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UCSD researchers say direct air capture to remove carbon dioxide could help prevent climate crisis

Climate change illustration
(Los Angeles Times)

As governments, scientists and individuals grapple with how to tackle a possible looming climate crisis, new research from UC San Diego released Jan. 14 explores a potential mode of response that seems borderline science fiction.

The idea involves a massively funded program to deploy air-capture systems to remove carbon dioxide directly from the ambient air and sequester it safely underground.

The findings conclude that a program could reverse the rise in global temperature well before 2100, but only with immediate and sustained investments from governments and firms to scale up the new technology while governments also adopt policies for deep cuts in CO2 emissions.

The study, published in Nature Communications, assesses how crisis-level government funding on direct air capture — on par with government spending on wars or pandemics — would lead to deployment of a fleet of DAC plants that would collectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

“DAC is substantially more expensive than many conventional mitigation measures, but costs could fall as firms gain experience with the technology,” said lead author Ryan Hanna, an assistant research scientist at UCSD. “If that happens, politicians could turn to the technology in response to public pressure if conventional mitigation proves politically or
economically difficult.”

Co-author David Victor, a professor of industrial innovation at UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, said atmospheric CO2 concentrations are so high that meeting climate goals requires not just preventing new emissions but
also finding ways to remove emissions already in the atmosphere.

“Current pledges to cut global emissions put us on track for about 3 degrees Celsius of warming,” Victor said. “This reality calls for research and action around the politics of emergency response. In times of crisis, such as war or pandemics, many barriers to policy expenditure and implementation are eclipsed by the need to mobilize aggressively.”

Even with a massive program, the globe could see average temperature rise of 2.4 to 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 without further cuts in global emissions.

The 2016 Paris Agreement’s long-term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius.

The study authors estimate the financial resources possibly available for emergency deployment of direct air capture could exceed $1 trillion per year based on previous U.S. spending in times of crisis.

With massive financial resources committed to DAC, the ability of the DAC industry to scale up is a key factor, according to the study. The authors point to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an analogue: Even though the Food and Drug Administration has authorized use of vaccines, there is still a huge logistical challenge to scaling up production, transporting and distributing the new therapies quickly and efficiently.

Regardless, they say that the long-term vision for combating climate change requires taking negative emissions seriously. ◆