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Direct Air Capture Must Be Deployed This Decade

Decades of insufficient action in the face of climate change has created a reality where emissions reduction strategies, like switching to renewable power and electric vehicles, cannot entirely solve the problem; instead, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible need to be paired with carbon dioxide removal (CDR) in order to keep global warming below critical temperature thresholds.

In fact, a 2019 report by the National Academies finds that “if the goals for climate and economic growth are to be achieved” CDR globally must scale to the gigaton level by 2050. This is echoed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which points out that all pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5°C require gigatons of CDR each year. To achieve this scale, a portfolio of solutions including both natural and engineered CDR will be crucial.

Direct air capture (DAC), which removes carbon dioxide from the ambient air, is one of the most scalable forms of CDR because of its siting flexibility and limited land-use requirements. However, despite the urgent need to scale DAC to the gigaton level, less than 10,000 tons of global annual capacity are currently operational. While the exact capacity of CDR needed globally in 2050 and 2100 largely depends on how rapidly and deeply countries reduce emissions, we do know that a large scale up in capacity is necessary this decade to enable the supply chains and cost declines necessary for gigaton-scale carbon removal with DAC in later decades. It’s worth noting that while this scale up is large in a relative sense because DAC capacity is starting from a very low baseline, the absolute scale up of DAC capacity looks far less daunting when compared to clean energy deployment.

Although the primary focus of climate policy and investment must continue to be on deploying clean energy technologies and protecting forests, setting a 2030 goal for DAC deployment will help ensure alignment with what science dictates is necessary for midcentury climate targets. While climate change is global, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to establish itself as a world leader in DAC deployment and to ensure that the technology is ready to play a meaningful role in the fight against climate change. To establish this leadership, BPC’s DAC Advisory Council recommends a deployment target of at least 7 million tons of annual DAC capacity (operational or under construction) in the U.S. by 2030.

Delaying the deployment of DAC by even a few years could substantially hamper our ability to meet midcentury climate goals. With 7 million tons of annual capacity in 2030, DAC capacity would then need to grow by approximately 30% for each of the following 20 years to reach the gigaton level by 2050. This is aggressive, but doable–wind and solar technologies have scaled up with year-over-year growth rates in the range of 15-30%. If, however, we have only deployed 2 million tons of DAC capacity by 2030, even an aggressive 30% growth rate will leave us woefully short of achieving gigaton-scale by 2050, as shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 1:

Since there is a multi-year lead time between when a project is originated and when it becomes operational, planning for the first 7 million tons of capacity needs to start today to ensure DAC can scale at a practical rate. As a positive step toward achieving this, the recently introduced Bipartisan Energy Infrastructure Act, which was drafted to be the Energy title of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, included $3.5 billion in funding to establish 4 regional DAC hubs—each with at least 1 million tons of annual capacity.

DAC technologies have existed for decades, but the industry remains in the early stages of deployment because of high costs. However, other energy technologies like wind, solar, and lithium-ion batteries, have demonstrated how increased scale can drive significant cost reductions. These costs declines will happen for DAC but require greater federal policy support. Policy options to help accelerate this critical scale up include:

  • Increasing federal research, development, demonstration, and deployment (RDD&D) spending for DAC
  • Creating an innovative financing toolkit to enable infrastructure development
  • Reforming and expanding the Section 45Q tax credit
  • Leveraging federal procurement
  • Establishing a robust carbon accounting framework
  • Creating several large-scale regional DAC hubs

More detail on the role of federal policy in facilitating this shift can be found in the recent report by the BPC’s DAC Advisory Council, “The Case for Federal Support to Advance Direct Air Capture.”

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