As debate over carbon removal swirls, America steps up funding

A U.N. panel has expressed concern that carbon-removal technologies aren’t ready to scale. But the U.S. government is spending big bucks to support the industry.

The Carbon Copy podcast from Latitude Media

As the carbon dioxide removal industry grows, engineered solutions such as direct air capture are getting more attention.

According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, novel methods for carbon dioxide removal are now necessary to meet the Paris climate targets.

But another U.N. body, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, recently sparked controversy by concluding in draft language that ​“engineering-based removal activities…pose unknown environmental and social risks.” That language could have ramifications for how carbon removal gets considered in upcoming international climate negotiations.

Amid the debate over the role of carbon removal, the U.S. government is stepping up with some large investments in direct air capture hubs and research and development support for novel technologies, creating a positive signal for the market.

This week, Savvy Bowman, a program manager at ClearPath, joins us to explain what this all means for the future of carbon removal technologies and policies.

Transcript

Stephen Lacey: In an effort to make the scale of our problem with heat-trapping gases resonate and get beyond scientific terms like parts per million and tons of CO₂, there are lots of good analogies out there for emissions. Some involve slices of cake, weight loss, turning ships around, but if you talk to anyone in the carbon removal space, they'll almost certainly point you to this one.

Savita Bowman: So I like to think of it as sort of a bathtub.

Stephen Lacey: Savi Bowman is an expert on carbon management at ClearPath, a nonprofit focused on how to support tech innovations to reduce emissions.

Savita Bowman: I cover point source capture. I also work a little bit on steel and concrete manufacturing decarbonization and natural and agriculture solutions, but I myself specialize in carbon dioxide removal.

Stephen Lacey: All right, so back to the bathtub. The tub is our atmosphere and oceans and you've got the faucet on full blast filling the tub, and that's our power plants and factories and cars.

Savita Bowman: When you think about how long that faucet has been open, we're now at a point where the tub is overflowing and the water is kind of getting everywhere.

Stephen Lacey: And we need to turn off the faucet, the source of the emissions that's building more renewables, putting more EVs on the road, shutting down coal power plants and phasing down oil and gas extraction. But we also need to clean up the mess that we created. The bathroom is flooded after all.

Savita Bowman: One of the things that carbon mitigation strategies focus on like carbon capture would be turning off the faucet. But carbon dioxide removal is particularly unique because it's able to really tackle the emissions that are already in our atmosphere.

Stephen Lacey: Carbon dioxide removal, this includes an emerging class of engineered technologies that directly capture CO₂ from the air and store it or turn it into usable products. It's both the drain and the super absorbent towel in this overflowing bathtub analogy. And I love this example, it clearly and simply shows why we need to tackle emissions from both sides, the faucet and the drain. But not everyone is moved by a good analogy, including the members of the Article 6 Supervisory Body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who recently said they're not convinced CO₂ removal is a real solution.

Savita Bowman: So UNFCCC sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle challenges that we have with emissions. The Article 6 Supervisory body issued a guidance in May of this year, which by the way is not formally approved yet and included a technical note that states that engineered carbon removal activities do not contribute to sustainable development. The proposal also calls carbon removal solutions unproven, especially at scale.

Stephen Lacey: This draft language is a big deal for a couple of reasons. First, it conflicts with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says about the need for carbon removal. The IPCC is the UN body of international scientists that informs how the UNFCCCC considers the policy framework for cutting emissions. And secondly, it could have huge ramifications for how language gets adopted in upcoming international climate negotiations.

Savita Bowman: The UNFCCCC was essentially arguing that carbon dioxide removal solutions might take away resources from current and existing mitigation solutions that are being deployed.

Stephen Lacey: There's fear of moral hazard.

Savita Bowman: Potentially yes, but I think that the UNFCCCC should be aligning closely to the IPCC report's definition of carbon dioxide removal in that it is a solution that's part of the puzzle to reaching our net zero goals.

