(Bloomberg Businessweek) —
To avoid catastrophic global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, humans will need to remove 100 billion tons to 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere by the year 2100. To reach the upper end of the range, we’d have to suck up all the carbon that’s already been emitted this century—and then some. Today global carbon removal stands at about 40 million tons, mostly straight from smokestacks. For purpose-built projects that grab CO₂ from the open air, the number is more like 8,000 tons, at a cost of $600 apiece or more. At that rate there isn’t enough money in the world to get to 1 trillion tons.
If there’s a sliver of good news here, it’s that the U.S. government has finally decided to try changing the math. Late last year the U.S. Department of Energy announced what it calls a “carbon negative shot” as part of its Energy Earthshots Initiative: a significant investment in technologies meant to take, eventually, a billion tons of carbon from the air each year for the relatively affordable price of $100 a ton. The bipartisan infrastructure law that passed in mid-November has funded the effort with about $3.5 billion. That’s not exactly climate-curing money, but it represents the government’s first serious investment in such remediation efforts.
The official in charge of disbursing those billions of dollars is Jennifer Wilcox, a chemical engineer and University of Pennsylvania professor who literally wrote the book on carbon capture. (Yes, it’s called Carbon Capture.) Wilcox runs the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, a team of about 750 people who oversee decarbonization research projects.
The urgency of the climate crisis notwithstanding, her two main priorities for the year ahead amount to something of a slow-and-steady approach. The first is to test technologies that can capture and store at least 1 million tons of CO₂ a year each. The second is to create a consistent set of federal guidelines for carbon removal and storage. If the government is going to credit a business or individual for storing carbon, it needs some guarantees about how long that person or company will store it. The Energy Department hasn’t specified what this will mean in practice but says it will incorporate international standards and is working with the IRS.
“We’re going to do projects in a very thoughtful way, such that they will be sustainable,” Wilcox says, adding that she “isn’t in a race to get dollars out the door as fast as possible.”
There are many ways to extract CO₂ from the atmosphere, including by planting trees, rotating crops, tilling soil, running air over a bath of chemicals that bond to the CO₂ molecules and pull them from the air, and a similar procedure involving crushed minerals instead of chemicals. So far, though, the biggest single engineered machine along any of these lines, a chemical-bath setup in Iceland, can capture only about 4,000 tons of carbon a year.
Wilcox has been preparing for her job for two decades. She did her doctoral work on mitigating mercury from coal-fired power plants and along the way realized that CO₂ would be a bigger threat. When she started teaching carbon capture to her university students in 2005, she wound up writing the textbook because there wasn’t one yet. She included lessons on direct air capture, the technology that grabs CO₂ straight from the atmosphere, but noted that it’s much harder to get carbon back out of the air than to simply burn fewer fossil fuels in the first place.
When the world failed to take that lesson to heart, Wilcox adapted. Three years ago she gave a TED Talk that introduced the general public to a slew of inchoate, obscure technologies for removing CO₂ from the air. “She began working on these things that were going to be necessary for an omnibus strategy to combat climate change decades ago,” says Julio Friedmann, a senior researcher at Columbia who held a position similar to Wilcox’s in the Obama administration. “But even so, I’m not sure that she could have anticipated quite how big the opportunity would become.”
Along with cultivating new technologies, Wilcox says her office is looking for projects that convince communities that carbon capture is worth their while right this minute. As an example she suggests she’d be interested in funding a project that could pull carbon from the air using the kinds of rare earth metals found in the toxic coal ash left over from mining operations. This method could improve the local environment and reduce global warming. “They are not doing this today, because it is not economic,” she says.
A Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election could well derail the efforts of Wilcox and her team just as they get going. And because some of the loudest advocates for carbon capture technology development have been old-school polluters in the oil and gas industries, projects such as Wilcox’s have critics from the left as well as the right.
Still, most climate advocates have been supportive of Wilcox’s mission, acknowledging that every little bit of action will help. “This is really smart deployment that emphasizes community buy-in that we believe is absolutely essential,” says Erin Burns, executive director of Carbon180, an advocacy group that supports CO₂ removal technologies. (Until 2020, Wilcox was on Carbon 180’s scientific advisory board.) “It gives us a lot of optimism about what they can do with $3.5 billion.”
Read next: Gates-Backed Fund Invests in Carbon Capture Startup Sustaera
To contact the author of this story:
Leslie Kaufman in New York at email@example.com© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.