On May 31, 2017 the world’s first commercial atmospheric carbon-capture plant opened for business in Hinwil, Switzerland.
The plant, designed and operated by a Swiss company called Climeworks, is different from existing carbon-capture facilities because it filters carbon dioxide out of the ambient atmosphere using proprietary technology, rather than from industrial exhaust, which is quite common.
Climeworks claims their facility will be able to remove 900 tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Furthermore, its modular design will allow it to be scaled up as the demand for carbon dioxide increases.
What do they plan to do with said carbon? Some of it will be pumped into nearby greenhouses to help the plants grow better, some will be used in carbonated beverages, and the rest will be sequestered deep underground in Swiss mines. The point? To stop climate change. Whether or not this is a worthy goal is beyond the scope of this article, but for the sake of argument, assume that climate change is a clear and present danger--even an existential threat. Does this project make sense?
First of all, given the quantity of carbon Climework’s plant is able to filter from the atmosphere, it would take some 250,000 such facilities to meet even the relatively modest carbon sequestration goals recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--that is 1% of total emissions by 2025. Presumably building these would cost a lot of money (although in fairness, Climeworks had not disclosed the cost of its project).
Also, in order for the company to be profitable, the carbon must be sold to greenhouses and pop manufacturers. Has it occurred to any of these “environmentalists” that the moment the lettuce is shipped out of the greenhouse, or the can of Sprite is opened that the carbon dioxide simply returns to the atmosphere. This plant will mostly just move carbon around, and is therefore useless.
The only way this facility actually removes carbon from the atmosphere is via sequestration, which is clearly not profitable. This means taxpayers will inevitably be on the hook for this “business” venture. Of course, carbon is used in oil wells, but more than enough of that is harvested locally from exhaust--no one needs Swiss atmospheric carbon.
Finally, Climeworks, and the entire green technology industry for that matter, appears to have forgotten that trees exist. Yes, trees. Trees naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere, and give us beautiful breathable oxygen. They basically do exactly what Climeworks does, except they are free--or dirt-cheap at the very least.
The best part is that trees are also very good at what they do. Depending on the climate and the type of tree, they can remove enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and lock it away for centuries. In numerical terms, it only takes98 “mature” trees (trees that can grow at least 20lb per year) to remove one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and this number is for Canadian trees, which are not particularly verdant.
This means that Climeworks’ facility does the work of just 88,200 trees per year. This is nothing, in the grand scheme of things: there are non-profit groups that will plant saplings for pennies, and at most, dollars. One relatively large tree-planting charity estimates that their all-in costs are roughly $1 per tree. If this is the case, then Climework’s facility has a fair market value of just $88,200.
Of course, given the scale of the project, and the research that went into designing the proprietary technology, the Hinwil facility probably cost millions.
Interestingly, planting trees is not even the best, or most economical way to tackle the “problem” of atmospheric carbon levels. A better option would simply be to stop clearing vast swathes of virgin land for new agricultural and urban development. Take Australia for example: they could meet their obligations to the Paris Climate Agreement by doing nothing other than prohibiting new land-clearing projects. The cost would be negligible when compared to switching to renewable energy.
The same is true in America, Russia, Indonesia--all over the world, as it turns out.
But of course, cheap, commonsense approaches like this lack the sex-appeal that green technology proponents crave. Not coincidentally, they also lack the wealth-redistribution component that has made welfare billionaires like Elon Musk rich. And that gets to the heart of the matter: green energy schemes are not about helping the environment, and never were. They are about getting rich. This is why the focus is always on expensive solutions, like thickening the Arctic ice sheet by refreezing it with thousands of wind turbines for a cool $500 billion--yes, that is a real idea.
Climeworks’ carbon-capture facility is no different than any of the other failed climate fixes. It is just an expensive way to do nothing.
Spencer P Morrison is a JD candidate, writer, and independent intellectual with a focus on applied philosophy, empirical history, and practical economics. Author of America Betrayed and Editor-In-Chief of the National Economics Editorial.