Addressing climate change isn’t just about moving to cleaner forms of energy anymore. It’s about literally taking out some of the heat-trapping gases already in our skies.
Why it matters: There's so much buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists say we’ve reached a point that some needs to be removed to limit Earth’s temperature rise and avoid the worst impacts of a warmer world. Technology exists to do it, but it’s costly, zany-sounding and not well known. That's starting to change now.
“The big story is you can’t get there simply by lowering carbon emissions. I think that window has closed. That’s a pretty revolutionary concept.”— Andrew Steer, president, World Resources Institute
Driving the news: A seminal report to be released Oct. 8 by a United Nations scientific body is expected to underscore the need for transformative technologies in order to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to more than a century ago.
- The report is expected to include an emphasis on removing carbon dioxide already emitted into the atmosphere, according to multiple people familiar with it.
- After the UN report is issued, the National Academy of Sciences also is set to release several influential studies on this topic.
The big picture: Momentum among foundations, universities and other experts in this space is growing rather suddenly. That’s notable, given that it’s addressing what is a centuries-long problem.
“If you’re not tackling carbon, you’re not actually tackling the problem. Everything else we’ve done so far has been a bank shot. Now is the time to step up.” — Julio Friedmann, former Obama official and head of Columbia University's new initiative
Removing CO2 from the air can be done a few different ways, including planting trees that naturally soak up carbon dioxide. A leading line of research is backing technology capturing far more CO2 faster than trees ever could.
A small handful of companies around the world are pursuing this, including:
- Switzerland-based Climeworks, which opened its first commercial-scale plant that captures CO2 from the air.
- Canada-based Carbon Engineering, whose investors include Bill Gates. Its CEO Steve Oldham told me recently to stay tuned for potential news soon on new partnerships, including possibly with oil and gas companies.
What’s next: There needs to be a business case for capturing CO2. That means turning what has long been seen as a waste product — carbon dioxide — into a product that can make money.
- Putting a price on carbon emissions, such as through a tax, is the simplest way to do that.
- But absent comprehensive policy on that front either nationally or even globally, a patchwork is emerging.
Two things to watch:
- To what degree California’s recently adopted aggressive clean-energy law provides economic incentives for companies like Carbon Engineering.
- Whether Congress passes bipartisan legislation encouraging government investment and coordination for technologies sucking CO2 from the sky and related efforts.
Go deeper: Read the whole thing in the Axios stream.