WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
Across the climate movement, there’s disagreement on how much we should invest in machine-based solutions—if at all. The Frontline explores this divide with direct air capture, one particular technology gaining steam on Capitol Hill.
Up above the clouds, dozens of miles into the sky, atoms of carbon and oxygen link to create carbon dioxide molecules. These invisible molecules form a gas—a greenhouse gas, to be exact—that may be the ruin of humanity and the planet at large.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest assessment underscored the historic nature of how much carbon dioxide is currently in the atmosphere. The planet hasn’t seen concentration levels this high in at least 2 million years. Back then, humans were first emerging as a species, and the climate was changing dramatically. There were periods of cooling and warming where African forests converted into grasslands and northern ice sheets began to form. It was a highly unpredictable time.
These days, there’s no unpredictability or surprise. The IPCC has laid out various future scenarios as plainly as a scientific body can. And we can take action to push world leaders to place us on the safest track—but many scientists agree we should also prepare for the worst. And if we’re talking about the planet’s temperature increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we need to consider sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Where many scientists and advocates disagree is on how to remove all this gas.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into direct air capture, a particular form of carbon removal. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. We often think of nature as our only available carbon sink, but research suggests forests will struggle to store carbon efficiently under extreme heat conditions. While some scientists believe the ocean and trees can draw down enough carbon dioxide if emissions end immediately and governments invest in research and development around natural solutions, others aren’t counting on it. Instead, many scientists are looking to machine-based carbon sequestration.
And this is where the tensions arise: Is there such a future where the direct air capture industry can operate just and equitably without perpetuating the harms of its predecessors?
Ugbaad Kosar never saw climate change the same after 2011. She was studying environmental science as an undergrad, but her biggest lesson didn’t happen in the classroom. It came from her family in the Somaliland region of Somalia. That year, the region faced an extreme drought and famine that killed more than 260,000 people.
Kosar’s relatives kept phoning home to share how much livestock had died or how little water they could find. Those calls—and the shake in her family members’ voices—put the severity of the climate crisis into perspective for Kosar. From then on, she viewed it through a human rights lens. This is what fuels her research on carbon removal through her work as deputy policy director at Carbon180, an organization that focuses on environmentally just carbon removal. She worries that without such technologies, such as direct air capture, her people’s homelands will become increasingly uninhabitable.
“Carbon removal serves that unique purpose where it’s able to address what’s already in the atmosphere,” Kosar said. “We’re going to have to work toward making this planet a little more habitable for everyone because it isn’t right now.”
A number of big players—from the fossil fuel sector to tech billionaires—have been looking to various carbon removal technologies as a response to the climate crisis. Still, many scientists and advocates disagree on whether a technological solution can fix what’s ultimately a social problem around our relationship to nature, to consumption, and to each other.
“When people talk about solutions to climate change, are they putting all of their efforts into the technological aspect of the technology, or do they mean community empowerment?” asked Kyle Whyte, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma who also sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
These concerns haven’t been enough to stop federal support of such initiatives: The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package the Senate passed last week allocates over $8 billion toward carbon capture technologies and associated transport and storage infrastructure, including $3.6 billion on direct air capture. At the same time, President Joe Biden has promised to center environmental justice in his climate policy.
“When we think about carbon removal through the lens of what this industry will look like, we need to ensure that it’s viewed through the lens of equity and justice and that it’s built out very strategically and in partnership with communities,” said Shuchi Talati, the chief of staff for the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy.
Most of the attention so far has been on carbon capture and storage, which involves retrofitting industrial facilities (like cement or steel plants) to keep carbon from releasing into the air and, instead, funnels it underground. Some industries (like airplanes) don’t yet have clean alternatives, but others (like fossil fuels) do. Carbon capture is not what Kosar and other advocates are talking about, however. They’re talking about direct air capture: technology that’s focused only on pulling carbon already in the air.
“We want to make sure that we leave this planet in a place where generations down are able to prosper, to survive, to live.”
Direct air capture requires directing streams of atmosphere (likely through the use of giant fans) over a chemical membrane that is able to separate the carbon dioxide from the rest of the air, explained Simon Nicholson, the cofounder of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University. Then, direct air capture facilities can use the carbon dioxide gas in a highly concentrated form, transform it into diamonds, or convert it into liquid used to make fuels. In some applications, the carbon can be transported underground into geological formations for long-term storage nearby or somewhere farther with pipelines.
Around the world, 15 direct air capture plants currently exist. Iceland is operating a first-of-its-kind project that snags carbon dioxide and transforms it into stones within two years by creating carbonated water that is then injected underground where it mixes with reactive rocks (like basalt), which then leads to the creation of another rock: solid carbonates. The U.S. is exploring its first large-scale facility, but project developers Carbon Engineering and Occidental Petroleum are banking on the technology allowing them to continue extracting and polluting. In fact, they plan to use the carbon dioxide they draw from the skies to help them pull more oil through a process called enhanced oil recovery, which can allow companies to access even more oil in reserves they’ve drilled.
