Nature and Biodiversity

The pioneering carbon dioxide moonshot that could help tackle climate change

By 2030 the Drax power station will transform to become the world’s largest carbon dioxide removal (CDR) facility by scaling a technology called bioenergy with carbon capture storage (BECCS).

By 2030 the Drax power station will transform to become the world’s largest carbon dioxide removal (CDR) facility by scaling a technology called bioenergy with carbon capture storage (BECCS). Image: Unsplash

Will Gardiner
CEO, Drax
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Time is running out to tackle the climate crisis – we need urgent solutions.
  • In the spirit of the moon landing, action is needed to limit global warming.
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage could help achieve net-zero.

On 12 September 1962, in a football stadium in Houston, President John F. Kennedy set in motion one of the most daring feats of innovation in modern history. Despite opposition from environmentalists, civil rights leaders and even his own brother, Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” address unified a divided America grown weary from war and fearful for the fate of the nation.

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The images of the moon landing remain in our collective imagination as one of the great achievements of humankind. Yet in the years preceding that speech, Kennedy’s vision – to put a man on the moon within a decade – was viewed by many as impossible and by most as a waste of time and money. As America’s economy creaked under the weight of the Vietnam war and 20% of Americans were without adequate food, clothing or shelter, Kennedy’s response was both honest and brave:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Today, with war returned to Europe and the global economy reeling from COVID-19 we are once again anxious about the fate of the world and doubtful about our ability to change it, not least when it comes to the biggest challenge we face today – climate change. A World Economic Forum survey found that while 85% of people believe it is extremely (or very) important to address climate change, but only 40% of North Americans and 31% of Europeans are optimistic about our ability to do so. And there is ample reason for scepticism.

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Tracing the rise in carbon dioxide emissions

Four years before Kennedy would take to the podium in Texas, from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, Charles David Keeling began charting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. It remains an exercise of such scientific importance that its output, the Keeling Curve, is carved into the wall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C.

In 1958 Keeling observed that the earth’s atmosphere contained 315 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, 12% more than the preceding 6,000 years of human existence before the industrial revolution began. Today that number is 422ppm, a figure last seen 4.5 million years ago when the earth was 7C warmer and sea levels were up to 25m higher. It wasn’t until the climate cooled, some 3 million years later, that early humans were able to evolve.

Our efforts to stem the bleed of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are struggling against the strength of our addiction to fossil fuels. At current rates we will increase our carbon emissions by 14%, despite knowing that to maintain a safe environment on earth they must peak by 2025 and reduce by 43% by the end of the decade. For the first time ever, we burned 8 billion tonnes of coal last year – 1 tonne for every man, woman and child on earth.

Our remedy – to reduce emissions as fast as possible – is not enough. If we are to stabilise Earth’s climate by the end of this decade we need new moonshots.

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New technology can reduce and remove carbon dioxide

In the turbine hall of the UK’s largest power station, engineers are pioneering a project that will not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions but remove them permanently. By 2030 the Drax power station will transform to become the world’s largest carbon dioxide removal (CDR) facility by scaling a technology called bioenergy with carbon capture storage (BECCS). BECCS begins with bioenergy. Unlike the linear and irreversible process of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, flows of carbon dioxide from bioenergy can be balanced in a closed carbon cycle within the biosphere. By adding carbon capture and storage that carbon cycle is broken – in a positive way – and carbon dioxide is permanently removed from the biosphere before being stored safely underground. The overall process will produce renewable electricity and remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

BECCS is one of only two engineered technologies that can reverse the flow of carbon dioxide. While these technologies are nascent, they must scale at unprecedented rates around the world if we are to stabilise the Earth’s climate. According to the IEA, by 2030 we will need to remove 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year through BECCS compared to the mere 1 million tonnes today. Across all CDR technologies that number must rise to 10 billion tonnes by 2050.

Against all odds, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon just seven years after Kennedy delivered his speech in Texas, proving that when governments and industry work together with urgency and determination there are no limits to what can be achieved. It is in this spirit that we must scale up CDR technologies like BECCS to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We must do so not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Because the goal of tackling climate change is too important and time is running out; and because, as Kennedy said 60 years ago, “that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”.

To tackle climate change, the world needs moonshots: carbon dioxide removal is one of them.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionEnergy Transition
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