By Courtni Holness, direct air capture policy intern
A journey to direct air capture
I studied environmental engineering as an undergrad because I thought it would center me in climate-focused work. I was wrong. Most of the discussions I was having and courses I was taking in my university’s engineering department were missing two key ingredients — the climate crisis and carbon removal.
The disconnect I was experiencing led me to explore different paths and eventually landed me at Carbon180. Here I research and analyze federal policies for direct air capture (DAC), a carbon removal solution. My technical background helps me understand the science and research needed for this new technology, while with my newfound interest in policy I can also focus on what policy mechanisms have worked in the past and new strategies for scaling DAC. A crucial part of the solution, carbon removal strategies are quickly gaining traction as the world realizes emissions reductions alone will not be enough to keep warming under 2℃. Engineering and other technical disciplines can be quite narrow in scope — but the climate challenge is not, and solving it requires an integrated approach that includes carbon removal solutions like DAC.
Why direct air capture?
DAC is one component in a portfolio of carbon removal solutions working to limit warming to 2℃. DAC is a chemical process that captures CO2 directly from the atmosphere. The captured CO2 is then permanently stored in geologic formations, or utilized in building materials like concrete. Rhodium Group analyses show that DAC has the potential to remove 0.5–5 gigatons of CO2 annually by 2050, and possibly as much as 40 gigatons of CO2 per year by the end of the century. If scaled to this level, DAC would have a significant impact — 40 gigatons per year is more than all global emissions from 2018. Scientific literature suggests that global carbon removal mechanisms will need to remove roughly 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by midcentury to limit warming to 2℃, deeming DAC a tool critical to meeting our climate goals.
Folks early in their career have the opportunity to navigate DAC using an interdisciplinary approach by involving themselves with the companies, scientists, and policymakers who are working together in this new and growing field. Early career professionals can contribute to the growth of DAC and help address the cost, efficiency, and commercialization obstacles that DAC needs to overcome before full scale-up can be achieved. Pathways to consider pursuing include science and engineering to improve capture capabilities, public policy to help create incentives, and business to help facilitate a market and customers for DAC.
Future deployment of large-scale DAC will benefit from early career professionals across many disciplines. Greater efforts to advance DAC can unlock its potential to become a global business. In Capturing New Jobs and New Businesses, Rhodium Group estimates that a typical one-megaton capacity DAC facility can generate roughly 3,500 jobs, providing a significant source of employment in communities that host them. It can provide substantial carbon removal and create thousands of new jobs in construction, engineering, manufacturing, and operations and maintenance.
A home for many disciplines
A holistic and interdisciplinary approach will foster an abundance of opportunities for DAC deployment. DAC is interdisciplinary by nature — it requires engineers for research and development, policymakers for policy support, businesspeople for market and commercialization research, and social scientists to understand changing behaviors in a changing climate. Professionals must work together to make comprehensive decisions regarding climate solutions.
This technology is a critical component in meeting climate goals and avoiding some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change. My childhood spent hiking desert mountains in Arizona and reading National Geographic motivated me to be part of the solution to the species extinctions, extreme weather, sea level rise, and food insecurity I’ve witnessed for the majority of my life. The climate crisis and carbon removal are not topics that I encountered as an environmental engineering student, and it was only when I ventured into other fields that I gained the perspective and skills I needed to truly be part of the solution.
These issues are complex, and I want to encourage those just starting out in the climate space to recognize that there are myriad ways you can help address these problems. Don’t be afraid to move into new fields and tackle unfamiliar problems — it is there that you’re most likely to find the inspiration that can help you help the world.
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