This is the big concern among critics of carbon removal technologies: Won’t these innovations exacerbate the climate crisis by prolonging the lifetime of polluters—and, thus, the suffering of communities of color who live near them? The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council listed carbon capture and direct air capture as examples of projects that will not benefit a community in its recommendations report sent to the White House in May. In July, 500 environmental groups wrote a letter to President Biden in July underscoring their concerns with carbon capture, too.
And that concern is shared across climate advocates—even those who support carbon removal technologies like Kosar. Her first priority is cutting emissions. “That is number one,” she said. Any plan that doesn’t involve immediately transitioning off fossil fuels is doomed. However, as the IPCC report makes clear, even swift emissions reductions would leave the world on track to warm 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—and Africa has already seen the rate of temperature rise unfold more rapidly than the global average of only 1.07 degrees Celsius.
Kosar wants to see proper regulations support equitable carbon removal alongside global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, develop clean energy technology, and preserve natural carbon sinks. Once world leaders succeed in bringing emissions to zero, all that carbon dioxide from centuries before will remain in the atmosphere, putting coastal communities, island nations, and desert ecosystems at risk. Kosar wants to help figure out how to suck all that carbon dioxide out for not only present populations—but for future generations, too.
“We want to make sure that we leave this planet in a place where generations down are able to prosper, to survive, to live,” Kosar said. “At the rate that we’re going right now, I’m just concerned that that’s not going to be the case. In addition to the emissions reductions, we’re going to need to start thinking about, What happens to the next generation and the generation after? What are the conditions they’re inheriting? And how big of a problem are we going to be leaving them if we continue to push back against what needs to happen today?”
There are several ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; direct air capture is just one of them. None of this means, however, that the technology will be the golden ticket to salvation—or that the environmental justice movement will welcome it.
The Amazon Rainforest’s more than 2 million square miles of trees, wetlands, and ecosystems have historically breathed in carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen for the rest of us. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.
A study published earlier this year confirmed that the Amazon has officially become a source of carbon dioxide. Deforestation and the fires that fuel the loss of trees are largely responsible, but so is climate change. Temperature rise and lack of moisture makes it easier for these tropical forests to catch ablaze regardless of human ignition. Another study published earlier this year suggests that this phenomenon will impact forests across the globe by 2050 if leaders don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because extreme heat stresses plants too; photosynthesis can’t function properly under such pressure.
And the IPCC confirmed all of this in its latest assessment: “Under scenarios with increasing CO2 emissions, the ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere,” the summary for policymakers reads.
Still, many advocates remain committed only to nature-based solutions. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit researching how to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, believes rapid shifts in how we produce electricity, how we grow our food, and how we treat our land coupled with ecosystem restoration and protection is the key to addressing the climate crisis—at least for now.
“There are much more cost-effective ways of responding to climate change than direct air capture as it currently exists.”
“We do not believe yet that machine-based carbon removal is a viable climate solution,” said Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown. “It may become one, but it’s not yet.”
That’s because this tech is in its infancy—despite being around for over 20 years. The sector requires further research to determine whether underground carbon storage is permanent. Plus, direct air capture facilities require a significant amount of energy, which is problematic when we need to severely reduce energy consumption to meet energy needs through clean energy. Energy usage can range from about 1,600 kilowatts per hour to 2,500 kilowatts per hour. That’s up to twice the amount the average home in Texas uses in an entire month.
“There are much more cost-effective ways of responding to climate change than direct air capture as it currently exists,” acknowledged Nicholson of American University, who supports this technology. “There has to be a lot of work on the technological development and scaling up side for this to actually be a thing.”
This tech can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 per ton of carbon dioxide captured. To put things into perspective, we may need to remove at least 17 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year by 2050 to keep global heating to 2 degrees Celsius. Opponents argue that this money would be better spent focusing on a just clean energy transition that cleans up toxic sites, develops a robust workforce, and invests in historically harmed communities.
“Continuing to sink federal funds into technological carbon capture is choosing to chase a fossil-fueled fantasy rather than deal with the root of the problem,” reads the July letter environmental groups sent the White House.
None of this even takes into account the fossil fuel industry’s explicit interests in using these machines to improve their extractive practices. Enbridge—the Canadian-based energy company behind the contentious Line 3 oil pipeline and the police brutality water protectors face—is investing in carbon capture. So is ExxonMobil, which created the climate denial propaganda machine that’s prevented climate policy for decades. And let’s not forget the first direct air capture plant coming to the U.S in Texas is planning to use the captured carbon dioxide to bolster oil production.
Right now, the federal government incentives such practices through the 45Q tax credit, which offers companies $35 per metric ton of carbon dioxide used in enhanced oil recovery. The industry can earn $15 more per metric ton if companies store the carbon dioxide underground, but that doesn’t account for the profit they can make from expanding fossil fuels.
“Is this really helping climate at all, or is it just a fig leaf to make oil and gas companies look like they’re doing something?” Foley said. “That’s a real concern I have: Is this just for optics? Is it just a promise to remove the pollution while we emit it today?”
