Climate Crisis Calls for Direct Air Capture: Wartime-Level Funding for a Fleet of CO2 Scrubbers

Energy Climate Concept

Massive deployment of Direct Air Capture could reverse the rise in global temperature well before 2100, but only with immediate and sustained investments from governments and firms to scale up the new technology.

A Climate in Crisis Calls for Investment in Direct Air Capture

Wartime-level funding for a fleet of CO2 scrubbers could slow warming, but stopping climate change still requires deep cuts in emissions.

There is a growing consensus among scientists as well as national and local governments representing hundreds of millions of people, that humanity faces a climate crisis that demands a crisis response. New research from the University of California San Diego explores one possible mode of response: a massively funded program to deploy direct air capture (DAC) systems that remove CO2 directly from the ambient air and sequester it safely underground.

The findings reveal such a program could reverse the rise in global temperature well before 2100, but only with immediate and sustained investments from governments and firms to scale up the new technology.

Despite the enormous undertaking explored in the study, the research also reveals the need for governments, at the same time, to adopt policies that would achieve deep cuts in CO2 emissions.  The scale of the effort needed just to achieve the Paris Agreement goals of holding average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is massive.

The study, published in Nature Communications, assesses how crisis-level government funding on direct air capture—on par with government spending on wars or pandemics—would lead to deployment of a fleet of DAC plants that would collectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

World's Largest DAC Plant

Rendering showing ‘first look’ of what will be the world’s largest DAC plant. Credit: Courtesy of Carbon Engineering

“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, added that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are such that meeting climate goals requires not just preventing new emissions through extensive decarbonization of the energy system, but also finding ways to remove historical emissions already in the atmosphere.

“Current pledges to cut global emissions put us on track for about 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) of warming,” Victor, also an adjunct professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 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.”

Emergency deployment of direct air capture

The study calculates the funding, net CO2 removal, and climate impacts of a large and sustained program to deploy direct air capture technology.

The authors find that if an emergency direct air capture program were to commence in 2025 and receive investment of 1.2–1.9% of global GDP annually it would remove 2.2–2.3 gigatons of CO2 by the year 2050 and 13–20 gigatons of CO2 by 2075. Cumulatively, the program would remove 570–840 gigatons of CO2 from 2025–2100, which falls within the range of CO2 removals that IPCC scenarios suggest will be needed to meet Paris targets.

Even with such a massive program, the globe would see temperature rise of 2.4–2.5ºC  (4.3-4.5ºF) in the year 2100 without further cuts in global emissions below current trajectories.

Exploring the reality of a fleet of CO2 scrubbers in the sky

According to the authors, DAC has attributes that could prove attractive to policymakers if political pressures continue to mount to act on climate change, yet cutting emissions remains insurmountable.

“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,” said Hanna. 

From the Civil War to Operation Warp Speed, the authors estimate the financial resources that might be available for emergency deployment of direct air capture—in excess of one trillion dollars per year—based on previous spending the U.S. has made in times of crisis.

The authors then built a bottom-up deployment model that constructs, operates, and retires successive vintages of DAC scrubbers, given available funds and the rates at which direct air capture technologies might improve with time. They link the technological and economic modeling to climate models that calculate the effects of these deployments on atmospheric CO2 concentration level and global mean surface temperature.

With massive financial resources committed to DAC, the study finds that the ability of the DAC industry to scale up is the main factor limiting CO2 removal from the atmosphere. The authors point to the ongoing pandemic as an analog: even though the FDA has authorized use of coronavirus vaccines, there is still a huge logistical challenge to scaling up production, transporting, and distributing the new therapies quickly and efficiently to vast segments of the public.

Conventional mitigation is still needed, even with wartime spending combating climate change

“Crisis deployment of direct air capture, even at the extreme of what is technically feasible, is not a substitute for conventional mitigation,” the authors write.

Nevertheless, they note that the long-term vision for combatting climate requires taking negative emissions seriously.

“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.”

Additionally, they note that such a large program would grow a new economic sector, producing a substantial number of new jobs.

The authors conclude it is time to extend research on direct air capture systems to real-world conditions and constraints that accompany deployment—especially in the context of acute political pressures that will arise as climate change becomes viewed as a crisis.

Reference: “Emergency deployment of direct air capture as a response to the climate crisis” by Ryan Hanna, Ahmed Abdulla, Yangyang Xu and David G. Victor, 14 January 2021, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-20437-0

4 Comments on "Climate Crisis Calls for Direct Air Capture: Wartime-Level Funding for a Fleet of CO2 Scrubbers"

  1. How are we expected to fund an effort like this when we can’t even get the fiscal house we have right now in order?

  2. Looks like it’s time to start buying stock!

  3. “First, crisis-level funding—on par with spending during major wars but sustained over longer time horizons—would create a fund in excess of one trillion U.S. dollars per year for spending on DAC.”

    These are undoubtedly Liberals who think that all problems can be solved by throwing tax money at them. The major problem with their proposal is that DAC plants won’t be made out of paper money or coinage. They will require steel and concrete! This war-time footage of increased production of steel and concrete will require ramping up the mining of iron ore, limestone, aggregate, and copper to name just a few. Besides the cost of environmental damage, there will be an increased production of CO2 resulting from the need to mine, crush, transport, smelt, and refine the steel, not to mention the building of additional plants to fabricate the components of the DACs. Part of their assumption is that “… deploying DAC does not intrinsically require intrusive policy interventions, such as requiring existing firms to transform their production methods.” But it does mean that new plants will have to be built to meet the special needs of this ‘Manhattan Project.’ Nowhere do they consider the increase in CO2 production as a result of this war-time production ramp up. They may well exacerbate the problem! However, we don’t know because they haven’t done their homework and provided an end-to-end analysis of the increased CO2. They make assumptions about how much DACs might remove from the current levels, but leave out what the construction will add. Mining is so reviled by the Left that it isn’t even given a thought! They also ignore the issue of disposing of the captured CO2, which will have its own energy requirements.

    “All energy supplies, no matter the type, would need to be scaled up in concert with the growing DAC fleet.”

    This also will have the impact of increasing CO2 production by the same processes mentioned above. But it will also have negative economic impacts as a result of competition between consumers and the government program for the available electricity. And as often happens, it will fall most heavily on the shoulders of the economically disadvantaged, who have little discretionary income.

    These academic fatheads, with surgically attached blinders, have overlooked serious issues because they falsely think that technology and money can solve all problems. They have demonstrated that they haven’t thought this problem through, being focused on a technological solution.

  4. While atmospheric CO2 shows a general upward trend, there is also an annual oscillation driven by the seasons. From the Northern Hemisphere Fall to Spring, is when the natural absorbers of CO2, such as deciduous trees and crops, are shut down. Mauna Loa CO2 measurements show an almost linear increase to the peak in May.

    The shutdowns resulting from COVID-19 were most severe from about March through May, being about 18% during this time frame. Yet, there is no discernible change in the slope of the curve compared to previous years, and no knick points marking the sudden onset of anthropogenic CO2 decreases. In other words, there is no empirical evidence that significant decreases in anthropogenic CO2 emissions will have the desired effects of arresting and ultimately reversing the trend of CO2. These academics have accepted the unexamined assumption that their massive construction projects will actually have the intended effect.

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