World's largest plant for direct capture and storage of CO₂ from the air in Iceland: $1000 per tonne of greenhouse gas
Photo: via / imago images / Cover-Images
Let's say you want to take out a loan. When the bank advisor asks you about collateral, you explain that it's not a problem at all: you plan to write a world bestseller in the near future that easily puts Harry Potter in the shade. When the bank advisor looks incredulous, you add that you have already self-published a book of poetry that has been very well received by your friends and acquaintances.
This is roughly what the CO₂ strategy of the major oil companies and states, including the United Arab Emirates, which is currently visiting the COP28 World Climate Conference, currently looks like. The Emirates want to invest 35 billion dollars in clean technology over the next five years and at the same time 150 billion in further oil production by the state-owned company Adnoc. COP and Adnoc President Sultan Al Jaber wants to limit emissions, but not oil production.
With this claim – we will simply get the CO₂ out of the air again – the oil companies are currently fighting for the survival of their business models, which are fatal for all of us. With Direct Air Capture (DAC) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), we simply fish the greenhouse molecules out of the air or exhaust gases, then we can continue to burn oil and gas, according to the narrative.
Yes, let's go!
It is to be expected that the Emirates and others will also explicitly negotiate this possibility into the final document of COP28. You should let them do that – in a very precise form.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global capacities for direct air capture are currently sufficient for about 0.01 megatons of CO₂ per year. Unfortunately, however, humanity's annual CO₂ emissions amounted to just under 37,000 megatons (36.8 gigatons to be exact). In its latest DAC report, the IEA estimates that we need to increase CO₂ removal from the atmosphere by a factor of 2050,100 by 000 if we want to reach net zero by then. And this in combination with the real emission reductions that have already been decided.
CO₂ used to promote CO₂
In fact, there is technology that already extracts CO₂ from the air. The start-up Climeworks, for example, operates a plant in Iceland called Orca, which captures 4000 tons of CO₂ per year, with a kind of giant vacuum cleaner in which the CO₂ sticks. There are other companies with similar models, such as Carbon Engineering from Canada. The latter is currently being bought by a US oil company. The oil companies like CO₂ removal not only as a fig leaf, but also as a tool: they pump the greenhouse gas into the ground to squeeze out even more oil. The process is called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). In this way, the extracted CO₂ mainly brings new CO₂ to light.
The costs for DAC are handsome: The early adopters who buy certified CO₂ from Climeworks pay $1000,1000 per ton. This is mainly due to the fact that the system requires a lot of energy. So that $<> is currently the real price of a ton of CO₂ removal.
$4600 per person per year
If you multiply humanity's annual emissions by these thousand dollars, you get an idea of the task facing humanity: The result is a sum of CO₂ removal costs of 37 trillion dollars per year. By comparison, Germany's gross domestic product in 2021 was the equivalent of $4.26 trillion.
Another comparison: According to the Economist, the average CO₂ price of all emissions trading systems already established on the planet is currently around 20 dollars. So there are still 980 missing. And as is well known, not all emissions are subject to such trading systems.
If the oil companies want to continue emitting, they should immediately be pinned down to their promises for the future. They would either have to pay the currently cheapest price for demonstrable CO₂ removal from the air for every tonne of CO₂ that their business models currently cause. Or make sure that this CO₂ is removed from the air yourself – immediately or in a verifiable period of a few years, not sometime in the distant future. This would be good to have an international carbon agency or bank to monitor and control all of this.
A lot of money lowers prices
If the oil industry were forced to do so, the price of CO₂ removal from the air would probably fall quickly, because when a lot of money goes into a technology, there are so-called experience curves that ensure that it becomes cheaper. This has been the case with wind and solar power, batteries and electric cars for many years now.
Of course, this model would lead to oil and gas becoming dramatically more expensive in one fell swoop. But the real CO₂ price would also generate huge revenues. The corporations would have to pay out the current market price until they themselves are able to reliably clean up their own dirt instead of dumping it on humanity. So there would be a lot of money, for example for the expansion of renewable energies and for state transfer payments to citizens battered by the transformation: 37 trillion dollars per year correspond to a good 4625 dollars per year per citizen of the world.
"Gladly, but at once, please"
The Great Acceleration
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This new, high price would be the most honest, because it would actually make it possible to offset or limit the so-called negative externalities caused by fossil business models, i.e. the damage caused by global warming.
Humanity cannot rely on the promises of the oil companies any more than the banker in the opening example of this text would rely on the hopeful young writer. "One day it will work" is not enough security. Especially not when it comes to the future of humanity.
The Economist commented last week that the idea of a market in which the price of a tonne of CO₂ emissions is as high as the cost of removing them is "very attractive". But: "It will be very difficult to actually create one."
This is undoubtedly true. But it would also undoubtedly be the most honest way to deal with our real, existence-threatening problem. At the very least, the formula "DAC as a solution? Of course, but then please immediately!« are always in the room during the COP negotiations. The oil companies have gotten away with disinformation for decades, which is a central reason for the dilemma we now find ourselves in. We should not let them get away with further delaying tricks, but take them at their word.