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What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal

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What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal


A pair of companies have begun designing what could become Europe’s largest direct-air-capture plant, capable of capturing as much as a million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and burying it deep beneath the floor of the North Sea.

The sequestered climate pollution will be sold as carbon credits, reflecting the rising demand for carbon removal as a drove of nations and corporations lay out net-zero emissions plans that rely heavily, whether directly or indirectly, on using trees, machines, or other means to pull carbon dioxide out of the air.

Climate researchers say the world may need billions of tons of carbon dioxide removal annually by midcentury to address the “residual emissions” from things like aviation and agriculture that we can’t affordably clean up by then—and to pull the climate back from extremely dangerous levels of warming.

The critical and unanswered question, however, is how much direct air capture will cost—and whether companies and nations will decide they can afford it.

The facility proposed by the two companies, Carbon Engineering and Storegga Geotechnologies, will likely be located in North East Scotland, enabling it to draw on plentiful renewable energy and funnel captured carbon dioxide to nearby sites offshore, the companies said. It’s expected to come online by 2026.

“We can’t stop every [source of] emissions,” says Steve Oldham, chief executive of Carbon Engineering, which is based in British Columbia. “It’s too difficult, too expensive, and too disruptive. That’s where carbon removal comes in. We’re seeing an increasing realization that it’s going to be essential.”

Getting to $100 a ton

Oldham declines to say how much the companies plan to charge for carbon removal, and says they don’t yet know the per-ton costs they’ll achieve with the European plant.

But he is confident it will eventually reach the target cost levels for direct air capture identified in a 2018 analysis in Joule, led by Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith. It put the range at between $94 and $232 per ton once the technology reaches commercial scale.

Steve Oldham, CEO of Carbon Engineering

COURTESY: CARBON ENGINEERING

Getting to $100 per ton is essentially the point of economic viability, as large US customers generally pay $65 to $110 for carbon dioxide used for commercial purposes, according to a little-noticed May paper by Habib Azarabadi and direct-air-capture pioneer Klaus Lackner, both at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. (The $100 doesn’t include the separate but considerably smaller cost of carbon sequestration.)

At that point, direct air capture could become a reasonably cost-effective way of addressing the 10% to 20% of emissions that will remain too difficult or expensive to eliminate—and may even compete with the cost of capturing carbon dioxide before it leaves power plants and factories, the authors state.

But the best guess is that the sector is nowhere near that level today. In 2019, the Swiss direct-air-capture company Climeworks said its costs were around $500 to $600 per ton.

What it will take to get to that $100 threshold is building a whole bunch of plants, Azarabadi and Lackner found.

Specifically, the study estimates that the direct-air-capture industry will need to grow by a factor of a little more than 300 in order to achieve costs of $100 a ton. That’s based on the “learning rates” of successful technologies, or how rapidly costs declined as their manufacturing capacity grew. Getting direct-air capture to that point may require total federal subsidies of $50 million to $2 billion, to cover the difference between the actual costs and market rates for commodity carbon dioxide.

Lackner says the key question is whether their study applied the right learning curves from successful technologies like solar—where costs dropped by roughly a factor of 10 as scale increased 1,000-fold—or if direct air capture falls into a rarer category of technologies where greater learning doesn’t rapidly drive down costs.

“A few hundred million invested in buying down the cost could tell whether this is a good or bad assumption,” he said in an email.

Dreamcatcher

The United Kingdom has set a plan to zero out its emissions by 2050 that will require millions of tons of carbon dioxide removal to balance out the emissions sources likely to still be producing pollution. The government has begun providing millions of dollars to develop a variety of technical approaches to help it hit those targets, including about $350,000 to the Carbon Engineering and Storegga effort, dubbed Project Dreamcatcher.

The plant will likely be located near the so-called Acorn project developed by Scotland-based Storegga’s subsidiary, Pale Blue Dot Energy. The plan is to produce hydrogen from natural gas extracted from the North Sea, while capturing the emissions released in the process. The project would also repurpose existing oil and gas infrastructure on the northeast tip of Scotland to transport the carbon dioxide, which would be injected into sites below the seabed.

The proposed direct-air-capture plant could leverage the same infrastructure for its carbon dioxide storage, Oldham says.

The companies initially expect to build a facility capable of capturing 500,000 tons annually but could eventually double the scale given market demand. Even the low end would far exceed the otherwise largest European facility under way, Climeworks’ Orca facility in Iceland, slated to remove 4,000 tons annually. Only a handful of other small-scale plants have been built around the world.

The expected capacity of the Scotland plant is essentially the same as that of Carbon Engineering’s other full-sized facility, planned for Texas. It will also begin as a half-million-ton-a-year plant with the potential to reach a million. Construction is likely to start on that plant early next year, and it’s expected to begin operation in 2024.

Much of the carbon dioxide captured at that facility, however, will be used for what’s known as enhanced oil recovery: the gas will be injected underground to free up additional oil from petroleum wells in the Permian Basin. If done carefully, that process could potentially produce “carbon neutral” fuels, which at least don’t add more emissions to the atmosphere than were removed.

Oldham agrees that building more plants will be the key to driving costs, noting that Carbon Engineering will see huge declines just from its first plant to its second. How sharply the curve bends from there will depend on how rapidly governments adopt carbon prices or other climate policies that create more demand for carbon removal, he adds. Such policies essentially force “hard-to-solve” sectors like aviation, cement, and steel to start paying someone to clean up their pollution.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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