Can carbon removal slow climate change? Big tech thinks so

Neil Ever Osborne and M.A. Jacquemain

Google, Meta, and Shopify fund a new carbon removal initiative of close to a billion dollars.

Some of the largest tech firms in the world took the first step last week in a new campaign of the climate fight, making a major investment in carbon removal.

A recently minted organization called Frontier will make the carbon removal purchases, with funding from Shopify, Meta, and Google parent company Alphabet, among others.

Frontier’s stated goal is to spur researchers, entrepreneurs, and other investors into the development of new carbon removal technologies — in order to vastly increase capacity — by “guaranteeing future demand” and signaling the untapped market for these technologies.

Carbon removal — or the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere — is different from the technologies that have been in use for years to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) as it escapes from power plants or cement factories.

This emerging technology is a tool for pulling CO2 directly from the atmosphere using specially designed machines, like Climeworks’ Orca facility in Iceland, the largest “direct air carbon capture” plant in the world.

The Orca plant, which began operations last September, is capable of removing 4000 tons of CO2 per year to be stored in the ground through a “natural mineralization process.”

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Another tech firm, Microsoft, was among the first to take advantage of this new technology, paying Climeworks to remove CO2 from the atmosphere equal to 11 per cent of the company's estimated annual emissions.

The investments by Microsoft and its big tech brethren into carbon removal may be the necessary catalyst needed to launch the industry.

microsoft (NurPhoto/ Contributor/ Getty Images)

Microsoft is one of several major technology companies that is investing in carbon capture. (NurPhoto/ Contributor/ Getty Images)

Frontier calls itself an “advance market commitment” (AMC), a pilot concept used in the last decade to develop pneumococcal vaccines for countries in need — and the aim to address a need before there is a market overlaps with that of carbon removal.

Meanwhile, an investment into carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS), which comprises the methods used to reduce CO2 from highly polluting industries like oil and gas, was made by the Canadian government in the most recent federal budget.

A tax credit of $2.6 billion over five years and then $1.5 annually after that will aim to coax companies in sectors like oil and gas to spend more on CCUS.

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The tax credit, which accounts for more funding than any other climate program received, has been decried by critics as a tax break for fossil fuel companies to continue with the business-as-usual approach of the carbon energy economy.

Climate activists also complain that a focus on CCUS and carbon removal shifts efforts from the goal of reducing emissions through the transition to renewables.

“Carbon capture is not a climate solution. Oil and gas companies know these are dead-end technologies which won’t make a dent in emissions, but are using them anyway to delay the clean energy transition and wring out even more subsidies,” Julia Levin, Senior Program Manager with Environmental Defence Canada told The Weather Network (TWN).

“Despite decades of research and huge investments, current levels of CCUS are negligible. Since 2000 Canadian governments have spent nearly $6 billion on CCUS projects. Despite massive taxpayer subsidies, collectively these expensive projects only capture around 3.55 million tonnes of carbon per year — which represents 0.05 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Levin added.

There is also the question of where all that CO2 will go, as CCUS and removal programs ramp up.

“In the past, people were talking about storage under the sea,” Charles Jia, professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto, told TWN. “And now actually the most viable solution is to store carbon dioxide a kilometer deep under the ground, under solid rock.”

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One ministry paper released earlier this year proposes eliminating some prohibitions on injecting CO2 and storing it on Crown Land. The costs, complications, and environmental implications of this remain unknown.

Despite the problems, the unknowns, and the complaints against carbon removal and CCUS, the technology is considered by many analysts an essential tool that must be used to some extent.

And advancements continue to be pursued in this field for improving efficiency or capturing other greenhouse gasses (GHGs) such as methane, which accounts for up to 20 per cent of GHG emissions and traps heat at a higher rate than CO2.

There is also a movement in CCUS to “upcycle” the captured CO2 into useful products, rather than having to deal with the challenge of storing it.

Upcycling is “relatively new and also controversial,” Jia said.

“Because one of the applications is using carbon to produce fuel. If you use that fuel, it will release back into the atmosphere, so it is actually not a real solution. But [storing carbon] in cement or as construction materials is a longer storage or utilization option.”

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The budding industry has upcycled CO2 into an array of goods, and while CO2 upcycled into fuels will only briefly delay its emission, using CO2 in polymers for household products or in construction material like concrete, will ensure a longer sequestering period.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that “all global modeled pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C” involve some use of both carbon removal and capture. Jia agreed, “I think it is a necessary solution for selected sectors.”

Thumbnail credit: SOPA Images/ Contributor/ LightRocket/ Getty Images