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Time to deploy the ‘silver bullet’ against climate change

There is a solution ready to hand in the global warming challenge – technology

Orca direct air capture plant, Iceland Climeworks/Cover Images via Reuters Connect
Direct air capture plants, such as Orca, in Iceland, remove CO2 from the air and store it

The UAE Climate Tech forum in Abu Dhabi in May hammered home one inconvenient truth about climate change.

Even if the countries of the world meet all their commitments to reduce hydrocarbon emissions from the atmosphere, it will not be enough to reach the 1.5C degree target set by the world’s scientists as the minimum to prevent dangerous global warming.

Put that another way: if the Just Stop Oil lobby got their way tomorrow and new hydrocarbon production was banned worldwide, there is already too much C02 in the atmosphere to avoid serious climate damage some way along the road to 2050.

The economic consequences would probably mean that life, as we know it, would not be worth living in a few years’ time anyway. But that is a fact the radical environmentalists simply ignore.

Delivering the keynote speech, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, president of this year’s Cop28 summit in the UAE, hit the nail on the head.

“Hold back emissions, not progress,” he told the audience in a packed Abu Dhabi Energy Centre.

Fortunately, there is a solution ready to hand in the climate change challenge: technology. 

The current state of progress in climate technology development, and the potential to scale it up via massive financial investment, means we have, or soon will have, the tools to bring about a significant reduction in the existing and forecast levels of damaging CO2 and methane in the atmosphere.

The pace of energy technology advancement has been so rapid that many tracks are developing simultaneously.

We are all familiar now with solar and wind production techniques. Many will also be familiar with the concept of carbon capture, utilisation and storage to extract CO2 from various stages of the industrial process and to put it to good use.

Clean hydrogen, nuclear energy and low-carbon fuels have also made sizeable advances. There is a big role too for nature-based solutions, such as reforestation and sustainable agriculture.

Sultan al-Jaber, head of state oil giant ADNOC and UAE "COP28" president, speaks at the inaugural UAE Climate Tech Conference in Abu DhabiReuters
Dr Sultan Al Jaber told the UAE Climate Tech Forum we must ‘hold back emissions, not progress’
Direct air capture

But the one that grabs me is direct air capture (DAC). This aims to take CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere on a global scale, ahead of the storage and usage stage for this problematic but essential molecule.

My unscientific mind imagines something like an AC extractor in a busy and smokey night-club. Just flick a switch, the fug disappears and the temperature drops.

I am no doubt underestimating the technological sophistication of DAC, and the challenges that will have to be overcome before it can be used on a global scale.

The International Energy Agency estimated last autumn that there were 18 small-scale DAC plants operational in north America and Europe, but that 11 more ambitious projects were in preparation. If they all go ahead, it would amount to only 10 percent of the carbon removal needed to hit net zero targets.

Admittedly, there are significant hurdles in scaling that up. DAC, currently, is energy intensive and therefore expensive.

Efficiently sucking the CO2 out of the air on a global scale would require trillions of dollars of R&D investment. Siting of DAC plants would depend on availability of low-carbon energy sources and sufficient storage facilities for the processed CO2.

The IEA estimates that 32 new large-scale DAC plants need to be built each year between now and 2050 to help meet net-zero goals. This would involve costs running into trillions of dollars.

But it is surely not beyond human ingenuity to develop what is essentially a “silver bullet” against global warming.

The Riyadh-based International Energy Forum said last summer: “a recent surge of investment in R&D [in DAC] could unlock innovative new approaches that allow it to scale up and offset billions of tons of carbon emissions.”

Dr Al Jaber said in Abu Dhabi that we need “transformational progress” to battle climate change. But he also believes advances in climate technology give us the “best opportunity for progress since the first industrial revolution”.

This surely must be the goal: to continue to derive benefit from the most efficient and powerful fuel humankind has ever devised – hydrocarbons – while using technology to mitigate the detrimental effects on the environment. 

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