Stephen Lacey: How high are the stakes in getting it right?

Savita Bowman: I would say the stakes are high, but the UNFCCCC is not the only entity that people are persuaded by. The US federal government is a powerful voice and they have been able to demonstrate that through their commitment to carbon dioxide removal policies and carbon dioxide removal strategies to sort of catalyze not only the research and development pieces, but the actual deployments and the steel in the ground.

Stephen Lacey: The carbon dioxide removal industry is growing. It includes a wide array of techniques and technologies that are getting serious attention from governments and investors and also some debate.

Savita Bowman: This is a proven technology and we have the ability to develop this technology now. I think the question that we really should be focused on is scale.

Stephen Lacey: This is The Carbon Copy. I'm Stephen Lacey. A UN panel's dismissal of carbon dioxide removal has raised concerns within the industry. Savi Bowman of ClearPath joins us to explain why it's far from the last word on the matter and why America is stepping up in a very big way. Carbon dioxide removal or CDR is a very broad term. It includes a spectrum of nature-based and engineered approaches from sequestering carbon in soils to burning biomass and capturing emissions, to capturing CO₂ from fossil power plants and mineralizing it underground. One of the most popular and promising solutions is direct air capture or DAC. It's still expensive, but many believe it's possible. Difficult, but possible to slash costs up to tenfold in the next decade, making it a commercially attractive option.

Savita Bowman: It's essentially a giant filter that sucks out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and uses that CO₂ to either store it geologically in saline formations, or you can use it to create fuels, create plastics, and a wide array of things. We now even have newer and emerging strategies that involve the ocean, which is really exciting. On the more engineered side you have a process sometimes referred to as direct ocean capture where you essentially extract the CO₂ from ocean water through electrochemical processes and then store that CO₂ or use it. Think of it like the DAC equivalent of the ocean.

Stephen Lacey: And so how big is the market?

Savita Bowman: When you look at the market of CDR and what we need to actually accomplish, like how much carbon dioxide do we really actually need to pull out at the atmosphere, this is just a drop in the bucket. The National Academies of Science estimates that we will need to remove 10 gigatons, that's 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide yearly by 2050, and then doubling that by 2100. DAC is actually currently hovering around 7,000 metric tons annually globally. So I know this can seem daunting and almost insurmountable, but I think what's really important is that the Department of Energy recently issued a report, the Carbon Management Liftoff report by the Loan Programs office. And that report actually covers committed, announced capacity for all different types of carbon removal solutions, including DAC, biomass, carbon removal solutions, and then mineralization strategies as well. So there is a broad range and it is likely that we'll be able to see that first million metric ton all the way to the first billion metric ton pretty soon.

Stephen Lacey: Yeah, those numbers are incredible and we need to see the industry scale by many orders of magnitude. Why are we focused so heavily on engineered carbon removal right now, even at this very early commercial scale? There's a lot of fear about the durability of nature-based solutions. Why are people pouring money into this space and where is the technology readiness?

Savita Bowman: The reason why the industry has taken so much focus on engineered solutions is because engineered solutions are able to remove carbon dioxide at the speed and scale that's required to reach our net zero targets. Natural carbon removal solutions are a very important piece of the puzzle and we need those to continue working. But if we're talking about the square footage it requires to plant trees and have that carbon dioxide removed over time versus the square footage a DAC unit might require to remove carbon dioxide in a given time, the DAC unit is going to require less square footage, less energy and is going to be able to remove more CO₂ quickly. And that's what we're really focused on. The more CO₂ and quickly part.

If we look at the types of technologies for direct air capture and how ready they are for deployment today, there are a couple different sort of mediums. So before I cover what's getting popular today, I'll talk about how direct air capture works. So the DAC process takes in air passively, which reacts to a contactor. A contactor is just a big word for a material or a medium that carbon dioxide sticks to. The carbon dioxide is then stripped away from the medium, typically through a process called regeneration where heat is used and quite a bit of energy to then strip out the CO₂ to then store it or use the CO₂. Today the types of mediums that are, quote unquote, popular are solid sorbents and liquid solvent technologies.

