Scientists agree that, to reach the scale of negative emissions required in order to keep 1.5C alive, we will need to deploy a portfolio of carbon removal approaches.
Direct Air Capture has potential to pull gigatons of CO2 directly from the atmosphere every year, in a permanent and measurable way, whilst requiring little land area compared to other approaches such as reforestation. However, today’s leading DAC technologies are too expensive to deploy at scale.
The range of costs for DAC varies depending on the technology, with an estimated average of around $600 per tonne of CO2. For context, most reforestation costs less than $50/tonne. Depending on market development, it is estimated costs for DAC could fall to around $150 per tonne over the next 5-10 years, or even lower in some scenarios.
Fundamentally, DAC is expensive because it is a nascent technology. There are only a handful of companies developing this approach – as of 2021, 19 DAC plants were in operation globally, many of which are very small pilot or demonstration scale projects. Most emerging technologies, such as solar panels, computer hard drives, or recently offshore wind farms, start with very high costs, which substantially decline as they scale and innovate.
The Third Derivative and RMI report highlights the innovation and step-change technologies that will drive significant cost reductions as DAC scales up. Third Derivative DAC Report highlights important opportunities for cost reductions around capital expenditure, costs of materials such as the solvents that pull the CO2 from the air, and innovative ways to generate the energy required by the plants, such as electrochemistry.
Overall, according to this report, the best scenario sees the cost of DAC reduced by an order of magnitude to close to $50 per ton of CO2 removed.
This is the defining decade for technology development. Investing in DAC now can make the costs lower in the future. In 2050 and beyond, humanity may find itself in a position where it needs immediate carbon removal at gigaton scale. At $50 per ton, the world could achieve 10 gigatons of annual CO2 removal at a cost below $500 billion per year. While this is still a large sum, we believe that humankind will increasingly realize the value of solutions to the climate crisis.