Carbon capture technology has been around for decades — here’s why it hasn’t taken off

In terms of reversing global climate change, there’s already been too much carbon released into the atmosphere for us not to try and capture carbon and store it, says Klaus Lackner, the director of Center for Negative Carbon Emissions and professor at Arizona State University.

“The question of whether you want to store or not to store [carbon] was a very good question in 1980,” Lackner tells CNBC. “But you needed to have this discussion 30, 40 years ago because back then you still had a chance to stop the train before we collide with something.” 

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is tracked as in parts per million, or PPM. As of December, atmospheric carbon dioxide stands at 414.02 ppm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“We started the industrial revolution with 280 parts per million in the atmosphere,” Lackner tells CNBC. “By now we have 415 [ppm], and we are going up 2.5 ppm a year at this moment.” The consequences of that rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are already dire and will get worse. “The oceans have started to rise, hurricanes have gotten way worse, climate has become more extreme, and this will only get worse over the next decade,” Lackner says.

The only choice, Lackner says, is to “draw down” the atmospheric carbon dioxide — or to suffer unknown, devastating consequences.

Capturing carbon from the air, not from a factory smokestack, is called “direct air capture,” and there are currently 15 direct air capture plants in Europe, the United States and Canada, according to the IEA. “Carbon removal is expected to play a key role in the transition to a net-zero energy system,” the IEA says, but currently it is a very expensive technology. 

Direct air capture is “very expensive because the CO2 in the atmosphere is only .04%,” Herzog tells CNBC, and the technical process of removing carbon dioxide from a gas gets more expensive the lower the concentration of the carbon dioxide gets. “But it is very seductive. A lot of people jumped on this,” he says. 

Lackner sees it as a necessity. “In the end I see CO2 as a waste management problem. We have for two centuries simply dumped the waste from energy production — which is carbon dioxide — in the atmosphere and not thought about it any further, and we are gradually waking up to the fact that that’s not acceptable,” Lackner says.