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A possible carbon-capture milestone in the fight against climate change

MoneyWatch: Spending on carbon capture
MoneyWatch: Congress ramps up spending on carbon capture projects 05:57

In what could be a major milestone in the fight against climate change, a startup said Thursday it has started successfully pulling carbon dioxide from the air and burying it underground.

Climeworks announced that it has sequestered CO2 from the atmosphere using its facility in Iceland and stored the substance underground. The action was independently verified by risk management company DNV, and the resulting carbon credits were sold to Microsoft, Shopify and Stripe, the startup's first corporate customers.

Companies purchase carbon credits to offset their own carbon emissions. Microsoft in 2020 made a bold promise to erase its entire carbon footprint since the company's 1975 founding.

Founded in 2009, Climeworks has already successfully demonstrated that its direct-air capture technology works. However, Thursday's milestone marks the first time a company has pulled a significant amount of carbon from the air using a third-party verification process, the Wall Street Journal reported

"We hope we are growing from a teenager to a grown-up in this industry," Christoph Gebald, co-chief executive of Climeworks, told the newspaper.

Climeworks' direct-air capture (DAC) facility in Hellisheidi, Iceland, in 2021. Climeworks

Climeworks declined to say how much carbon has been removed — a key metric in assessing how important carbon-capture will be in the fight to slow global warming. 

Once its carbon-capture plant in Iceland is at full scale, which it has not yet reached, it will remove 4,000 tons a year of carbon dioxide, a company spokesperson said. That's roughly equivalent to the amount of CO2 emitted by 800 cars driving for a year.

New facility in Iceland will capture 4,000 tons of carbon out of atmosphere per year 04:21

There is a growing consensus among scientists and policymakers that to prevent the worst effects of global warming, people will need to not only reduce greenhouse-gas emissions close to zero but also remove carbon that has already been emitted.

In addition to low-tech ways of achieving this, such as planting trees and restoring wetlands, the high-tech promise of removing carbon directly from the atmosphere has captured the public imagination and billions of investor dollars.

Congress funneled $12 billion into carbon-capture efforts in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and expanded funding for carbon storage in last year's Inflation Reduction Act. Private investors, too, are champing at the bit. Last year saw a surge in venture capital dedicated to post-emissions carbon capture, with deals in the second quarter of 2022 hitting a record, according to PitchBook.

Long shot of two men underneath a large carbon-capture plant
Climeworks founders Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher pose in front of the company's carbon-capture facility in Hellisheidi, Iceland in 2021. Climeworks

Climeworks has also committed to creating a carbon-capture hub in the Gulf Coast of the U.S., a facility it says will remove 1 million tons of CO2 annually by the end of the decade. 

"There is no solution to get to net-zero without carbon capture technology," Collin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said last year, reflecting a common view among environmental scientists. 

But despite the hype, some scientists harbor considerable doubt about whether direct-air capture technology can ever advance to the point of economic feasibility. Attempts to clean up U.S. coal plants using carbon capture have largely been an expensive failure, according to a government report, and direct-air capture projects often use tremendous amounts of power — negating their environmental benefits. 

A recent study also found that carbon-capture technology would put added stress on the world's water supply, an already scarce resource in many parts of the world.

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