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According to a recent major UN report, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions to net zero by 2050. This means eliminating fossil fuel use fast – but to cushion that transition and offset the areas in which there is currently no replacement for combustibles, we need to actively remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. Planting trees and rewilding are a large part of this solution, but we are highly likely to need further technological assistance if we are to prevent climate breakdown.
So when recent news emerged that Canadian company Carbon Engineering has harnessed some well-known chemistry to capture CO₂ from the atmosphere at a cost of less than $100 a tonne, many media sources hailed the milestone as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, the big picture isn't as simple. Truly tipping the balance from carbon source to carbon sink is a delicate business, and our view is that the energy costs involved and likely downstream uses of captured CO₂ mean that Carbon Engineering's "bullet" is anything but magic.
CO₂ - % - Molecules - Air - Marvel
Given that CO₂ only accounts for 0.04% of the molecules in our air, capturing it might seem like a technological marvel. But chemists have been doing it on small scales since the 18th century, and it can even be done – albeit inefficiently – with supplies from the local hardware store.
As secondary school chemistry students will know, CO₂ reacts with limewater (calcium hydroxide solution) to give milky-white insoluble calcium carbonate. Other hydroxides capture CO₂ in the same way. Lithium hydroxide was the basis of the CO₂ absorbers that kept the astronauts on Apollo 13 alive, and potassium hydroxide captures CO₂ so efficiently that it can be used to measure the carbon content of a combusted...
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