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Is Carbon Capture Cause for Hope?

Lots of people want to see more “hope” and less “doom” about climate change. But a new facility to suck carbon out of the air shows why it’s more complicated than that.

The Mammoth facility by Climeworks sits in the middle of the tundra with mountains in the background.
A Swiss start-up unveiled Mammoth, its second plant in Iceland, on May 8, sucking carbon dioxide from the air and stocking it underground.

This week, the direct air capture company Climeworks unveiled the world’s largest-ever facility to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Mammoth, located on a dormant volcano in southern Iceland, will reportedly be able to capture 36,000 metric tons (tonnes) of carbon from the air each year once it’s operating at full capacity—about 1 percent of the annual emissions of a typical coal-fired power plant. So far, only a sixth of its planned capturing and filtering units have been installed. Mammoth’s opening has been widely hailed as a breakthrough for direct air capture technology—and alleged cause for something a growing chorus of climate advocates are urging the masses to embrace: hope.

Though it’ll have nearly 10 times the capacity of the world’s second-biggest carbon capture facility, Mammoth will make a very small dent in the relatively meager amount of carbon currently being captured worldwide, which stands at less than 0.01 million tonnes. That figure is especially meager relative to the amount of carbon the International Energy Agency says will need to be captured via similar processes each year in order to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century: 70 million tonnes. Toward this end, coverage has emphasized, Mammoth’s opening represents a “significant milestone” and a “critical step,” as well as a sign of more exciting developments to come.

Companies that have been enthusiastic about capturing carbon—and collecting generous subsidies to do so—aren’t so optimistic. ExxonMobil—now owner of the world’s largest network of carbon pipelines—explained on a recent quarterly earnings call that it’s still just too damn expensive to be worth doing, with costs per ton of captured carbon still ranging between $600 and $1,000. “If you tried to apply that across the emissions challenge the planet has, the world won’t be able to pay for that,” Woods said. “We’re focused on how we can make this technology broadly applicable at a cost that society can afford.” On a virtual presser announcing Mammoth’s opening, Climeworks CEO Jan Wurzbacher said the company’s cost per ton of carbon captured was “closer to $1,000 a ton than $100 a ton,” though he said the company hopes to get that down to $300 per ton by 2030.

Mammoth, in other words, doesn’t feel like something to be especially hopeful about, even if it might indeed be good news. That’s especially true given the parade of other, decidedly bad climate news this past week. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide increased by a record-breaking amount between last March and this March. Seventy-seven percent of the hundreds of climate scientists surveyed by The Guardian expect temperatures will rise by at least 2.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century; nearly half anticipate temperatures rising by at least 3 degrees Celsius.

Still, the injunction to hope seems louder than ever. In response to The Guardian’s survey of scientists feeling “hopeless and broken,” former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres urged “stubborn optimism,” pointing to some promising recent data about wind and solar development. “A sense of despair is understandable,” Figueres wrote, “but it robs us of our agency, makes us vulnerable to mis- and disinformation, and prevents the radical collaboration we need.” Figueres recounted her own change of heart. Having told reporters in 2010 that a global climate agreement wasn’t possible, she went on—in 2015—to oversee the Paris climate talks and the creation of the resulting Paris climate agreement. “I immediately afterward had to change my attitude,” Figueres writes. “And that made all the difference. It was a candle in the darkness that I used to light a spark in many others. I am still using the candle of stubborn optimism today—and I’m not the only one. A world in which we pass 1.5C is not set in stone.”

Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe had a similar message late last month. “Effective action is fueled by hope and love,” she concluded in a talk at the University of Michigan. “There has never been a more important time to focus—not so much on our personal carbon footprint—but on our climate shadow and how we affect people around us.” To counter every worrying new study and climate-fueled disaster are a half-dozen technological solutions and carefully picked data points showing how far we’ve come.

