Would Direct Air Capture Actually Reduce Climate Pollution? 

New research shows that hype over removing carbon from the atmosphere ignores serious problems

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Climate and Energy

New research shows that direct air capture (DAC), the fledgling climate emissions mitigation technology hyped by the fossil fuel industry and a wide range of political leaders, would actually increase greenhouse gas pollution, once accounting for the emissions created by the additional power generation necessary to run the technology in the first place. 

Despite years of hype and substantial investment, DAC still plays no meaningful role in emissions reductions. The buzz around an $811 million facility being built by Occidental in Texas – touted as the largest DCA facility in the world – is instructive: The facility could one day capture “up to” 500,000 metric tons per year, which only amounts to one hundredth of one percent of the country’s CO2 emissions.

As the new Food & Water Watch research shows, this underwhelming reality obscures a more serious problem: The emissions created by generating the power needed to run DAC systems. According to the group’s calculations, capturing 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere using electricity from fossil fuels would create greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 3.5 tons of CO2. Using power from the current mix available on the U.S. electrical grid, capturing 1 ton of CO2 would create 2.2 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions.

The power needs of the technology are considerable; if all of the electricity currently generated in the United States were used to power DAC, it would still only capture only about one quarter of the carbon emissions generated each year.

“Despite years of hype, direct air capture still only exists as a too-good-to-be-true climate fix,” said Food & Water Watch Senior Researcher Oakley Shelton-Thomas. “Even the most ambitious sounding direct air capture facilities would reduce a negligible amount of climate pollution. This technology is appealing to industrial polluters because it serves to reduce the pressure to shift away from fossil fuels.  Dollar for dollar, direct air capture is no match for proven solutions like wind and solar energy. The best strategy for reducing pollution is to stop creating it in the first place.”

DAC proponents argue that using renewable energy would solve these emissions problems. But this would create a bizarre scenario where a massive amount of clean energy capacity would be added just to support the continuing extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. It would be far more advantageous to directly shift our grid from fossil fuels to renewable energy. In fact, the Food & Water Watch research finds that replacing natural gas with renewables in the electrical grid avoids three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that could be captured by a DAC facility powered by renewable electricity.