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.

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Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

Why are we chasing this new, unproven, technology and not doing the obvious of large scale rapid investment in nuclear power? It took France 15 years to switch to 80% carbon free electricity in the 1970s – large scale, reliable, cheap and plentiful electricity, proven and tested.
Carbon capture that is expensive, tiny in scale and largely experimental requiring a long long time to roll out is virtue signalling chasing rainbows, when we already have a first class solution available.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

The unfair treatment the nuclear solution gets is unbelievable.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

Uranium spot price went from $30 a pound to $40 last week.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Chivers neglects to say that the Carbon released in the steel smelting to make the equipment, the fabricating the equipment, transporting and installing it, and energy to run the equipment and the CO2 the people who run it use in their lives, makes it basically break even. But it gives good jobs to local people, and naturally to Chinese industry, and Australian miners.

Just by a ton of F***ing coal from the Australian Coal Mines for $17, and then spend 170$ burying it where ever you live, and *Presto* you now can – guilt Free – fly to New York! and for under 200$ in Carbon sequestering!!!!

WOW! Climate change solved!

James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago

The conversation about global warming is completely intellectually dishonest, as it almost always fails to even mention that the biggest threat to the earth is overpopulation. Apparently it’s not acceptable for the “woke” to talk about this. More people means more encroachment on pristine lands, cutting down more forests, more profligate use of resources, more disease. Greta et al hector the West–well, not the elite, only the plebs, about destroying the planet with flights, cars, the normal way of life that those in the Global South aspire to. They willfully ignore the real problem. Conservation groups like the Sierra Club in the USA used to be against unchecked immigration for maybe 100 years before they became woke, now they favor it, no longer a part of the conversation. The average Jose in Mexico uses say 5L of water per day, but when he arrives in el Norte use goes up to 200+L per day (not exact numbers, but you get the idea). How is that good for the planet?

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

People as far apart politically as Chris Packham, David Attenborough, and the late Duke of Edinburgh realised that population is the important number. It is the multiplier for all the calculations about energy, food, housing, minerals, water and so on.
No politician is brave enough to say ‘fewer people’ because you get elected by kissing babies.

Last edited 1 year ago by D Glover
Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

The Member of Parliament for Henley once lamented this.

“You can see it as you fly over Mexico City, a vast checkerboard of smog-bound, low-rise dwellings stretching from one horizon to the other; and when you look down on what we are doing to the planet, you have a horrifying vision of habitations multiplying and replicating like bacilli in a Petri dish.”

Personally, I worry about the sort of evil schemes someone who thinks this way might endorse.
Good thing he didn’t get anywhere near power.
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643551/Global-over-population-is-the-real-issue.html

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

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.

J B
J B
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker
J B
J B
1 year ago
Reply to  James Joyce

The last I read into it: even if this did become a problem, birth rates are falling globally, it is predicted we will peak around the year 2070 and decline after that.
Some links:
https://www.humanprogress.org/why-falling-birth-rates-arent-something-to-celebrate/
https://www.humanprogress.org/against-environmental-anti-humanism/

Last edited 1 year ago by J B
John Riordan
John Riordan
11 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Actually the problem isn’t the number of people, it’s the number of poor people that’s the problem. Poor people, especially those who rely upon subsistence farming, are the ones who have damaging effects upon the biosphere, and who need to reproduce at much faster rates than people in wealthy nations.

The solution, of course, is to get rid of poor people as fast as possible by making them (relatively) wealthy people. Give them electicity and cheap natural gas energy so that they don’t have to slash forests for wood fuel. Give them access to mechanisation so that they can grow more food on less land. Give them access to communications so that they can begin to partake in the global economy more directly, selling their surpluses for money instead of consuming it all themselves.

The reality is that as we get collectively wealthier, we produce more and more off less and less land. In due course we will produce lab-grown meat that is a substitute for all but the most high-quality farmed meat, thus massively reducing the amount of land we need even further, but it is important to note that this process of returning farmland to nature is well underway even without that huge advance: intensive farming, advanced fertilisers and pesticides are already returning farmland to nature even as the world produces more food in absolute terms and has already eradicated hunger as a general widespread global problem.

Ironically the one factor that runs counter to this beneficial process is the idiotic Green program to produce fuels from crops, which has meant an expansion of subsistence farming in places where good cropland has been taken away from food production. It is not possible, however, to blame expanding population for that problem, the Greens have to answer for that.

Peter LR
Peter LR
1 year ago

I could wish you had developed a couple of questions about the technology, Tom. I assume the process is ‘carbon efficient’, so what energy sources does it use and are these ‘green’ and long-term ‘sustainable’? Where is this ‘rock’ being deposited; is there an endless amount of ‘space’? Will the rock have questions of geological stability about it like fracking?

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

Oh good ! Another way for Emma Thompson (and her ilk) to salve her conscience, jetting around, first class, while telling the POOR plebs to stay home (Because they can’t afford to save the planet).
Soon, the only way to afford international travel, for the plebs, will be in the back of a container lorry, using people traffickers as travel agents.
Also, I’ve heard that “Pissing in the wind” is also a fantastic new method for cooling the climate (You might laugh, but it does, at least, have some science behind it, either that or the effectiveness of all those fountains in the courtyards of posh old Arab houses is just an urban myth).

