Carbon Capture, too Little too Late?

Image by Jas Min.

Will carbon capture technology bail society out of the latest version of greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 suddenly doubling its rate of increase when compared to the past decade, in breathtaking fashion, thus overheating the ocean and the Arctic and Antarctica and hammering Greenland?

The relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and carbon capture technology is best seen as a metaphor of athletes in the Olympic games: Team Emissions is setting world records in the 100-meter dash; Team Carbon Capture is still training for the 10,000-meter marathon.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) fall far short of meeting timelines as global emissions are outrunning all timelines, increasing two-fold within only one year, see: CO2 Bursting into the Atmosphere (3-22-2024). CO2 is on a rampage like never before and heating things up, Brazil’s heat index hit 144°F recently.

According to MIT, to stay “even-with-the-board on CO2 annually,” nearly 20 billion tons needs to be captured each year. It’s overwhelming. Meanwhile, Earth soaks up half of the 37 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions per annum. With all of that, it still leaves too much CO2 already in the atmosphere to take the heat off global warming.

Since 1850, approximately 1,000 gigatons of human-generated CO2 is hanging out in the atmosphere, which is 1,000 billion metric tons out of a total of 2,400 billion metric tons emitted (the planet absorbing more than one-half). A large amount needs to be removed to lower atmospheric CO2 ideally to at least 350 ppm from 426 ppm. All-in, CO2 removal is a multi-billion-ton job. It’s generational work kinda like building Notre Dame Cathedral, started in 1163, finished in 1345.

Total CO2 captured by current Direct Air Capture (DAC): “To date, 130 DAC plants are under development worldwide, with 27 commissioned and 18 completed (according to the International Energy Agency.) All of these are small-scale facilities with a current collective CO2 removal capacity of about 11,000 metric tons annually” (Source: U.S. Unveils Plans for Large Facilities to Capture Carbon Directly from Air, Science, August 11, 2023).

“Every second about 1,079 metric tons of CO2 are released worldwide due to burning fossil fuels.” (NASA) Meaning, current capacity removes 11 seconds worth per year.

The IRA Biden plan aims to create four DAC hubs over the next 10 years, each capable of removing and storing at least 1 million tons of CO2 each year. As part of the program’s rollout, DOE officials also announced funding for an additional 19 conceptual and engineering studies of potential future DAC plants. (Source: U.S. Unveils Plans for Large Facilities to Capture Carbon Directly from Air, Science, August 11, 2023).’

In strong opposition to DAC, Mark Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University says DAC is a waste of funds. His book “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything describes a 100% renewable energy economy. Nevertheless, there’s still a problem of too much CO2 already in the atmosphere, which is already upending the climate system; 100% renewables will not remove it. There are no easy answers.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry claims it can continue to produce as much oil and gas as it wants to because Carbon Capture and Sequester -CCS- will effectively neutralize CO2 emissions. No, it will not.

According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis: “Even if realized at its full potential, CCS will only account for about 2.4% of the world’s carbon mitigation by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

The real issue is not whether carbon can be captured; it can be captured; however, in the big picture, the real world, carbon emissions are hardened over centuries; carbon capture is a fledgling, mostly in a testing phase.

According to the International Energy Agency, 40 commercial facilities are already in operation applying Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS). Since January 2022 developers have announced plans for 50 more operations capturing around 125 Mt CO2 per year. “Nevertheless, even at such a level, CCUS deployment would remain substantially below (about 1/3rd) the 1.2 Gt CO2 per year that is required in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) scenario.” (Source: Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage, IEA50)

To seriously make a big dent in atmospheric carbon dioxide or CO2, which is 76% of all greenhouse gas emissions, technology is going to have to accelerate considerably, in fact, beyond considerably.

On a hopeful note, some R&D looks promising, even though still likely falling into the too little, too late category. For example, Klaus Lackner, founding director, Center for Negative Emissions has designed a prototype Mechanical Tree, on display at the Our Future Planet exhibition at the Science Museum, London from May 2021 until September 2022. The tree is constructed of sorbent tiles which cyclically extend into the air and then retract for regeneration, passively soaking up CO2 from the air using Passive Direct Air Capture (PDAC), supposedly 1,000 times more efficient than natural trees that use photosynthesis. The captured CO2 can be sequestered in underground geological formations or sold for industrial use.

MIT on carbon removal: “… a nearly impossible task, says Charles Harvey, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied both natural and technological ways to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Removing CO2 is one of the hardest and most expensive ways we could address climate change—far more difficult than simply emitting less carbon in the first place.” (Source: How Much Carbon Dioxide Would We Have to Remove from The Air to Counteract Climate Change? Climate Portal, MIT October 26, 2023)

“In fact, says Harvey, the energy demands of direct air capture are so great that ‘canceling out’ humanity’s emissions this way would take more energy than we’re getting from burning fossil fuels in the first place,” Ibid.

“Today’s approaches can capture only a tiny fraction of what’s needed: around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to one recent study.” (Smith, S.M, et al, The State of Carbon Dioxide Removal, 1st Edition, 2023)

“To ‘turn back the clock’ on climate change, we would need to capture today’s emissions plus this enormous backlog. To reach 350 parts per million, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 1988, humans would need to remove more than 500 billion tons. To get the atmosphere back to where it was before humans began to burn fossil fuels en masse would mean catching and storing more than 900 billion tons.” (MIT Climate Portal)

Based upon a reasonably comprehensive study, it appears that carbon capture technology is/will be too little too late. Global warming is not waiting around.

Nevertheless, R&D is in a fluid state, hopefully (fingers crossed) it meets the challenge (big question mark) because global warming has morphed into global heat way ahead of schedule, and climate change has become a regular on nightly national news programs, featuring (1) entire boreal forests burning like a furnace (2) floods demolishing thousands of homes in China and Pakistan, killing thousands (3) droughts impeding commercial barge traffic on Europe’s famous rivers (4) as nuclear power plants (France) power-down because of low river water flow (5) and thirsty Europeans standing in line for bottled water in France and Italy in the summer of ’22.

Meanwhile, March 2024 news items of interest: 7,200 miles away from Europe, similar issues: Persistent Drought is Drying Out Chile’s Drinking Water, Reuters News, March 20, 2024. And on another continent, Johannesburg (pop. 5.6M) CBS News headlines March 21, 2024: South Africa Water Crisis Sees Taps Run Dry across Johannesburg.

That’s just for starters as UN analysts claim 75% of Spain is subject to desertification.

Climate change is literally changing the face of the world.

And that’s not even mentioning one of the biggest concerns of the Northern Hemisphere. Greenland’s northern-most glaciers are very tipsy way too early. The icy island is on the ropes; surprisingly, it rained at Greenland’s summit (10,500 feet) for the first time ever as the entire ice infrastructure goes off-the-charts with a summertime melt rate of 30,000,000 tons per hour or 720,000,000 tons per day, 20-25% more than previously thought, according to recent studies.

And don’t even think about West Antarctica or Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. According to NASA: “The rainforest doesn’t react like it used to. It does not have enough time between droughts to heal itself and regrow. Throughout all recorded history, this has never been witnessed.”

What to do?

Everybody’s hopeful that human ingenuity, i.e., technology, will bail us out. Will it?

Meantime: “Every major global climate record was broken last year and 2024 could be worse.” (Celeste Saulo, secretary-general, World Meteorological Organization)

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at