Direct air carbon capture is already an affordable alternative to high-cost renewable-energy subsidies. Even so, the cost of carbon capture is expected to decline rapidly over the next 10 years.
The obstacles to lower capture costs are predictable and surmountable: the high costs of sorbents and energy inputs, short lifecycles for materials and high financing costs. Scaling up current technology will alleviate these expenses by allowing bulk purchases of materials.
The greatest strides will come from entrepreneurs tinkering with their technology and iterating their designs. More durable materials, effective sorbents, and efficient chemical processing will all contribute to a steadily declining cost curve for carbon capture.
Industry leaders are optimistic. Climeworks, a Swiss startup experimenting with direct air carbon capture, projects it can drop its costs to $200 a ton from $450 in five to 10 years. The industry's long-term goal — 10-plus years — is to reach $100 a ton.
But there is no time to spare. An innovation prize put up by pension funds is a commonsense strategy to speed up the development of carbon capture technology.
Lowering the cost of direct air carbon capture to $100 a ton would revolutionize the world's approach to climate change.
At $100 a ton for direct air capture, the U.S. can afford to capture half of its total transportation emissions by adding a gasoline tax of 60 cents a gallon. California's current gas tax for its highway fund is 50 cents a gallon.
The entire U.S. can transform into a carbon-neutral economy for $480 billion a year — or roughly 2.4% of the U.S.'s GDP — without any other emissions reduction strategies. For comparison, the U.S. spends $720 billion a year on defense and $230 billion on interest on our national debt. Alternative solutions to climate change cost much more. The Green New Deal, for instance, is estimated to cost at least 10 times as much as carbon capture.