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Direct air capture has its role to play in climate protection

Interview with Louise Charles, Communication Director at Climeworks

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European Business: Removing CO2 from ambient air is certainly an honorable approach to fighting global warming. But how can this ecological ambition be transformed into a viable business concept?

Louise Charles: It is indeed a very ambitious goal. Our customers want a more sustainable source of CO2 for their business purposes." The food industry needs CO2 as a raw material, while the drinks industry requires CO2 for beverage carbonation and the agriculture industry uses it as an airbourne fertilizer for their crops. We also deliver CO2 as a raw material to producers of carbon-neutral fuel. The transportation industry will continue to rely on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future, particularly in the long-haul aviation and shipping sectors, hence the clear incentive for them to switch from fuels with a very large carbon footprint to carbon-neutral fuels sooner rather than later. CO2 from air is a critical raw material for that purpose.

We also collaborate with the CarbFix consortium to combine our direct air capture technology with their CO2-mineralization technology. In our pilot plant in Iceland, Climeworks captures CO2 from ambient air, before the CarbFix team then mixes that captured CO2 with water and pumps it underground using renewable energy from ON Power, where it turns into stone during the following two years. We have discovered that many enterprises and individuals want to do more than just offset their CO2 emissions – they want to physically remove their emissions from the air. Climeworks allows them to do so.

We have discovered that many enterprises and individuals want to do more than just offset the CO2 for whose emissions they are responsible – they want to physically reverse their emissions from the air. Louise CharlesCommunications Director

European Business: It is your vision to be able to extract 1% of global CO2 emissions from the air by 2025 – an ambition which would require 750,000 shipping containers filled with your CO2-extracting devices. How do you plan to scale to this level?

Louise Charles: Climeworks has now been around for almost a decade and the technological scale-up achieved during that time has been of factor billion. Our company was founded by two mechanical engineers Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher from ETH Zurich. When they began working on capturing CO2 from air on a laboratory scale, they were capturing a few milligrams of CO2 per day. Here we are ten years later and we’re building industrial-scale plants capable of capturing several thousand tons of CO2 from ambient air. The challenge now is to continue on that same growth trajectory and to increase the amount of captured CO2 into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of tons. The plants we have built so far were hand-made in our facilities in Switzerland, which of course limits the speed of scale-up. Moving into mass production in the near future we therefore expect to have a significant impact.

European Business: Climate activists keep arguing that the only way to attain the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement is to significantly reduce emissions. Those who argue in favor of a more technological approach are often accused of chasing unicorns. Is Climeworks’ device one of those unicorns?

Louise Charles: We strongly believe that direct air capture has its role to play in climate protection. Importantly, though, we don’t believe that our technology is a silver bullet; it is not a solution which can solve the whole problem of the climate crisis all on its own. We consider ourselves to be part of a portfolio of different climate solutions, some of which are natural, while others are technological – all of them need to work together. Climate scientists have made it clear that reducing emissions alone will not be enough if we want to meet the climate targets we have set for ourselves as a global community. We will also need to physically remove CO2 from the air – and that’s where direct air capture comes in.

European Business: You have stated that your invention doesn’t only have the potential to prevent (further) climate change, but to actually reverse it. Isn’t your supposition ignoring the phenomenon of feedback loops, however, and the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that the changes we’re facing are irreversible?

Louise Charles: We have been pumping far too much CO2 into the atmosphere for far too long, and so CO2 concentrations have kept increasing over a very long period of time. Direct air capture or other approaches to removing CO2 from the air, could reduce CO2 concentrations to lower levels than the current ones. Once direct air capture is scaled up to truly climate-relevant levels and we’re able to capture many millions if not billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, this would inevitably decrease CO2 concentrations and thus reverse climate change.

European Business: Many scientists and activists are pessimistic about the current trajectory of climate change and believe it is unreasonable to expect that mankind will be able to limit global warming to 2°C. Are you more hopeful about the future of our planet?

Louise Charles: We are hopeful and try to stay optimistic. Making a climate-relevant impact is what motivates our team every day to further optimize our technology and scale it up so that it can really become climate-relevant. We think any climate target – be it 1.5 or 2 degrees – is really only achievable with a portfolio approach, in which we not only do all we can to reduce emissions, but also capture some of the CO2 from the atmosphere that has already been emitted. If we try to attack this problem with a single approach, however, we don’t stand a chance.

Interview: Julian Miller | Photos: Julia Dunlop; Zev Starr.-Tambor; Arni Saeberg