Sky vacuums may not reduce carbon, but they sure are good at sucking up billions

Carbon capture is having a moment, regardless of its effectiveness.

The controversial environment-saving tech that sounds like it was pitched by a stoned teenager — “You should, like, suck all the carbon stuff out of the sky or whatever” — is suddenly a very real thing.

Planet Earth as seen from space with a vacuum sweeping across a swath of it.

Direct air capture (DAC) is the emerging atmosphere-restoring process of sucking in large quantities of air, stripping out carbon dioxide molecules, then transferring that carbon into underground storage.

Could that really work?

Nobody knows for sure, but 2024 has been DAC’s multibillion-dollar coming-out party anyway, with sky-sucking plants multiplying fast.

While the tech is starting to be deployed at scale, that doesn’t mean we’re about to find out how effective it actually is, per Heatmap.

  • As more plants open, proponents will start a yearslong process of amassing actionable data. Only then can they determine if carbon removal can ever be sustainable, scaleable, or economically viable enough to actually affect atmospheric change.
  • Critics, who have called the tech “a dangerous distraction” and “a scam,” aren’t holding their breath.

They have a point: when the three newly-operational plants are fully scaled up, they will combine to remove 42k metric tons of CO2 per year; the world continues to annually emit 40B+ metric tons.

Why is DAC scoring billions then?

The tech’s impact is speculative, but this isn’t: The money will keep flowing and the DAC plants will keep coming fast.

  • Oil companies love the optics of carbon capture — it’s cheaper to throw hundreds of millions at an unproven solution that makes them appear climate-conscious than to lose billions on a proven solution: slowing fossil fuel production.
  • Another deep-pocketed, optics-loving crowd (politicians) dig it, too: US and European governments combined to toss ~$20B at advancing carbon capture last year.
  • FOMO-avoidant VCs can’t resist DAC either, pouring in ~$13B to date.

Anyway, in solidarity with carbon-capturing scientists, we will now go try to remove all the salt from the Pacific Ocean with a colander. Wish us luck.

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