by Tom Chivers
Monday, 13
September 2021
Explainer
07:00

At last — a system to make flying guilt free

Thanks to new technology climate apocalypse doesn't have to be our future
by Tom Chivers
Fancy a guilt-free trip to New York? Credit: Getty

“Carbon capture and storage” is the technology of taking carbon dioxide out of the air or from factory emissions, and turning it into something that can be either used or sequestered away. When used to take it out of the air, it’s called “direct air capture” (DAC), and it’s a way of reducing the concentration of atmospheric carbon, not simply slowing the rate of increase.

Last week, it was announced that Orca, the world’s largest DAC plant, had been turned on. It is capable of sucking 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air every year, and turning it into deep-underground carbonate rock.

The first thing to admit is that 4,000 tonnes isn’t very much. The average UK citizen is responsible for the emission of nearly six tonnes per year. So this offsets the equivalent of about 700 Britons, or about 0.001% of the population — and, of course, other countries exist.

It’s also pretty expensive. ClimeWorks, the company behind Orca, offers to remove 600kg of carbon per year for £528; that’s £880 a tonne. You can get a return flight from London to New York for about £300, so if you were to offset the emissions (between 600kg and a tonne per passenger, depending on who you ask), it would triple or quadruple the cost.

Nonetheless, I am still quite excited about it.

First, yes, 4,000 tonnes isn’t very much. But the thing about technology is it gets bigger quickly. Literally zero people owned iPhones 15 years ago. Now, there are over one billion active iPhones. Or, perhaps more relevantly, 35 years ago, solar energy produced 0.1 terawatts of energy worldwide; now, it’s 4,300 and accelerating. 

Orca isn’t the only CCS plant in the world. According to the Global CCS Institute think tank, there are operational plants that capture 40 million tonnes annually. That includes “point source” capture, taking it straight from factory emissions: looking at DAC alone, it’s much smaller, 9,000 tonnes in July 2020; with Orca, presumably it’s now about 13,000 tonnes total. But the first million-tonnes-a-year plant is under construction and should open in the mid-2020s.

It’d still be a tiny fraction of global emissions, but the point is the speed of upscaling: something like 1,000% in a few years. Presumably that rate’s not sustainable, but it could easily end up capturing single-digit percentages of global emissions within a decade or two, which would be a massive deal.

And what’s more, this is exciting from a personal point of view. I enjoy heating my house, driving my kid to football training, and flying away on holiday, but the nagging guilt is always there that this is contributing to some serious negative global consequences. Offsetting is probably better than nothing but it’s hard to be sure: if I pay someone to plant some trees, will they be there in 20 years? If I pay them to encourage some Indian factory to use LED bulbs instead of incandescent, might I be paying them to do something they were going to do anyway?

With this, it’s unambiguous. The carbon is literally turned into a rock and buried hundreds of metres underground. It costs more, but it puts an upper limit on how much one tonne of carbon dioxide is worth: like £900. You could fly to New York guilt free if you did it! Surely there’s a market for that? There must be people who feel cash-rich but clean-conscience-poor who would love the chance to straightforwardly, no-arguments-about-it, expunge their carbon guilt. I know I would (and I have now subscribed).

This isn’t the final victory in the battle against climate change. But I get annoyed by people talking it down. We’ll need many things — technology improvements, policy change, behavioural change — to fix the climate. This is one of those things. We need it to work.

Join the discussion


  • Absolutely right; population increase is utterly unsustainable, and at some point that is where the discussion has to go. In 1950 the population was 2.2 billion persons; now it is about 7.5bn. The same rate of increase would take us to around 20bn in 2199. There is no way the planet can support that – and climate change does not come into it. We’d almost have to sit down in rotas. What is the long term sustainable population of the earth, perhaps a billion? And slowly diminishing as we pollute the place and use up finite resources. But what can be done?
    For once China may have been onto something with the one child policy, but politically in the end they realised that puts a huge burden on a rapidly ageing population.
    We have to start thinking about this, though pessimistically I feel we will fail to do anything.

  • Same! It never makes me feel bad. I’m interested at a scientific and political level but it doesn’t play on my conscience. I always think if global warming is a real problem, at some point mankind will work out a solution.

  • Coming Soon to a Cinema near you:
    101 Deniers
    The story of an aristocratic London actress who wants a new carbon neutral coat made from the skins of 101 climate deniers. Starring Emma Thompson as herself.

    surely it cant be that much longer until all these progressive elites, just say the quiet part out loud and admit what they’ve wanted all along was an excuse to kill the poor

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