There is a massive environmental toll associated with gift-giving, but what if you could give a gift that not only generates no waste but actually improves the state of the climate? Thanks to what is described as “the world’s most sustainable gift” you can. Climeworks’ Climate Pioneers Program empowers people by enabling them to siphon climate change-causing carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere. The need to draw down carbon is supported by a plethora of research documenting the veracity of anthropogenic climate change and its wide-ranging catastrophic impacts. The situation is made even more urgent by inadequate government efforts to drive down emissions.
There are three carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies: The first is called Natural climate solutions (NCS), and the other two are chemical processes known as carbon capture (CC) and direct air capture (DAC). NCS removes CO2 from the atmosphere by enhancing natural processes, whereas CC removes carbon where it is produced, and DAC removes carbon from the ambient air. Despite the surge in interest from scientists (Köhler et al, 2019) policymakers, and the media (Meadowcraft, 2013, p. 137), the public remains largely unfamiliar with CDR (Campbell-Arvai et al., 2017, p. 327). Climeworks is a Swiss company that is addressing these concerns through an innovative program called Climate Pioneers which highlights its patented DAC technology to enhances public awareness and measurably decrease CO2.
Climeworks has designed and built the world’s first commercially available DAC technology. In 2018 Climeworks had amassed $50 million in technology investments (Doyle, 2018). The company has set up plants in 14 locations across Europe (Cho, 2018) together these machines pulled 2,000 tons of CO2 out of the air in 2019. In September 2020 Climeworks used its pilot plants as proofs of concept to secure $110m in funding. Exactly one year later they opened Orca the world’s largest DAC installation that can suck 4,000 tonnes of CO2 out of the air each year. The carbon removed by climeworks is sequestered permanently underground with the help of Carbfix an Icelandic company that uses a commercial-scale carbon mineralization process known as enhanced weathering. Climeworks has secured long-term partnerships (purchasing agreements) with leading corporations including Microsoft, Swiss Re, and Shopify. These partnerships have helped Climeworks to cut costs by 80 percent. At $100 per metric ton of removed CO2 (Oland, 2020) Climeworks is competitive. To decrease costs further the company is planning to rapidly scale its operations. To this end, Reuters reports that Climeworks’ has recently announced a partnership with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). BCG has announced that it will also purchase CDR services from Climeworks to help offset its own emissions.
The scale of this enterprise is daunting, and the scope of the ambition is unparalleled, however, Climeworks’ logic is sound. As explained by Louise Charles, the communications manager at Climeworks, “Ultimately what we are trying to do is halt climate change, or even reverse climate change, to be able to scale up to the size that could really make an impact,” (Kotecki, 2019). It is important to note that Climeworks does not think it can arrest climate change on its own, its technology must work in tandem with other companies and other approaches including NCS (e.g. afforestation and reforestation). When compared to trees, Climewokds technology has a much higher CDR capacity and unlike trees, DAC can operate almost anywhere (Cho, 2018). Compared to trees DAC is also faster, more scalable, and more capable of locking away CO2. Recent research shows DAC has the potential to capture and permanently remove 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.
Climeworks’ goal is to sequester 1 percent of global CO2 by 2025 and this will require hundreds of thousands of units and as many as 30 million Climeworks units could be required by the end of the century (Realmonte et al, 2019). To capture 10 Gts of emissions, between 10 and 20 carbon capture companies would have to replicate Climeworks’ efforts (Peters, 2017). What makes Orca’s technology so interesting is that it can easily be replicated at different locations and different scales around the world. Climeworks is currently on track to ramp up its carbon capture efforts to achieve megaton removal capacity by the second half of this decade.
A Green Market Oracle report published in March 2021 concluded that CDR technologies are both scalable and cost-effective. Another Green Market Oracle report in April 2021 singled out both Climeworks and Carbfix as leaders in their respective fields. In June 2021, Orca’s renewable energy-powered design was independently validated by DNV. Researchers at RWTH Aachen University’s Institute for Technical Thermodynamics published a study in Nature Energy (Deutz & Bardow, 2020) that assessed the life-cycle of two commercial DAC plants (Hinwil, Switzerland and Hellisheiði, Iceland) operated by Climeworks. While these systems were determined to be highly advantageous due to their high capture efficiencies (85.4% and 93.1%), the researchers emphasized the importance of using low carbon energy sources to power these plants (ideally renewable sources of energy). They further concluded that these plants demonstrate the benefits of deploying DAC technology on a large scale and this scaling will not be impeded by material requirements or energy availability.
Climeworks’ Climate Pioneer Program
Almost 10,000 private individuals have signed on to Climeworks’ Climate Pioneer program. This is a program that enables people to take meaningful action for as little as $18 per month. It counters the pessimism of those who believe that it is too late to act and gives hope to those who are paralyzed by eco-anxiety and grief. The program offers a new way of working towards a future worth creating. It helps us to imagine a better world and by doing so we increase the chances that we will act. The Climate Pioneers Program is “a call to responsibility” a call to “do something” (Purdy, 2015, p. 4). At a time when governments seem incapable or unwilling to act, empowering people and giving them agency may be just what we need.
Click here to find out more about the Climate Pioneers project.
References Campbell-Arvai, V., Hart, P. S., Raimi, K. T., & Wolske, K. S. (2017). The influence of learning about carbon dioxide removal (CDR) on support for mitigation policies. Climatic Change, 143(3-4), 321–336. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2005-1 Deutz, S. & Bardow, A. (2020). How (Carbon) Negative Is Direct Air Capture? Life Cycle Assessment of an Industrial Temperature-Vacuum Swing Adsorption Process. ChemRxiv. doi:10.26434/chemrxiv.12833747.v1 This content is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed. Köhler, J., Geels, F. W., Kern, F., Markard, J., Onsongo, E., Wieczorek, A., et al. (2019). An agenda for sustainability transitions research: state of the art and future directions. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 31, 1–32. doi: 10.1016/j.eist.2019.01.004 Meadowcroft, J. (2013). Exploring negative territory carbon dioxide removal and climate policy initiatives. Climatic Change, 118(1), 137–149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0684-1 Purdy, J. (2015). After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 1-7.
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