Creating jobs and meeting climate goals: the evolving case for direct air capture

From construction to plant operations, DAC offers employment opportunities — all while tackling a critical environmental issue.

A rendering of Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture fans used to suck in carbon dioxide from ambient air.
A rendering of Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture fans used to suck in carbon dioxide from ambient air.
A rendering of Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture fans used to suck in carbon dioxide from ambient air. Source: Carbon Engineering

By Ugbaad Kosar, senior policy advisor

With a long road ahead as the U.S. economy tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, DAC is emerging as a promising route for resolving not only environmental challenges, but also potentially economic ones.

Last year, we shared our perspective on the role of direct air capture (DAC), a cutting-edge carbon removal technology that could help the US meet emissions goals in the future. Our insight came on the heels of the release of the Rhodium Group’s report Capturing Leadership: Policies for the US to Advance Direct Air Capture Technology, which projected the need for DAC in the U.S. to reach climate goals and outlined a detailed set of policy options to both accelerate deployment and support the technology at scale. (It’s worth noting that for the US to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, between 560 and 1,850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide will need to be removed by DAC.)

Since the release of Rhodium’s report, DAC has been the topic of many discussions, from the highly anticipated release of 45Q guidance, to the unprecedented $75 million in private investment raised by Climeworks earlier this month. Now, building on this momentum, the Rhodium Group has released a new report that continues to explore the technology and its massive potential. Capturing New Jobs and New Business: Growth Opportunities from Direct Air Capture Scale-Up looks to quantify the significant employment and market opportunities associated with large-scale deployment of DAC.

With the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and the unprecedented rise of unemployment rates, job creation is the building block to recovery. This report highlights that not only can direct air capture help us meet climate commitments, but it can also create a host of new employment opportunities across a number of hard-hit sectors too.

Here are some key takeaways:

Job opportunities:

  • On average, one megaton DAC plant can create upwards of 3000 jobs across the supply chain — 278 of those would be dedicated to plant operations after construction.
  • As a result, the construction, engineering, and equipment manufacturing sectors combined could see at least 300,000 new jobs by 2050. Most of these new employment opportunities would be high-wage jobs.
  • The largest employment surge is seen in the steel industry — the analysis shows that DAC scale up may support up to a doubling of current steel manufacturing jobs.

Market opportunities:

  • The demand for DAC equipment can exceed the existing U.S. market for relevant equipment such as air contactors, turbines and industrial purpose furnaces, growing from its current annual $64 billion market up to $259 billion by 2050.
  • Zero-emitting electricity and natural gas coupled with carbon capture can also drive a major new growth market to meet the demand for low-carbon energy.
Source: Rhodium Group

Although scaling up direct air capture seems to have the biggest impact on steel and equipment manufacturing sectors, DAC technology offers potential across multiple sectors and for various stakeholders, with growing interest from venture capitalists, engineers, and climate scientists. Conferring with different voices on the major implications of this analysis is critically important.

Here is what some of our partners have to say about the report’s findings:

“Direct air capture (DAC) is one of many technologies that we need to fight climate change. This analysis by Rhodium Groups shows the opportunity for job creation in sectors that matter to Steelworker members like industrial machinery manufacturing, steel, cement, and chemicals. The United States could lead the world on this technology if we implement strong policies to promote DAC deployment and ensure those jobs are good jobs created here in America.”

Roxanne Brown, International Vice President, United Steelworkers

“The BlueGreen Alliance and our labor and environmental partners are committed to moving to a net-zero economy by 2050. That means rapid greenhouse gas reductions at the scale and urgency needed to achieve this goal. We need to have options on the table in the fight against climate change and direct air capture technology holds promise for significantly reducing emission to get us to net-zero, while creating the kinds of good-paying jobs for workers that are badly needed around the country.”

— Jason Walsh, Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance.

“Carbon Engineering (CE) has spent more than 10 years developing a world-leading direct air capture (DAC) technology. Since day one, our focus has been on developing an affordable technology that can be deployed at climate-relevant scale to help with the global energy challenge. Our DAC technology is now feasible, affordable, and available. Today, CE is engineering what will be the largest DAC plant in the world. Located in the U.S. Permian Basin, this facility will capture one million tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

The U.S. has enormous potential for sequestration and there are many great locations for additional decarbonization projects. Carbon Engineering is excited about the potential for job creation as well as the meaningful impact these projects will have on climate change. The new global DAC industry will create significant economic development, provide pathways to further reduce the cost of carbon removal, and deliver a critical new tool to get to net zero emissions and beyond.”

— Lori Guetre, VP Business Development, Carbon Engineering

Unlocking the many opportunities that DAC can offer requires a host of federal policies to support broader deployment, and a specific plan to account for the growth of hard-to-decarbonize markets like cement and chemicals. However, transitioning from a carbon-intensive economy to one that is sustainable and socially-responsible will have profound implications on jobs, and direct air capture may help make this transition seamless.

For a deeper dive, check out the full report and the webinar, led by lead author John Larsen.

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