Carbon Removal Technologies – Tech to Save the Earth

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tree and butterfly cohabiting with a circuit board representing green tech

Over the last 40 years, the progression of technology has been immense. From developments in medicine, electronics and the internet, once novel technologies now impact on and are a part of our daily lives. Now, the world of climate tech is developing with the same speed and urgency as innovators are finding ways to impact our lives by solving the many issues related to climate change.

From biodiversity, access to key resources and adaption methods to protect against extreme weather, climate entrepreneurs employing their skills in engineering, IoT, soil management and much more to reverse the impacts of rising temperatures and increased greenhouse gas emissions.  

Bring technology to the game

To specifically tackle the question of emissions, technology developments in renewable energy and efficiency have created ways to reduce emissions outputs but the question of residual emissions remains. Residual emissions are emissions that will remain after all possible emissions reduction and behavioural change methods have been accomplished. They leave a carbon gap of greenhouse gases which are usually made up of emissions from hard to abate industries, such as construction and shipping, and Scope 3 emissions from value chains. To tackle these, carbon removal technologies will be required.

Carbon removal technologies come in a variety of forms. The most well-known are already being implemented at scale across the globe. Reforestation, for example, is a nature-based carbon removal method. As the tree grows, it draws in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and uses it in photosynthesis, storing the carbon as a result. Direct air capture (DAC) is another example of a carbon removal solution. DAC Systems have been engineered to filter carbon from the air. Once captured, the CO2 can be stored in geological systems permanently or utilised in a range of industrial products, such as concrete.

As of June 2020, there were 15 DAC plants in operation, with others in development, capturing over 9,000 tCO2 per year. Whilst this is an impressive amount for one technology to be achieving, and the capture rate is set to increase as more plants are built and efficiency improves, UK’s residual emissions are estimated to be at least 6 MtCO2e per year by 2050 alone.  In order to reach international and natural net-zero targets, a whole plethora of carbon removal technologies needs to be deployed to create impactful emissions capture.

Categories of NETs

In cases where emissions are stored rather than utilised, negative emissions are created, as more carbon has been sequestered than emitted. Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) are a key component of carbon removal. According to the Royal Society, NETs can be divided into three areas.

  • Increasing biological uptake
  • Increasing inorganic reactions with rocks
  • Engineering direct capture from the atmosphere

Increasing biological uptake includes tree planting efforts as mentioned and land management practices that can drastically improve soil carbon uptake and storage. Inorganic reactions with rocks refers to mineralisation processes and enhanced weathering techniques. These methods create chemical reactions which speed up the natural weathering process, breaking down rocks to create more surface area to react with carbon.

Project Vesta is currently deploying enhanced weathering methods using olivine to create green, both visually and for the planet, carbon capture beaches in Hawaii and California. Engineering-based solutions not only include DAC but can also refer to methods that can draw down carbon in construction through the use of low-carbon concrete or timber in building.

Final thoughts

Hybrid NET solutions also have a role to play in residual emissions management. Technologies that combine natural resources with engineered components can improve soil and peat health, increase access to green spaces and boost biodiversity. The creation of carbon capture gardens is a great example of this. By creating a space for the local community to engage with climate solutions, residents are educated on the wide co-benefits of NETs and can better understand the need to reduce emissions.

As carbon removal technologies are increasingly deployed and developed, the confidence in their ability to significantly impact emissions will be bolstered. Raising carbon literacy is key to their upscale and success. To read more about carbon removal and negative emissions, visit the Applied Negative Emissions Centre.

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