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Rethinking Carbon Dioxide (CO2): from a pollutant to a moneymaker

Three startup companies led by prominent scientists are working on new technologies to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The scientific community is skeptical, but these entrepreneurs believe removing CO2 can eventually be profitable and help cool the planet.

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At Global Thermostat, Eisenberger and Chichilnisky talk about making transportation fuels by combining CO2 with hydrogen extracted from water. (They have formed a joint venture with an unnamed startup that they say can produce hydrogen from water at a lower cost than previously possible.) If the process could be powered by solar energy, it could produce renewable, carbon-neutral hydrocarbons for cars, trucks, ships, and planes. “This has always been for me the holy grail, even back when I was at Exxon in the last energy crisis,” Eisenberger told me. “It solves the energy security issue since everyone has water and CO2 from air.” Any nation could become an oil producer.

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Because greenhouse gases are dispersed around the globe, air capture can be done anywhere. This fact is key to the business plans of all three startups. Carbon Engineering’s business model, for example, revolves around what Keith calls “physical carbon arbitrage.” The company plans to build its first carbon-capture plants in places with cheap labor, cheap land, cheap construction costs, cheap natural gas to operate them and, ideally, strong demand for CO2. “If we can find all those at once,” he says, “we’re printing money.”

What this means for the environment is that carbon pollution need not be cleaned up at its source. CO2 spewing from a tailpipe in Sao Paulo or a coal plant in China can be captured by machines in Iceland or the Middle East because the atmosphere functions as a conveyor belt, moving CO2 to any sink. Air capture may prove to be the only way to absorb dispersed emissions from cars, trucks, trains, ships, or planes.

It’s an exciting prospect, at least in theory. But remember – the scientific establishment says this is all pie in the sky. What’s more, for air capture to do what we’ve failed to do so far – reduce emissions on a scale that matters to climate – these tiny startups would have to spawn a giant, global industry, employing thousands of engineers and requiring many billions of dollars of investment. “If air capture is going to succeed, it’s going to take industrial might,” says Keith. To reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by one part per million – they’re now at about 390 ppm, which some scientists think is too high – would require the removal of about 8 gigatons, or 8 billion tons, of CO2.

Given the obstacles ahead, most everyone who has looked at carbon dioxide removal warns that the technology cannot be seen as a license to keep burning fossil fuels. As Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, puts it, “We’ve got to mitigate emissions – that’s first, second, third, and tenth.” But until we do, coming up with a backup plan can’t hurt.

About the author 

Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com. His book, Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis, will be published in March as an Amazon Kindle Single.

This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360.

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