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Computer Science

How carbon removal technology is like a time machine

Imagine all carbon removal technology as one big time machine, winding the clock back on emissions. If the world is emitting just under 40 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year, how far back in time could this year’s total carbon removal take us? Right now, the answer is somewhere around 10 seconds. 

We eventually need to reach net-zero emissions if we’re going to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And it’s pretty clear that 10 seconds is a pretty far cry from being enough to zero out a year’s worth of emissions. There are two things we’d need to do for this time machine to be more effective: scale up carbon removal technology, and drastically scale back emissions. 

It’ll take time, and likely a lot of it, to get carbon removal technology to a point where it’s a more effective time machine. There are technical, logistical, and economic challenges to figure out. And early projects, like the Climeworks direct-air-capture plant in Iceland, are still getting their footing.

“It’s going to take many years to make significant progress, so we should start now,” Ho says. And while we figure all that out, it’s a good time to focus on decarbonization, he adds. Slashing our emissions is possible with tools we already have on the table. Doing so will make it a bit more feasible for carbon removal technologies to eventually play a significant role in cleaning up our emissions. 

If you’re curious to learn more, including how big a dent larger projects might make, check out David Ho’s article from earlier this year in Nature. You can also take a look back at some of our recent coverage of carbon removal below. 

Related reading

Carbon removal tech is vacuuming up significantly less than one-millionth of our fossil-fuel emissions. Get all the details in my latest story.

Startup Climeworks has been one of the major actors in putting direct air capture on the map. We put the company on our list of 15 businesses to watch in climate tech this year.

The US Department of Energy is committing big money to carbon removal. Earlier this year, the agency announced over $1 billion in funding for the technology, as my colleague James Temple covered.

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