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Reality Check: This Decade Is Make-or-Break for Direct Air Capture

This technology could be a significant piece of the carbon removal puzzle, but we need to act now for it to make a meaningful impact.
The Myth:

As a pathway to remove carbon from the atmosphere, direct air capture (DAC) doesn’t have the potential to do good — the technology is just a cover for big polluters to continue to emit.

The Reality:

DAC could play a key role in stabilizing the climate. Its future hinges on the pace of innovation this decade and the development of robust, systemic safeguards around how DAC is used.

Rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels and achieving net zero emissions is absolutely critical to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Unfortunately, current efforts may not be enough. The IPCC, with high confidence, now considers the need for large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to be “unavoidable.” Among the various methods proposed for CDR, direct air capture and storage (DAC+S) holds particular promise.

Closing the gap between vision and reality

DAC+S is a highly touted solution to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere because of a captivating array of characteristics, including its potential scalability, permanence, and ease of measurement and verification.

The concept is simple yet revolutionary. Machines filter atmospheric air, capture, and concentrate CO2, and then store the CO₂ securely underground. Powered by clean energy, advocates claim, gigaton-scale DAC could be achieved by 2050.

However, this promising vision diverges from today’s reality. As it stands, the DAC+S industry remains embryonic, with most technologies operating at a low technology readiness level (TRL). The most substantial operational DAC facility currently captures only 4,000 tons of CO2 annually.

Current global DAC capacity stands at a mere 0.01 megatons — less than 0.001% of the amount of carbon removal required under IPCC projections, which call for billions of tons of carbon to be removed from the atmosphere post-2050.

Further complicating matters, DAC today is energy-intensive and costly, with the cost hovering around $1,000 per ton removed from the atmosphere. These energy requirements and high costs pose substantial economic barriers to large-scale deployment.

Can we bridge the immense gap between where DAC is today and where it needs to be in 2050? There is a way forward and we’d be complacent not to pursue it.

DAC’s decisive decade

Whether we can remove billions of tons of CO2 from the air using DAC by 2050 depends on how much progress we make during the 2020s on innovation. There are three interconnected objectives to focus on: technological innovation, cost, and scale of deployment.

Innovation and deployment at increasing scale is required to address cost hurdles related to capital intensity (which is driven by the cost of equipment and materials and of infrastructure development) and energy efficiency (which is driven by the efficiency of the gas separation processes required for direct air capture). Several potential scaling trajectories (explored in Exhibit 1 below) offer insights into what the path to gigaton-scale capture by 2050 might look like.

Exhibit 1: Scaling scenarios for direct air capture deployment. 

  1. Minimum deployment by 2030 scenario: A scale-up factor of 10x per decade from 2030 to 2050, mimicking the growth rate of solar between 20112020.
  2. Industry expectation scenario: Adhering to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero Emissions by 2050 scenario, which is closely aligned with the DAC industry’s plans.
  3. Best technology analogy scenario: Mimicking the scaling trajectory of ammonia synthesis — an energy-intensive process for extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere.

Across these scenarios, a minimum deployed capacity of 10 million tons (Mt) of CO2 by 2030 is needed, as a high-enough starting point for scale-up to 1 billion tons (gigatons, or Gt) in 2050. From today’s global capacity, 10 Mt of capacity would represent a thousand-fold increase.

Innovations and significant research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities must coalesce by 2030 to lay the groundwork for sustained scaling in the subsequent years. Only deploying 10 Mt by 2030 — the scenario with minimum deployment — is by far the riskiest scaling trajectory for DAC, as the technology may not scale as fast as solar after 2030. Achieving 10 Mt by 2030 would still instill confidence in society that it is possible to achieve gigaton levels of DAC by 2050, but the primary burden of proof would then fall on the 2040s and 2050s.

The ammonia synthesis and IEA scenarios are more aggressive for the 2020s, thereby placing the burden of proof regarding DAC’s climate mitigation potential squarely on this decade. Nonetheless, in all three scenarios, significant RD&D activities must be completed by 2030 to rapidly scale capacity in the 2030s and 2040s.

That is a steep challenge, but the rapid growth of other clean energy technologies — such as solar, wind energy, and batteries — reminds us never to discount human ingenuity and innovation. To guide that innovation, we have authored a strategic RD&D roadmap with colleagues from Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom.

Getting to gigatons

The roadmap outlines 24 priority initiatives designed to surmount the significant challenges facing DAC as the industry strives to develop scalable, safe, low-cost, and low-energy systems by 2050. These initiatives are segmented into five categories:

  • Materials initiatives focus on the discovery or development of new or existing materials that can efficiently and sustainably capture CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • Process design initiatives are geared toward optimizing the physical and chemical processes of DAC, such as enhancing the CO2 capture process and reducing energy consumption.
  • Equipment initiatives aim to drive the development and optimization of the various components of the DAC system (such as air collectors, vacuum pumps, and CO2 storage systems) and their supply chains to boost efficiency, cut costs, and improve scalability.
  • System integration initiatives focus on harmonizing the various components of the DAC system to ensure seamless and efficient operation across the value chain, such as integrating DAC with local climates and energy systems.
  • Infrastructure initiatives aim to create the logistical and physical framework necessary to support DAC deployment at scale, including the development of transportation and storage infrastructure, as well as regulatory and safety standards.

We believe there is runway for innovation and cost improvement across all of these areas, building on the encouraging initial wave of startup formation, government funding, private funding, and initial deployments that have emerged in the last few years.

Reckoning with misaligned incentives

While pursuing innovation at speed, we also need to reckon with the reality that various actors have significant incentives to abuse the promise of DAC for various ends that are misaligned with mitigating climate change and with environmental justice.

A collective push to invent and scale DAC technology will be for naught if it, in any way, creates permission structures for slower rates of emissions reduction by oil and gas companies or other high-emissions industries — or if it harms people more than it benefits them.

This means we need to do more this decade than build new technologies and projects. We need to build strong regimes for transparency and accountability. These could, for example, take the form of codes of conduct, measurement and monitoring standards, and data transparency systems. We need to establish policies that are holistic and complete enough to ensure that DAC does not undermine emissions reduction efforts, and reinforces the decarbonization of the energy system and other industries.

Embracing the decisive decade

Addressing the climate crisis necessitates immediate action on promising carbon removal technologies like DAC+S. The convergence of R&D, investment, accountability, and policy will determine its future viability.

Drawing upon historical case studies from ammonia synthesis to solar energy, we can see a challenging but plausible path to success, in which an increased, focused, and strategic research, development, and deployment effort is required now and through the rest of this decade, alongside a parallel effort to design systems, institutions, and policies that ensure the technology is used well for our collective gain.