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GAIL’s tie-up with LanzaTech for CO2 capture is a big deal | Mint – Mint

On July 19, India’s premier natural gas company GAIL entered into a joint venture with Nasdaq-listed LanzaTech to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and convert it into useful organic chemicals. This must be recognised as a paradigm-setting initiative to combat climate change.
So far, the global discourse on combating climate change has been about reducing additional emissions of heat-trapping gases such as CO2, called greenhouse gases, rather than on taking out what has already been injected into the atmosphere. But now it is clear that the strategy of reducing additional emissions cannot by itself bring global temperatures to within 1.50C of pre-industrial levels. There is increasing acceptance that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) must be an integral part of the solution.
But CDR is tough and expensive. Estimates say it would cost anywhere between $600-1000 to remove a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere. The price of carbon in the European Union – where companies face a cap-and-trade system and must pay for CO2 emissions above a threshold – has been around $100 per tonne.
There are two ways to remove CO2. The first is to capture it from flue gases escaping plants where fossil fuels are burnt. The second is to remove it from the air through a process called direct air capture (DAC). The CO2 in chimneys is concentrated, so capturing it is simpler than capturing CO2 from the air. One technique is to use powerful fans to suck air down to adsorbents that soak up the CO2 passing through them. They release the CO2 once heated, allowing them to be reused. The captured CO2 can either be used or stored. Mere storage is pure cost. Using the captured CO2 would not just lower the net cost of CDR but also possibly earn a profit.
Storage has broadly taken two forms: burying the gas deep underground or making it react with basic chemicals to produce things like calcium carbonate. There are takers even for these so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) credits. These are bought by companies that want to prove their green credentials to investors who prioritise environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
But the real excitement is in carbon capture and use (CCU). One straightforward use is to pump the captured CO2 into depleting oil wells to increase the pressure and pump out the remaining oil. This, of course, adds yet more CO2 to the atmosphere. Another use is to substitute normal industrial CO2 with captured CO2 for things like putting the fizz in soda or beer. But there is only so much beer or soda humanity can guzzle, and in any case, the gas escapes back into the atmosphere sooner or later.
Captured CO2 can also be used in greenhouses to accelerate plant growth. But here, too, CO2 is removed only for a short time. Once the crop is harvested and consumed, the gas returns to the atmosphere. Research labs have successfully converted atmospheric CO2 into alcohol, carbon fibre and the like, but these processes are not economically viable yet.
There’s a new breed of CO2 removers – companies that use new technologies to put captured CO2 to good use. CarbonFree converts CO2 from flues into baking soda and sells it on Amazon. It has also tied up with the likes of ArcelorMittal to capture and convert CO2 into specialty chemicals. One of its technologies, called Skymine, aims to mine the sky for CO2.
LanzaTech is another high-profile CCU company with a proven technology that converts captured CO2 into the building blocks of synthetic fabrics. Athleisure brand Lululemon sells yoga pants made from such materials. They hope to use captured CO2 to manufacture synthetic aviation fuel, too. When a plane flies on such synthetic fuel there is no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Suppose the entire range of petrochemicals currently derived from crude oil could be made from CO2 mined from the air. That would make a dent on the stock of atmospheric CO2 and make its removal a source of revenue rather than a dead cost.
Developing countries are under pressure from the rich world to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to achieve the shared goal of slowing down and reversing climate change. But figures supplied by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make it clear that even growth-stunting emission curbs won’t prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.50C above pre-industrial levels.
IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report makes it clear that the world had already warmed by 1.10C by 2019, at which point only 500 gigatonnes more of CO2 alone was needed to push the global temperature above the 1.50C threshold. A year of reasonable global growth yields well over 40 billion tonnes of additional emissions. Active and massive removal of CO2 from the existing stock of CO2 in the air is the only way to avert a climate catastrophe.
Ideally, the rich world should take up CDR as its moral responsibility and spend a few trillion dollars on the clean-up. Ideally, we should all sprout wings and play the harp.
The only way to get companies to actually remove CO2 from the air is to make it profitable. More Indian companies should partner with the likes of LanzaTech and CarbonFree and fund Indian startups to find new ways of capturing atmospheric CO2 and converting it into useful products.
Carbon capture and recycling is best suited to countries like India that would otherwise find it too expensive and difficult to eliminate emissions. This makes the GAIL-Lanza tie-up especially important.
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