Then, there are the concerns associated with the direct air capture facilities themselves. Where would they go? Land is an obvious issue. Gas and oil companies often use eminent domain law to seize private land from families to build their projects. As my homie Justine Calma laid out for The Verge, these plants also often require a network of pipelines—and we already know a major problem with pipelines: leaks.
A pipeline carrying carbon dioxide owned by oil company Denbury Inc. ruptured in February 2020 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, which is majority Black. The rupture left dozens hospitalized with one first responder describing those affected acting like “zombies” due to the exposure to carbon dioxide, which can suffocate people.
“Starting out, it was real hard to breathe, like I’d run wide open up and down some stairs,” said Terry Gann, an investigator with the Yazoo County Sheriff’s Department, to The Clarion-Ledger. “I was really, really winded, like I’d run a mile. Then it was headaches, my ears were popping, I was sick to my stomach, and I kind of started getting disoriented…I didn’t know I was saying stuff on the radio.”
This is what many environmental justice advocates fear. It’s not just about carbon—it’s about people’s health, safety, and prosperity. Proponents of direct air capture, however, argue that all these reasons are exactly why they need to infiltrate the industry with an equity and justice framework to ensure Big Oil executives don’t abuse the technology for their bottom line.
“We are dedicated to decoupling the idea of carbon dioxide removal from the fossil fuel industry,” said Talati of the Department of Energy. “It exists in its own right, and we absolutely want to make sure it’s pursued in the right way.”
Supporters of this technology like Talati know this will require boots on the ground. They envision a future where direct air capture facilities are built in collaboration with a community—potentially even owned by the public—rather than shoved upon them as so many industrial plants have. They know this will require robust regulations to keep families safe. Most importantly, these efforts will require trust. And that doesn’t build overnight.
Ashley Meeky is only 19. She has decades of life before her—so the idea of leaving so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere brings her anxiety. That’s why she’s dedicated herself to combatting the climate crisis as the youth ambassador board member for the Foundation for Climate Restoration, an organization that promotes all sorts of carbon removal strategies.
“My entire future would change based on what we do or don’t do now,” Meeky said. “I may not want to have kids because the world that they will grow up in will be unhealthy and not benefit them at all… Everything that I do is up in the air based on what we do now. It’s important for older generations to realize that they have had the opportunity to live their life to the fullest, and I may not get a chance to because the Earth may be in an extremely sensitive state.”
Like other direct air capture proponents, Meeky believes in both machine-based and natural solutions. She wants to see the public and private sectors invest in all of them while baking equity into their operations. Can they bring quality jobs into communities without perpetuating harms on Native or Black lands?
“We can make these solutions intersectional and inclusive to make sure they’re doing justice at the same time,” Meeky said.
This is what justice-minded supporters of carbon removal want to see. Carbon180 released a report last week laying out the skeleton of an equitable “carbon-removing future,” as the paper puts it. Policy is key. The federal government needs to firstly engage with locals to find out what they need. Does a direct air capture plant bring them closer to their needs? How can our leaders strengthen historically disenfranchised communities so that they’re able to participate in the carbon removal space? These are questions that the federal government must address through policy. For example, investing in childcare, affordable housing, and mass transit systems can support a diverse workforce.
Still, one gargantuan task remains: ending our reliance on fossil fuels.
“In the absence of a clear plan for phasing out fossil fuels, there’s a big risk,” said Holly Buck, an assistant professor of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo, who used to be skeptical of large-scale carbon removal but now supports it.
The industry’s managed decline needs to happen—and not just in the U.S. but worldwide. Society needs a global framework for carbon removal, Buck argued. The countries that created climate change must support lower-income countries that can’t afford to skip dirty energy and go straight to wind and solar if they want to develop their nations cost-effectively.
All of this needs to get into motion before the carbon removal sector takes off. Otherwise, this technology risks falling into the wrong hands. For climate and environmental justice leaders, other issues are more urgent than a technology that could maybe one day help. Black and Brown communities are still feeling the direct impacts of the fossil fuel industry and its pollution—as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbated by the poor air quality power plants and heat-fueled wildfires bring in. They’ll continue to see more threats as the climate crisis unwinds. The promise story of an outsider coming in and solving everything for them won’t cut it anymore, Whyte said.
“Why is it that so much investment is focused on coddling the industries and institutions that are responsible for climate change impacts and there’s not an equal concern for doing what it’s going to take to address the sedimentation of inequities over generations?” he went on.
The only way he can imagine environmentally just direct air capture is through accountability. How can the industry hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for the damage they’ve caused? How can it soothe the horrors that marginalized communities have faced? How will it bring them to the table in a way that gives them the power?
“For many communities, a climate change solution is a solution that addresses the decades of harmful environmental changes that have been imposed upon them,” Whyte said. “A climate change solution has to be the whole package.”
That means land back and the conservation of Earth’s ecosystems. That means community ownership and community wealth. For many direct air capture supporters, the whole package is all of the above—plus machines pulling carbon out of the air.
It’s all or nothing.