A fledgling industry took centre stage as United Nations scientists gathered in Geneva to finalise the third part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment report on climate change mitigation. In its report, the IPCC examined the role that carbon tech can play in climate change mitigation.
In an earlier report, the IPCC stated that net global CO2 emissions must be zero by 2050 to keep average global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial averages. The IPCC warned that crossing this threshold would lead to more frequent and severe heatwaves, droughts, and natural disasters.
Reductions of emissions will come from a multitude of technologies and approaches and unprecedented transformations of our energy system.
While weaning off fossil fuels will be critical in this process, experts advise that carbon capture and removal will play an increasingly important role in reaching these goals.
“Reductions of emissions will come from a multitude of technologies and approaches and unprecedented transformations of our energy system to lower-emitting configurations,” says Monica Gattinger, the chair of the Positive Energy program at the University of Ottawa. “Carbon capture or utilisation and sequestration is a crucial piece.”
Carbon capture involves removing CO2 emissions directly from the source (for example, the flue-gas stack of a powerplant) and pumping the carbon deep underground. Carbon removal on the other hand, focuses on sequestering or isolating CO2 from the atmosphere and finding applications for the captured carbon.
“Carbon removal is essential, but it's also very small right now,” says Tim Preisenhammer, the head of commercialization at Carbo Culture, a company that turns carbon into biochar and renewable heat.
Biochar is produced by sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and heating it to high temperatures without burning. The result is a coal-like form of carbon that can remain in a stable solid state for 1000 years.
“Companies with net-zero targets should support carbon removal technologies, even the smaller ones not yet at scale,” he says.
While products like biochar provide this opportunity, the industry will need to develop other uses for recycled carbon to grow.
There is still more research and development work to be done, but I believe that the future will certainly lie in developing applications for carbon.
“I don't think the industry has found the perfect applications yet,” says Preisenhammer. “There is still more research and development work to be done, but I believe that the future will certainly lie in developing applications for carbon.”
One of the organisations that studies applications for recycled carbon is Carbon180. In a recent report, the NGO estimated that the economic opportunity for products derived from carbon removal is as huge as USD 5.9 trillion per annum.
Among the most valuable products are fuels – worth an estimated USD 3.8 trillion – and construction products – valued at slightly less than USD 1.4 trillion.
These two products juxtapose an existential challenge facing the sector: how to develop applications for recycled carbon that keep it out of the atmosphere while creating economic incentives for companies to pursue.
“In the short term, if [carbon removal] continues to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels, that's not necessarily a bad thing,” says Gattinger. “If it in the long term is helping to advance the technology to a place where it can enable us to reduce emissions trends from hard to abate sectors.”
Along with being an engineering challenge, developing carbon tech is capital intensive, making it a political and economic challenge too.
“They will need to look to outside finance for these projects,” says Gattinger. “The sustainable finance piece is crucial, and where the investment community comes down on what does and does not fit into the basket of sustainable finance is crucial. Government signals play a big role.”
To that end, Carbo Culture raised USD 6.2 million from venture capitalists in 2021. Other similar companies in the sector combined to raise USD 145 million.
“I'm very optimistic about [the future], but it takes a lot of support to get to that next level,” says Preisenhammer.
He is not alone in his optimism. After all, carbon is the building block of life and its potential uses for the future of carbon-neutral manufacturing are myriad—from carpets to jet fuel.