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World's largest carbon capture machine activated in Iceland

On 8 September 2021, the world’s largest carbon capture and storage machine turned on its fans, filters and heaters, ushering in a new era for green finance and innovation.

Orca, or “energy” in Icelandic, evinces a widening of the scientific and economic possibilities in achieving a climate-positive world. Powered by geothermal energy, Orca's method of "direct air capture” (DAC) uses chemical reactions to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and inject it deep underground. As the high-concentration carbon cools, it is permanently mineralized into basaltic rock.

Orca’s architects, the Swiss startup Climeworks and the Icelandic firm Carbfix, project that the plant will capture 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. According to Corbin Hiar at E&E News, this feat single-handedly increases Earth's direct air carbon capture capacity by 40% to 13,000 metric tons annually. The International Energy Agency recorded that in 2020, humans emitted 31.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide; that is to say, Orca’s storage capacity is but a small fraction of what we need to make a meaningful reduction in humanity's carbon footprint.

By the end of next September, Orca will only have captured the equivalent of the annual emissions of 790 cars.

The gravity of this development, then, is not in its quantitative capacity, but rather its signals to the incipient climate-positive solutions market. Although many environmentalists oppose direct air capture (DAC) due to its costliness, nascent track record, and its propensity to “cover” for fossil fuel champions, Orca entrenches DAC as a financially viable element in the fight against climate change. The precedent of industrial scale DAC gives engineers the go-ahead to scale up the industry and plan more sequestration facilities around the world.

This technological and economic breakthrough, while certainly something to revel, should not make us complacent. In adopting carbon-positive solutions, society must understand the moral hazards inherent in the technology; namely, it cannot depend on DAC as a silver bullet that allows us to uphold the status quo. By no means should the feasibility of this new development substitute for carbon abatement. In order to successfully combat the temporal and spatial fragmentation of climate change, mankind will need to undergo stark behavioral, cultural and political changes; with that said, new technology is but an ingredient in a more comprehensive approach to thwarting the anthropocene.

By Carly Kessler

Works Consulted: Climeworks, E&E News, International Energy Agency, BBC, IPCC, Smithsionian Magazine

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