Those are the most that I've seen, sort of that demonstration level activity. And then while liquid solvents are expected to come closer to that low cost faster compared to solid sorbents, it's still uncertain which technology will be low cost as more projects develop. I think it's too early to say which one will be the competitive solution because we're still looking at the scale up and the logistics would scale up and how that's going to affect cost. And then if we're looking at the materials and capture processes that are emerging, we also have electric and moisture swing sorbents and membrane processes that are emerging and then also sometimes potentially overlapping with enhanced mineralization processes like you'll see in Heirlooms carbon process.

Stephen Lacey: So this brings us back to this language in May that worried the industry coming out of the UNFCCC. I know this is draft language, it will evolve over time, but there was worry that it could have an enormous impact on the carbon removal market if the language wasn't changed considerably. How is that language reflective of the different views on the need for engineered carbon removal?

Savita Bowman: When looking at the ecosystem of any new solution, I think there's always going to be the innovators and the pioneers that are full steam ahead, rolling forward, trying to prove out a solution and want to make sure that they can be effective. And there's always going to also be some level, and this is always healthy, some level of concern just mainly that it will evolve efficiently, will not actually result in any negative impacts on our community and also be able to address the net zero goal in a impactful way. So I think with the UNFCCC guidance, what's really important to focus on is that they should be incorporating IPCC's definition of carbon dioxide removal. So just to tell you what that is, that is technology's practices and approaches that remove and durably store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and that CDR itself is required to achieve global and national targets of net zero CO₂ and greenhouse gas emissions.

And I think also kind of piecing together that these communities that might have concerns are also just looking for solutions that align with their thinking. In CDR, I think it's unique because there's a solution for everybody. There are natural-based solutions, there are hybrid-based solutions and engineer-based solutions. So in a area where there might be a little bit more apprehension to deploy something like an engineered solution, there's always another alternative that can be brought into the mix. There's enhanced mineralization that can be used. There could be bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. So in that way, I feel like there's actually a unique opportunity for everybody because there's a different type of CDR for everybody.

Stephen Lacey: Whatever happens with the negotiations around UN language and it surely will change, countries are stepping up, and America has jumped into CDR in a major way. The Inflation Reduction Act expanded tax credits for the technology and this month the Biden administration unveiled $1.2 billion in funding for hubs to support direct air capture projects, plus $13 million for 23 different R&D projects in carbon management.

Savita Bowman: Direct air capture hubs was actually authorized and appropriated in the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021. So this particular program authorized four regional hubs, which each would capture a million metric tons of CO₂. Now this announcement that came out covers two of those hubs. The first one being in South Texas, that's the South Texas DAC hub being led by 1PointFive, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. And the tech provider for this particular project is Carbon Engineering. They will be removing a million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually and storing it geologically. The second project that was announced is Project Cypress. Now that's going to be in Louisiana and led by Battelle. The tech providers for this project are going to be Climeworks and Heirloom. Climeworks is actually a Swiss company and they've got a DAC project operating in Iceland. But we'll be working with Heirloom this time to deploy a project in Louisiana.

And they will also be capturing a million metric tons of CO2. Their storage method is also going to be in saline aquifers, which is just geologic storage. And both of these projects will have benefits of job creation, roughly about 2,300 jobs or 2,500 jobs roughly in construction, operations, maintenance and etc. Now, these two hubs are the first part. There were also 19 early stage awards, and those will be critical as well in kind of getting more lessons learned on how carbon dioxide removals or direct air capture works in all these different types of geographical regions. If you actually look at the map of where everything has been awarded, it's really great to see how diverse the awards have been geographically. So you'll be able to get a lot of good data for the different types of climates, the different types of elevations, topographies, access to geologic storage, et cetera.

