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Removing CO₂ from the air with direct air capture

This article was originally published in German in Sustainable Switzerland.

A conversation between BCG and Climeworks

Decarbonizing the economy and society will not be enough to achieve the global net zero target. In addition, up to twelve gigatons of CO₂ must be actively removed from the atmosphere every year by mid-2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The capture and storage of CO₂ from the air — direct air capture technology, or DAC for short — will play a decisive role in this. Zurich-based Climeworks AG is known as the world’s leading supplier of this technology. Numerous companies are already working with Climeworks to permanently remove part of their emissions. Among them are Microsoft and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), who have also entered a strategic partnership with Climeworks.

Sustainable Switzerland spoke with Dr. Christoph Gebald, co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks AG in Zurich, and Dr. Cornelius Pieper, Managing Director and Senior Partner at BCG, about the potential of the innovative technology.

Sustainable Switzerland: How does the direct air capture process work, and can this process be applied on industrial scale?

Christoph Gebald: Our DAC facilities consist of modular collectors that use fans to draw in ambient air. They are powered exclusively by renewable energy. The filter material inside the collectors adsorbs CO₂. Once these filters are saturated, they are heated to around 100°C. This releases the CO₂, which can be collected. It is then liquefied and can be geologically stored for thousands of years, for example, in basalt or volcanic rock. To realize this, we work with the Icelandic company Carbfix, a pioneer in CO₂ underground mineralization. Through their mineralization approach, which is an accelerated natural process, the CO₂ is turned into stone within only two years and thus permanently removed from the atmosphere.

When Climeworks was founded 13 years ago, we worked on a milligram scale. Today, our Orca facility in Iceland, the world’s first commercial direct air capture and storage plant, has a nominal capture capacity of up to 4,000 tons of CO₂ per year. With Orca, we have already taken an important scale-up step. We are deploying our technology in real-world conditions and gaining field experience that influences the construction of our next plant, “Mammoth.” With a nominal capacity of up to 36,000 metric tons, Mammoth will enable us to capture and store CO₂ on an entirely new scale.

Our modular technology allows us to steadily scale our capacity and offer our service on an industrial scale. Our goal is to increase our capacity to megaton scale by 2030 and to reach gigaton scale by 2050.

Sustainable Switzerland: BCG announced a ten-year partnership with Climeworks last year. What was your motivation?

Cornelius Pieper: Since DAC physically removes CO₂ from the air and thus actively lowers the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere, its approach is clearly and demonstrably different from conventional carbon offsets. DAC technology can make a very significant contribution to the fight against climate change.

However, this requires a functioning market for such solutions. Providers like Climeworks need investors to further develop their technologies and make them even more efficient. At the same time, they need to meet a rapidly growing demand. A lot has happened in this market in recent months. Not only BCG but also companies like Microsoft, Swiss Re, UBS, and Shopify are focusing on negative emissions to achieve their own climate goals. This has a signaling effect, of course. At BCG, however, we’re not just purchasing Climeworks’ service. As part of our partnership, we are also supporting the company to accelerate the broader adoption and scaling of DAC globally.

The sustainable transformation of our economy will only be possible if we consistently and rapidly adopt clean decarbonization technologies and processes. We need to support companies, established as well as start-ups, with investments, know-how as well as demand, so that they can not only develop clean technologies but also offer them on a large scale.

Sustainable Switzerland: Where do you see the biggest challenges for your company?

Christoph Gebald: We have currently reached an important milestone: the leap from a start-up to a scale-up company. The financing round in April of around 600 million Swiss francs enables many things and is clear evidence of the future viability of our technology and our business model.

However, to realize our goal of gigaton capacity by 2050, we will continue to need the support of investors. And for DAC to develop its full potential, it is also essential to create the necessary political framework. This is particularly true for the expansion of renewable energies. According to conservative forecasts, DAC will require up to 25 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity annually from 2030. This represents about three percent of 2030 clean power capacity.

In addition, to ensure carbon removals provided to customers meet the highest quality, we need rigorous standards that are measurable and suitable for climate reporting under, for example, the Science Based Targets Initiative guidelines. Climeworks and Carbfix have developed the world’s first methodology for certification for carbon removal by DAC and underground storage by mineralization. This has been validated by the independent quality and assurance company DNV.

Sustainable Switzerland: What role will DAC play in the climate turnaround?

Cornelius Pieper: We need a whole portfolio of solutions that remove CO₂ from the atmosphere — both nature-based and technological — if we are to achieve the global climate targets. Of course, reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions is an absolute priority. But that won’t be enough to stop global warming. That’s why we need to actively remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. Climeworks’ technology-based solution, which complements the portfolio of nature-based removal solutions, will make a big contribution here.

It is important to promote clean technologies — from the government side, but also by established companies. Not only can these companies significantly reduce their own emissions and achieve their stated climate goals, they also promote the further development of carbon removal technologies through their demand. BCG is a founding member of the First Mover Coalition, which aims to make key decarbonization technologies marketable, including carbon removal.

About the authors

Dr. Cornelius Pieper

Managing Director and Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group, Global Leader Climate & Sustainability in Industrials

More information on LinkedIn

Dr. Christoph Gebald

Co-CEO and co-founder at Climeworks

More information on LinkedIn

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