Better Than A Rainforest? Air Capture Climate Technology Gets A Closer Look

October 5, 2009

It sounds almost too good to be true: new technology that would be better than carbon neutral — it would be carbon negative, taking more climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air than factories and vehicles put in. It’s called air capture technology, and Reuters took a look at some promising versions of it on October 1.

This technology is expected to help some of the world’s poorest countries capitalize on any global carbon market, which would put a price on carbon emissions and let rich companies that spew lots of carbon buy carbon credits from poor companies and countries that emit less. The least developed countries emit very little carbon now. But the way the carbon market is set up under the Kyoto Protocol, this puts them at a disadvantage. If you don’t emit a lot it’s tough to get access to financing and clean technology under the current rules.

Most of these less-developed countries are going to be on the front lines of climate change, if they’re not there already. The predicted ravages of a changing climate, including droughts, floods and wildfires, would hurt them worst and first. The idea is that they need to develop, to give themselves a cushion against these disasters. To develop, they need energy. And usually, getting energy has meant spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding to the climate change that caused the problem in the first place.

What air capture technology could do, some of its proponents say, is let the poorest, least industrialized countries build renewable power plants fueled by sun and wind and use the heat left over from this emissions-free power generation to fuel the air capture technology. A small rules change would let them sell these super-carbon-credits in the global carbon market, giving them access to financing and clean technology, while at the same time they’re cleaning the air. It’s a win-win, air capture’s supporters say.

Sort of, says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a lead author of the forest mitigation chapter in the 2007 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Plants perfected taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere millions of years ago,” Frumhoff says. “It’s called photosynthesis and they do it incredibly efficiently and cost-effectively. There are plenty of things we can do today, particularly restoring the world’s forests as part of the climate solution.”

Frumhoff notes that many developing countries are already poised to get into the carbon market through the U.N. REDD program, which stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries” and aims not just to keep forests standing but to plant new ones.

Still, he doesn’t reject air capture out of hand. “All good ideas need to be on the table … The innovation they’re demonstrating (with air capture technology) is terrific but they must not be seen as an alternative to cost-effective reductions available today.”

What do you think? Is air capture a distraction from forestation projects that will help developing countries, or a possible major leap forward in reducing climate-warming emissions? Is this an either/or situation? Do we need both? Let us know.

Photo credit:  REUTERS/Guillermo Granja (Ecuadorean rainforest of Kapawi, October 20, 2008)


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The real problem I have with the air capture technologies are that they are active, that is they require an energy input in order to remove the carbon dioxide. In addition how much carbon dioxide is released in producing the air capture equipment.

This seems like another case of complying with the letter rather than the spirt of the law.Reminds me of the way that automotive emissions were made “cleaner” by diluting tailpipe emmissions with extra fresh air pumped through the system, rather than making the cars use less fuel.How about adjusting to the reality that we can’t continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate.

Posted by Phil Barr | Report as abusive

Photosynthesis is actually a very inefficient process. Most plants are less than 5% efficient. Sugar cane, one of the most efficient plants, has an efficiency rate of around 7%. Now you know.

Posted by Linc | Report as abusive

Sounds good but, CO2 is 3.5 times geaver than Carbon.Think of a 100 car coal train going in to the plant and then a 350 car train leaving. This is going to cost and it will not fit in the coal mine. Dreaming is easy reality is hard.

Posted by Rich K | Report as abusive

The problem is not the techniques used to lessen the effect of greenhouse gas emissions. the most effective ways will be sorted out over time. Or problem is the belief that some magic bullet will come along which will allow us to continually use energy and resources at an ever increasing rate with little economic or environmental consequences.The most efficient form of lessening the effect of Greenhouse Gas emissions is Energy Conservation in North America, Europe, India and China, but we hardly ever hear this from the world’s leaders, even though it should always be at the top of the agenda on any discussion of Climate Change.Without a change in people’s view about their “right” to waste energy, the rest of our efforts are futile.

Posted by gigawit | Report as abusive

The problem with us humans is that we think we a a “god ” given right to all of the resources on earth, all religons state this. The problem is that we are not the masters of the earth, as many religons would have us to believe.To put things simply as regards CO2 and consumption of the earths resources, inocculate an agar dish(earth) with bacteria (Humans), put it in the oven at the correct temperature (temp of the earth) and watch the bacteria begin to multiply, at the begining on the surface of the agar plate there are only small colonies of bacteria(Citys) then over time the colonies become larger and larger eating up the resources around them, until an end point where there is no more resources left and the bacteria population collapses, (human race). It may be crude using bacteria as an example, but humans operate at the same principles, the only thing is that certain species of bacteria will still be here,when we are gone!

Carbon negative technologies are the wave of the future, I think, but we don’t necessarily need to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere. Biomass contains carbon, whose ultimate source is the atmosphere, and if this carbon was deep injected into the earth using carbon capture and storage technologies borrowed from “clean coal” technology, this would be carbon negative, and could potentially be massively carbon negative.So, yes, carbon negative technologies are the wave of the future, and if we want to have a future, we need to jump on this bandwagon ASAP. One good place to dispose of the CO2 would be deep injection into basalt deposits under the ocean floors, where CO2 could react with the magnesium, calcium, and iron in these basalt rocks to make stable carbonates, an idea known as mineral carbonation.One way for our society to become massively carbon negative would be for us to transform the coal fired power plants into advanced, enhanced efficiency power plants that burn biomass or biochar, and capture and deep inject their CO2. In this way, our worst problem – the coal fired power plants – could be turned into carbon negative power plants.Regarding transport of biomass, local conversion into biochar could make biomass as energy dense, storage stable, and transportable as coal.

Posted by Leland Palmer | Report as abusive

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, not “in Developing countries.” The author should have done a careful fact check before publishing the post. It made me think that this post is not credible because the author does not know much about the REDD scheme to begin with…

Posted by Samantha Davis | Report as abusive

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