What Iceland's landmark carbon removal project means for the fight against climate change

When the world’s biggest facility for sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying it underground opened in rural Iceland last week, it may have sounded like a miracle cure for climate change had finally arrived.

But while the first commercial carbon removal and sequestration factory represents a breakthrough in the goal of achieving net-zero global emissions by midcentury — as well as a beacon for eventually removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere — the technology won’t be economically viable on a wide scale for some time. Crucially, scientists say, it will prevent catastrophic climate change only if it is used in addition to, rather than instead of, massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other technologies that are cheaper.

“It’s a baby step, but it’s a baby step that will be remembered if the industry ever develops into a mature industry,” David Morrow, the director of research for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University, told Yahoo News.

The Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Startups Climeworks AG and Carbfix are working together to store carbon dioxide removed from the air deep underground to reverse some of the damage CO2 emissions are doing to the planet.
The Hellisheidi geothermal power plant in Iceland. (Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

First, it’s important to understand what carbon removal is for, and how it differs from the older and more widely deployed technology of carbon capture. Carbon capture occurs when emissions are captured at the source — a coal-fired power plant’s smokestack, for example. The CO2 can then be either reused for something else or, if the goal is fighting climate change, stored underground. There are already natural gas processing plants in Wyoming and Texas, for example, that capture millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually and inject the gas into oil fields to force the oil toward wells. (The net result of that process is lower emissions, but not low enough to reach the targets that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, says are needed.)

The new plant in Iceland, on the other hand, performs the more challenging task of finding carbon in the atmosphere and removing it.

So far, though, the Icelandic plant is on pace to remove only 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. For comparison, the United States’ net emissions in 2019 were 5.8 billion metric tons. And while Climeworks, the Swiss company that built the factory, is selling credits to companies such as Microsoft that want to go carbon-neutral, it currently costs the plant $600 to $800 per ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere — more than 10 times what carbon offsets trade for on the market.

Carbon removal is a very energy-intensive process. In Iceland, abundant geothermal energy is cheap and clean, but in the U.S., which still burns fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat, the carbon footprint of removing carbon currently could be as much as one-quarter of the carbon removed.

The 'Orca' direct air capture and storage facility, operated by Climeworks AG, in Hellisheidi, Iceland, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The 'Orca' direct air capture and storage facility, operated by Climeworks AG, in Hellisheidi, Iceland, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. (Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

But experts say that doesn’t mean carbon removal won’t be viable by the time it’s relevant. “It’s hard to extrapolate from this very early plant to what the technology might look like 10, 20, 30 years from now,” Morrow said.

That is when carbon removal may really be needed. According to the IPCC, staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming — the level that scientists say would begin a cascade of catastrophes — requires reaching net-zero emissions by midcentury. Carbon can be removed from the air through natural means, like planting trees, but at this point the science increasingly suggests there will also be a need for projects that perform “direct air capture” of carbon, such as the one in Iceland.

Currently, the money that would be spent on sucking carbon from the air using fossil fuel sources of energy would deliver greater environmental benefit if it was spent on replacing those fossil fuels with solar or wind energy, electrifying cars and so on.

Once a transition to renewable sources of energy is undertaken, getting from a low-carbon economy to a net-zero or even net-negative emissions economy is where carbon removal comes in. It could compensate for sources of climate pollution that are the hardest to eliminate, such as agriculture or airplanes, and even reverse the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, so that if the world blows past 1.5 degrees Celsius, it could eventually get back under it.

Wind turbines at the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm in Whitewater, California on June 3, 2021. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Wind turbines at the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm in Whitewater, California on June 3, 2021. (Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Are negative emissions important? Absolutely. It’s almost going to be impossible to get to absolute zero [emissions], that’s why people talk about net zero,” said Howard J. Herzog, a senior research engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative. But, he cautioned, “negative emissions are not a substitute for reducing emissions. [We] have to reduce emissions as much as we can.”

There are already promising signs of prices coming down and the amount of carbon that can be removed by one plant going up, scientists say.

Climate scientists say that, while the world decarbonizes, the price and energy efficiency of carbon removal could improve dramatically. Climeworks units that extract carbon are being built one at a time. “If you imagine a car company trying to build their cars by hand, each one is going to be very expensive, but their goal is to mass-produce these things,” said Morrow.

“What you see in a new technology is, they’re not terribly efficient, but you have the potential to get 20 times more efficient before you run into the laws of physics,” said Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. “In a way, direct air capture is much better positioned than renewable energy was in the ’60s and ’70s. [Wind and solar] were 100 times too expensive, and they came down the learning curve and did it. Direct air capture is 10 times too expensive.”

Ultimately, the deployment of these technologies will depend on politics as much as science. Carbon capture and storage at the source of emissions is cheaper than carbon removal from the atmosphere. The reason the former hasn’t been adopted on every coal-fired or gas-fired power plant is political: As long as it’s free to dump your carbon pollution into the air, that’s what utilities will do.

“You need a regulatory framework that says you must not dump CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Lackner. “If you don’t have that, of course it’s always cheaper to ignore the problem.”


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