Giant fans that suck CO2 out of the air are operational in Italy

Note: this was originally published elsewhere last year.

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Photo by ANGELA BENITO on Unsplash

With the U.N. releasing a report on climate change that demands sustained attention, it’s worth noting that ClimeWorks — a company based in Switzerland — opened its third ‘carbon capture’ site on October 2nd in Troia, Italy.

As an idea, pursuing carbon capture as a way of fighting climate change seems to make a practical kind of sense: if there’s too much carbon in the air, then why not take that carbon out of the air?

But here’s the thing: the ClimeWorks carbon capture center in Italy only takes the equivalent of 32 cars off the road per year. That’s more than zero, but it’s nowhere near where the numbers should be — and other carbon capture sites that purport to be carbon neutral aren’t carbon neutral. At best, as David Roberts pointed out over at Vox this past July, some of the capture sites in the world are — at best — carbon neutral, and the goal should be to produce a ‘carbon negative.’(Of the three carbon capture sites ClimeWorks has in the world, the one in Iceland is the only one that’s carbon negative.) Unless something changes, then it’s fair to say that the frozen arctic and moss do a better job of capturing carbon than some currently existing carbon capture sites.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t promising steps being taken: as Akshat Rathi notes in Quartz, where the story was first reported, the carbon dioxide first captured at ClimeWorks’s first carbon capture site was “fed to a greenhouse, which boosted the growth of the plants inside it.”

The gas captured and converted by the ClimeWorks plant will be used to provide fuel for trucks. 32 cars off the road is nowhere near enough to take a bite out of the 40 billion metric tons of carbon currently in the air, but it’s a step.

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Map of currently active carbon capture sites across the world.

But — as noted in a lengthy paper from the University of Sheffield (from which the above image comes) — there are other considerations worth bringing into the framing of this as well: there’s the fact that there are new carbon capture products on the verge of hitting the market (focusing on chemical looping, membrane-based technology, ionic liquids, and others); there’s the fact that the cost of ‘de-carbonising’ key industrial sectors will ultimately get ‘lost in the noise of the market’; and — of course, as the U.N. recently reminded us with a climate report — there’s the fact that we have twelve years to get it right.

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