The role of direct air capture in fighting the climate crisis

Direct air capture offers a powerful tool for avoiding complete climate breakdown — provided it can scale quickly.

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According to a recent study, only 6% of the world’s leading climate scientists now believe we will meet the 1.5℃ global warming target threshold. Despite international governmental action, we simply aren’t reducing our greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough.

This means that as a global community we will need to eliminate masses of planetary-warming CO₂ from our atmosphere in the coming decades, in addition to continuing to radically reduce our carbon emissions. 

Alongside other carbon removal solutions, direct air capture (DAC) will be critical to achieving this, and carries the double benefit of helping us to solve our terminal relationship with carbon. Providing we go all in, here’s how DAC can help us to fight the climate crisis.

Direct air capture as a powerful carbon removal tool

Direct air capture's primary value in fighting climate change lies in its potential to quickly scale in virtually any location to durably remove CO₂ from our atmosphere. The role played by carbon removal activities in the global race to Net Zero will evolve over time as the world works to rapidly slash carbon emissions. Here’s a closer look at how carbon removal solutions like DAC can deliver climate action within the next few decades as part of a wider climate change mitigation push.

The role of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) on the road to Net Zero and beyond

Source: IPCC AR6 WGIII figures

Today to 2050: Mitigating harder-to-abate emissions

Immediately reducing carbon emissions remains the priority action that global society must take to mitigate climate change. Yet, fully decarbonising certain industries — such as building materials and aviation — requires solutions which will take decades to become available.

Until the 2050s, therefore, CDR tools like direct air capture will be critical for counterbalancing harder-to-abate emissions where there is no readily available decarbonisation pathway. Their overall contribution, in this context, is one of slowing down ‘net’ global carbon emissions alongside viable reduction strategies to help the world achieve net zero emissions.

Beyond 2050: Removing historic emissions

Once we have reached net zero carbon emissions, CDR solutions can then help us unlock ‘negative emissions’ — where global society removes more CO₂ from the atmosphere than it emits. This will allow us to eliminate the excessive amounts of carbon that we’ve historically emitted through 150 years of industrial activity, which are largely responsible for our current state of crisis.

By 2050, it is estimated that we will need to remove about 10 billion tonnes of atmospheric CO₂ per year. Provided it can scale quickly, DAC will be a critical tool for helping to meet this requirement.

DAC offers a powerful tool in the wider CDR toolkit. For maximum ‘insurance’ against the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we need to harness every promising CDR tool as quickly as possible.
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Direct air capture as CO₂ recycling infrastructure

Direct air capture's climate value goes beyond carbon removal, by offering a critical tool to help defossilise our global economy and create a more sustainable system for managing the carbon we still need.

Even once we achieve a low-carbon society, carbon isn’t going to go away. We will still need it to produce our materials, chemicals, and fuels — and the bubbles in our favourite soft drinks. So, we urgently need to find affordable, abundant, and sustainable alternative carbon sources to fossil fuels.

As scientists, we know that anything made from oil can be made from CO₂, so if we can recycle the CO₂ that we’ve historically released into our atmosphere, we can replace our finite fossil-based carbon economy with one that is infinitely circular and sustainable.

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Direct air capture technology can connect us to the world’s most scalable source of sustainable carbon — providing the infrastructural backbone for circularising the carbon already in our atmosphere.

Sourcing carbon from air instead of fossil fuels sounds sci-fi, but there is already a growing community of pioneers using DAC to develop products made from air, including sustainable aviation fuel and carbon-negative building materials. The sooner this infrastructure scales and is adopted by more industries, the sooner we can unlock a post-fossil carbon society.

Why we can’t only plant more trees

Our planet already has a lot of carbon dioxide removal tools. Forests, tidal marshes, soil, and the deep ocean are just some of the natural mechanisms for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. In the fight against climate change, ramping up protection and expansion of these natural carbon sinks will be extremely important.

Yet, scaling natural CDR solutions alone won’t get us to Net Zero in time. These removals require time to draw down CO₂ and many don’t hold on to that carbon for very long, with approaches like reforestation keeping carbon out of the atmosphere for fewer than 100 years at best. Given the rising frequency of extreme weather patterns, which can produce droughts, floods, and wildfires, many types of natural CDR are also at risk of premature reversal.

That’s where having engineered carbon removal solutions like DAC as complementary CDR tools come into play — offering the ability to quickly ramp up to capture large volumes of carbon using much less land, and store it for over 1,000 years with lower risks of reversal.

Time is of the essence

None of this value can materialise, however, unless the most promising natural and engineered CDR solutions are urgently scaled. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2030 we need to be removing about 1 billion tons of CO2 a year to achieve our Net Zero emissions goals by 2050 — which would require more than tripling the total amount of carbon removals delivered in 2023 every year until 2030. 

Within today’s family of different CDR approaches, demand for durable, high-quality solutions like DAC is set to soar, with one estimate placing it at anywhere between ~40–200 Mt CO2 in 2030. Today, DAC’s global capture capacity stands at just 0.01 million tonnes, so this requires a massive step change. 

To realise DAC’s huge climate mitigation potential, we need the most promising solutions to be validated, financially backed, internationally deployed, and flexibly scaled as quickly as possible. Learn about how we are working to do precisely that — scaling direct air capture quickly and responsibly for maximum climate impact.

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