These cases for hope brim with heroes—proactive companies, social entrepreneurs, activists, etc. They typically lack villains. Naming villains—say, polluters or the elected officials they bribe—would involve politics, which is complicated. Lacking any real enemies, then, climate hope’s stated foes are the “doomers.” The relationship between hope and action is never specified. Precisely what progress is enabled by some critical mass of people feeling adequately hopeful? How many people feeling hopeful is enough?

In 2007, Barbara Ehrenreich recounted similar dynamics in reflecting on her experience undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and the concurrent rise of “positive thinking” as a supposed cure-all for everything from unemployment to grave illness. “The problem, for anyone with a lin­gering loyalty to secular rationalism, is that the prescriptions don’t stop at behavior,” she wrote of the phenomenon in Harper’s. “Like our culture’s ambient Protestantism, the Cult of Positivity demands not only acts but faith. It’s not enough to manifest positivity through a visibly positive attitude; you must establish it as one of the very structures of your mind, whether or not it is justified by the actual cir­cumstances.”

If one were interested in manifesting positivity, recent news about Mammoth and the state of direct air capture technologies offers a mixed bag of evidence. Climeworks has long been considered an industry leader in capturing carbon. Doing so is massively energy intensive, and the company’s Iceland facilities can draw on that country’s abundant, zero-carbon geothermal energy. That’s certainly not the case for the raft of carbon capture projects being enthusiastically subsidized by and in the United States. And unlike Climeworks, which injects captured carbon into rock formations, 79 percent of the world’s carbon capture facilities send the carbon they capture out to be used in enhanced oil recovery—that is, to get more fossil fuels out of the ground. Vicki Hollub, CEO of Oxy—a fossil fuel company which has rebranded itself as a “carbon management” company—said recently that carbon capture “gives our industry a license to continue to operate for the 60, 70, 80 years.”

Oxy plans to open a facility in Texas next year that will reportedly be able to remove 500,000 tonnes of carbon from the air annually, and has already started selling carbon removal credits to the likes of Amazon. Other oil companies’ track record doing this hasn’t been great. A report from Greenpeace Canada found that, from 2015 to 2021, Shell sold millions of dollars’ worth of carbon credits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions that never happened. Credits were sold through Alberta’s carbon market, mostly to other oil and gas companies as a means to offset their own emissions. Yet the amount of credits Shell sold off vastly outnumbered the amount of carbon captured and stored at its Quest facility, 93 percent of which has been funded by government subsidies. As the report notes, Shell sold 5.7 million of so-called “phantom” credits, which corresponded to no carbon removal.

This isn’t to suggest that capturing carbon is unimportant. I also don’t mean to imply that it’s a ploy cooked up by the fossil fuel industry. The government probably shouldn’t scrap all of its still somewhat modest backing for carbon removal technologies. The world will very likely need to capture a lot of carbon, largely to decarbonize industrial processes like those that produce steel and cement, for which there currently aren’t currently workable, low-carbon alternatives. But being able to do that at any meaningful scale—much less in a way that’ll be profitable enough to attract investors—seems very far away. Like most things on earth, carbon removal isn’t clear-cut evidence for either doom or optimism. It just is.

As fully cognizant adults we are more than capable of holding complex thoughts and emotions that might, occasionally, be in tension with one another. Our planet’s capacity to sustain life is being rapidly degraded by the burning of fossil fuels. How you choose to feel about that isn’t really anyone’s business. Ehrenreich, who passed away in 2022, offered a helpful escape from the doom-versus-optimism debate now trying to convince us otherwise: being “hope-free.”

“I got through my bout of cancer in a state of constant rage, directed chiefly against the kitschy positivity of Amer­ican breast-cancer culture. I remain, although not absolutely, certifiably, cancer-free down to the last cell, at least hope-free,” Ehrenreich wrote. “Do not mistake this condition for hopelessness, in the beat­en or passive sense, or confuse it with unhappiness. The trick, as my teen hero Camus wrote, is to draw strength from the ‘refusal to hope, and the un­yielding evidence of a life without consolation.’ To be hope-free is to ac­knowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one’s moves accordingly.”