Stephen Lacey: And then another big piece of news came out of the Energy Earthshots at the Department of Energy. So I remember in the mid 2000s when the Department of Energy created the Sunshot Initiative, and that was to get the cost of installed utility scale solar below a dollar a watt. And because of some of those efforts and because of what was happening out in the market, the industry achieved those goals ahead of schedule. One important program is the Carbon Negative Shot that was announced last year and they've started to build on that program. What is that program? What cost targets are they trying to achieve and why is it critical for the industry?

Savita Bowman: The Carbon Negative Shot program is actually a really important DOE initiative because it looks to deploy a suite of carbon removal solutions to reach a hundred dollars per metric ton of carbon removed. So that's an all-inclusive cost. And so this program is one of the first indications that the Department of Energy was really taking carbon removal seriously. And actually last Thursday, the night before the DAC Hub's announcement, we saw a notice of intent get released by the Department of Energy for carbon dioxide removals as a whole. So the Commercial DAC Prize, which is something that was authorized in the Energy Act and then appropriated in the bipartisan infrastructure law, had a direct air capture pilot prize. And the notice of intent last Thursday covers that 60 million of the funds will actually go towards direct air capture. But I think what's even more exciting is the track two CDR purchase pilot, because this is allocating 35 million roughly over several types of carbon dioxide removal solutions.

And this will be the world's first direct government CDR purchasing effort. This is a big deal. There is going to be an opportunity here for a diverse set of solutions to receive funding and catalyze on the same level as direct air capture. And something I think is not talked about enough is legislation that covers tech inclusivity. And you'll see this in the Carbon Removal and Emission Storage Technologies Act, which was reintroduced in this Congress by Senator Collins and Cantwell and I believe also Cassidy, King and Coons. That in the first title actually covers this diversity. It expands the DOE program for CDR even further by adding biomass, carbon removal and storage pathways. It includes a little bit more direction for ocean carbon removal. And then most importantly in the second title, there is a provision for a competitive carbon removal purchase program. So I think talking about the longer term policy opportunities that exist is also super critical in addition to these wins that we've started seeing from the Department of Energy.

Stephen Lacey: So what does all this amount to. The purchasing, the funding for demonstration in R&D, the tax credit, this is a pretty impressive collection of policies. Where does this put the industry through the end of the decade? Has America become the front-runner in carbon removal?

Savita Bowman: I think so. I'd like to think that by the end of the decade, we're going to see even more wins because of these catalytic mechanisms that have paved the way for American innovation to really take the forefront. We are on track to reach that first billion metric tons. We've paved the way for a lot of different companies to actually come to America, and you'll see this through a lot of the different announcements that are coming out every day with carbon removal companies taking root actually in states in America. We have Climeworks who came over from Iceland and plenty of other solution providers that are interested in moving over. So I personally think that America is leading the way in this technology.

Stephen Lacey: Savi Bowman, program manager at ClearPath. Thank you so much.

Savita Bowman: Thank you so much Stephen.

Stephen Lacey: The Carbon Copy is a co-production of Post Script Media and Canary Media. You can find all Canary Media's coverage on this at canarymedia.com and sign up for our newsletter to get updates on all of our pods and our coverage and some really cool announcements coming up at postscriptmedia.com. Don't forget to go to the show notes and get your ticket for Transition AI New York. We'll see you there. This episode was produced by me with help from Dalvin Aboagye. Sean Marquand is our engineer. He composed our theme song. Original music came from Echo Finch and Blue Dot Sessions. Post Script Media is supported by Prelude Ventures. Thanks to Prelude. They are a VC firm that partners with entrepreneurs across a range of sectors. They make investments in energy, food, and ag, transportation, logistics, advanced materials manufacturing and advanced computing. And if you like the show, Apple or Spotify are the place to go to give us a rating and review. And of course, you can hit us up on social media if you have comments on what we're covering. I'm Stephen Lacey. This is The Carbon Copy. We'll catch you next time.

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