Recent data shows global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise, albeit at a slower pace. This suggests efforts to reduce humankind's destructive carbon imprint are still inadequate, and the world will fail to achieve the critical net-zero 2050 climate goals.
There have been important developments, however. Until recently, it appeared the only sure means of combatting global warming was by decreasing the output of carbon dioxide (CO2) at the source. But a Canadian company has developed path-breaking carbon capture technology to tackle emissions at the opposite side of the equation - by sucking the harmful CO2 out of the atmosphere and burying it underground.
Carbon Engineering (CE), a climate solutions tech company based in Squamish, B.C., is a pioneer in direct air capture (DAC) technology. The process removes CO2 from the atmosphere with massive air intake fans, extracting 75 per cent of the CO2 and storing it beneath the surface in rock formations.
The company is led by CEO and chairman Daniel Friedmann, who holds an M.A. in engineering physics and previously spent two decades at the helm of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., (MDA) one of Canada's leading aerospace and satellite technology firms. He was named Brendan Wood's TopGun CEO in Canada in 2015-2016.
He left in 2017 to focus on his other passions as an author and lecturer, but was lured out of retirement by the promise of CE's DAC technology. Friedmann is convinced carbon capture is the only way of making up what he sees as the approximately 20 per cent gap in various industries' pathways to net zero.
Carbon Engineering secures Air Canada and Airbus funding
In November, CE announced it had secured a multi-million dollar investment from Airbus and Air Canada to fund ongoing research and development work at the company's CE Innovation Centre, the largest such DAC facility in the world.
The aviation sector is one of the primary polluters in the transportation sector, accounting for an estimated 2.4 per cent of global CO2 emissions.
Both Airbus and Air Canada and have set ambitious emissions reduction targets for their operations. The funding will go a long way toward helping CE accelerate the development of decarbonization solutions and promote the construction of large-scale carbon removal plants that generate carbon credits airlines can buy to offset their emissions impact.
"(Our company's) DAC technology provides a scalable, affordable solution to help decarbonize aviation," said Friedmann. "We are thankful to Airbus and Air Canada for taking action and continuing to lead the way by helping accelerate solutions for the industry and for the climate."
Karine Guenan, Airbus' vice president of the ZEROe Ecosystem, said the investment in CE was a reaffirmation of her company's "commitment to the use of direct air carbon capture as a two-fold solution for the decarbonization of the aviation industry."
Her sentiments were echoed by Air Canada president and CEO Michael Rousseau, who said the Canadian airline was focused on "carbon capture (as part of) our strategy to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050" and that investing in CE would "further advance new, transformational technologies towards carbon removal commercially."
CE supports world's largest carbon capture plant
Carbon Engineering is embarking on its most ambitious project – providing technological support to Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) and 1PointFive on the construction of a massive DAC plant in the Texas Permian Basin.
The scale of the venture represents what Friedmann described as "a pivotal moment in the deployment of Carbon Engineering’s large-scale direct air capture solution."
The facility will be the largest in the world, with a capacity to capture 500,000 tons of CO2 per year. It will not only help Oxy meet its net-zero target, but also earn a return on its investment by selling carbon offsets.
"Carbon Engineering has been innovating for more than a decade to deliver climate solutions at megaton scale," said Friedmann. "Now, with construction starting on this first, large-scale facility, we are seeing our vision become a reality."
The Oxy plant is expected to be the first of a wave of similar projects intended to deliver cost-effective solutions to hard-to-decarbonize industries. It also represents the fulfillment of CE's vision of scaling up its 2015 pilot project in Squamish.
"This is just the first of a hundred projects on the one-megaton scale that Oxy intends to build by 2035," said Friedmann, who grew up in Chile before his family relocated to Canada when he was 13 years old. "We are already working on the engineering of the second site, which would host up to 30 such plants."
Carbon capture a key piece to solving the emissions puzzle
A 2021 finding by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded emission reductions alone won't limit global warming to the 1.5 C target by 2050, and that large-scale carbon capture facilities would be beneficial.
But International Energy Agency (IEA) data indicates there are currently 35 commercial carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) plants in operation around the world, capturing only 45 metatonnes of CO2.
Carbon capture capacity needs to be drastically ramped up – by at least 100-fold – to provide the additional means of achieving global CO2 reductions consistent with the pathway to 1.5 C.
This is the large-scale global solution CE is helping to provide with the Oxy plant, which is equivalent to ground zero in the carbon capture industry.
CE's partnership with Air Canada and Airbus is the beginning of many similar deals with companies in the aviation and transportation sectors. DAC technology provides a cost-effective means of generating a level of carbon credits that will allow firms to attain their net-zero goals by purchasing such credits while developing alternative technologies that reduce CO2 emissions at source.
The Inflation Reduction Act is a boon to CCUS
In the U.S., the Biden administration's Inflation Reduction Act represents a key trigger to future construction of carbon capture plants and is "a big step forward" according to Friedmann.
"It's nothing short of monumental and magical," said Friedmann. "There was no way forward to scale in the near future without an incentive like the one provided by (Biden's) plan. These are big plants and they have to be financed. And that requires the financial certainty that comes with having the U.S. Treasury guarantee you a minimum payment of $180 a ton (for carbon)."
Friedmann said certain industries like air travel cannot yet achieve decarbonization as easily as the energy industry. For those fields, DAC is the most cost effective means of decarbonizing the 20 per cent of the "world's hardest (carbon emissions) problems."
"So we need to make up that gap by 2050. We needed to start that process yesterday if you do the math. But it can't be done unless we start now."