need to be put in place to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, such as the Paris Agreement, which will strive to keep global temperature increase under 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
But the process, however vital for restoring climate health, will be an expensive one. In fact, the authors stress that to win the war on climate change, governments must prioritize it as equally as military spending. By looking at previous U.S. spending in times of crisis — including recent pandemic responses — the authors calculate that available funds will likely push $1 trillion a year.
“DAC is substantially more expensive than many conventional mitigation measures, but costs could fall as firms gain experience with the technology,” said first author Ryan Hanna, assistant research scientist at UC San Diego. “If that happens, politicians could turn to the technology in response to public pressure if conventional mitigation proves politically or economically difficult.”
Co-author David G. Victor, professor of industrial innovation at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, stressed that cutting down on existing and future emissions will not be enough anymore, and at this point crisis efforts are also going to rely on removing massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
“Current pledges to cut global emissions put us on track for about [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] of warming,” Victor said. “This reality calls for research and action around the politics of emergency response. In times of crisis, such as war or pandemics, many barriers to policy expenditure and implementation are eclipsed by the need to mobilize aggressively.”
The researchers calculated that if these carbon capture plants are erected by the year 2025, with a yearly investment of 1.2 to 1.9% of global GDP, they would remove approximately 2.3 gigatons of CO2 by 2050 and 13-20 gigatons by 2075. By 2100, the plants would have removed an estimated 570-840 gigatons of CO2 and put the planet on track to achieve the goals set by the Paris agreement.
Although an unprecedented and impressive feat, the authors warn that alone it will not be enough, as the global temperature would continue to rise about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit. To prevent that from happening, DAC plants will need to be accompanied by dramatic cuts in current CO2 production.
“Policymakers might see value in the installation of a fleet of CO2 scrubbers: deployments would be highly controllable by the governments and firms that invest in them, their carbon removals are verifiable, and they do not threaten the economic competitiveness of existing industries,” Hanna explained regarding how DAC is likely the best solution to climate change amidst political pressure.
To demonstrate their proposal’s success, the team built a model to simulate the deployment of DAC scrubbers, based on recommended funding and accounting for technological improvements over time. They found that even with the large investments, they will still face a challenge of preparing this technology to roll out at the scale needed for climate recovery.
The authors compare their results to Operation Warp Speed, because although the Covid-19 vaccine has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration challenges remain to manufacture and distribute it to everyone on a global scale.
Currently, 15 direct air capture plants are operating around the world, removing a total of 9,000 tons of CO2 annually according to the International Energy Agency. With the right effort and emergency funding, a massive push for more plants would cause that total to skyrocket.
“Crisis deployment of direct air capture, even at the extreme of what is technically feasible, is not a substitute for conventional mitigation,” the authors warn.
“For policymakers, one implication of this finding is the high value of near-term direct air capture deployments — even if societies today are not yet treating climate change as a crisis — because near-term deployments enhance future scalability,” they write. “Rather than avoiding direct air capture deployments because of high near-term costs, the right policy approach is the opposite.”
One thing is clear: Climate change must be taken seriously in its severity and dealt with as the crisis it is. Similar to the Green New Deal, the authors note that the development of DAC plants of this size would create many new jobs that would be a helpful boost to the economy after so many jobs were lost in the pandemic.