Last edited 1 year ago by Tom Lewis
George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

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

Last edited 1 year ago by George Glashan
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

I really don’t expect the zealots to stop at Net Zero.
Does anybody?
They will want Absolute Zero. It’s not about solving a technical problem. It’s about making people suffer for their sins.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

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.

And look how well that went.

You could fly to New York guilt free if you did it! Surely there’s a market for that?

Tom, Tom, Tom. Climate’s not about the climate. How have you not realised this yet? Gas would solve most of the alleged problem and nuclear would solve it entirely. Ecomarxists hate both because 1/ both are provided by private non-state actors, 2/ they solve the alleged problem without the need for the totalitarian state ecomarxists want to create, and 3/ this in turn reduces the public panic essential to making people not mind as their liberties are confiscated.
You can thus be absolutely sure this technology will never be tolerated. You think climate change matters to climate change activists? Aw, bless!

Last edited 1 year ago by Jon Redman
Andrea X
Andrea X
1 year ago

I hide my head in shame, but I feel no guilt (at most annoyance) at driving my kids to whatever practice, heating my house or flying on holiday (well, at least when you could…).

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrea X

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.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
1 year ago

Thank you for the article. It is most welcome that different solutions are explored, much the way we are used to do: free speech, free science, free enterprise. This worked many times and can work again.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
1 year ago

Offsets are always going to be a corrupt racket – or just stupid. I think they are just modern day indulgences so the wealthy can live extravagantly while pretending to virtuous. For example in British Columbia companies were buying up our scarce farmland to plant trees to sell carbon offsets. A good example of the idiocy of the offset rules. Does anyone really believe pumping trillions of tons of CO2 into the ground won’t have environmental impacts? A more workable solution for flying could be hydrogen electric fuel cells using green hydrogen from nuclear. Then the actual cost of being green will be passed on to the consumers who use the service.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 year ago

The comparison with the iPhone doesn’t work for me.
Modern iPhones are physically not much different to the first gen. The electronics and software are better but in terms of raw energy and materials cost to make one, it’s about the same. Scaling up iPhone production was no different to scaling any other type of consumer electronics. In particular the margins are high – the value of a smartphone to the buyer is very large relative to the manufacturing costs.
Now, this sort of carbon capture technology is very different. Quite obviously it doesn’t scale at all right now. The costs given in the article are far too high. There’s a frequent assumption in many circles that all types of technology follow the same trajectory as computing has done and costs will therefore plummet, but I don’t particularly see why that’s the case here:

  1. Firstly, nobody actually wants this. It’s not useful to anyone directly. They have to be guilt-tripped into buying it. That will severely limit the market and economies of scale.
  2. Secondly, the process is highly energy intensive. The article doesn’t mention this at all, but the machine consumes about 2.6 megawatt-hours per tonne of carbon extracted. It not only needs giant fans but also electric heaters. Therefore, the cost of the process is very dependent on the cost of energy.

(2) is critical and ClimeWorks totally blow it off. They say it’s all fine because they power the machines using renewable power. This is stupid. It’s drastically more efficient to use the renewable power to stop CO2 being emitted in the first place. This type of tech might make sense if all CO2 emitting power sources had already been shut down but for as long as there are still fossil fuel plants in the world, building these machines makes no sense vs building e.g. battery packs to buffer solar energy directly. Battery packs are actually useful and thus benefit from real economies of scale.
Finally, there’s another reason this will fail. The business model is letting customers not feel “guilty” about their carbon emissions. There’s a far, far cheaper way to eliminate the guilt one may feel about flying. It worked wonders for me. It involves reading about what climatologists are doing, and realizing that it’s a totally unreliable field of study. There are so many deep and critical problems with the science that we can hardly even say the world is getting warmer (e.g. look at US temperature data, unadjusted), let alone that it’s so critical we need to pump CO2 out of the air.

G A
G A
1 year ago

I can’t believe anybody genuinely feels guilt for using energy. JFL if so.

Last edited 1 year ago by G A
Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
1 year ago

One of the big issues with reducing carbon emissions is that big companies do not take in new technology discovered by ‘individuals’. I am sure there are many patents out there to help developing to a lower c02 producing economy than are actually marketed.
I know this for a fact though working with a ‘friend’ who holds an IP that reduces fuel consumption of planes by between 10-20 % (depending on type of flight). A technology proven up to .7 mach , so far, (lack of funds to do more) by a university and 3 other reputed institutes. (and has many more applications, …and was stolen by F1…) Nobody is interested because they do not understand why it works… and because it was not developed ‘in-house’….
Specialists in IP protection say this is such a common situation…
We are a very funny species….

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago

If this is the kind of thing that gets you upset Chivers, you need to get a life, pronto.

John Riordan
John Riordan
11 months ago

I have an alternative means by which flying is prevented from troubling my conscience: I look at the facts on climate change and conclude that the dangers are comically overstated and are not justified by the evidence.

I also look at the facts on the share of carbon emissions by the various major types of activity and conclude that any “guilt” ascribed to a practice that contributes only 2.5% of humanity’s CO2 emissions would be idiotically misplaced and clearly is only encouraged because aviation, like personal transportation, is deemed by political activists to be evidence of privilege, which is the real reason it is targeted in this way.

So if your conscience is still troubled by your apparently feckless desire to have a decent holiday or see loved ones living in different countries, I prescribe a healthy dose of the facts. They do wonders for destructive superstitions.