Technology

Money goes into carbon removal technologies, but the companies involved struggle to pay for them

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Experts agree that reducing our CO2 emissions is no longer enough. In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change, we actually need to remove between 100 and 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the 21st century.

Carbon removal can be done naturally by planting trees or improving carbon storage in the soil through more sustainable farming practices such as crop rotation and improved livestock farming. A number of companies are also working on technical solutions for carbon removal. The process known as direct air capture sucks CO2 directly from the atmosphere and buries the trapped CO2 underground.

But the technology is still very expensive. According to a white paper published by Microsoft earlier this year, the cost of direct air collection is more than 50 times the cost per ton of most natural climate solutions. In order to cover part of their costs, companies with direct air separation sell the by-product CO2 for various purposes. One of the most controversial uses is EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery), which sells trapped CO2 to oil companies who then inject the CO2 into old oil wells to pump even more oil out of them.

Companies like Microsoft, Chevron, Occidental, and tech visionaries like Elon Musk and Bill Gates are all investing in carbon removal technologies. Industry insiders, however, stress that they need government support if the CO2 they bind is ever really to be removed.

CNBC spoke to Carbon Engineering and Climeworks, two industry leaders, to learn how they are planning to make direct air separation mainstream. Watch the video to learn more.

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Katherine Clark