Canadian climate solutions company Carbon Engineering facility. A view of the rocky mountains in the background.

Aviation industry starts to pour money into carbon-removal tech

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Green Wing logo with white letters against a green backdrop, and leafs on either sideAirbus and Air Canada recently announced separate multimillion dollar investments in Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company that specializes in removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground.

Direct air capture (DAC) technology is still in its infancy, but proponents describe it as a promising additional pathway to help difficult-to-decarbonize sectors such as aviation meet their net-zero targets. 

Another potential benefit of this technology for the airline industry is that an alternative option to sending the removed carbon dioxide deep underground is to use it as a feedstock to make power-to-liquid sustainable aviation fuel.

Airbus announced on 17 November that it is investing in Carbon Engineering to help fund the Squamish, British Columbia-based company’s research and development on DAC. Airbus has not disclosed how much it is investing, although a spokesperson for the European airframer tells RGN it is “a double-digit Canadian dollar figure”.

Carbon Engineering aims to build DAC facilities that are each capable of capturing one million tons of CO2 a year. The technology works by using giant fans to pull in atmospheric air, from which the CO2 is extracted through a series of chemical reactions. The carbon dioxide is then delivered in a pure, compressed form that can be stored underground or reused, says the company.

Direct Air Carbon Capture & Storage infographic

Direct Air Carbon Capture & Storage. Image: Airbus

Airbus views DAC as “a highly promising technological pathway”, says its spokesperson, but only for the purpose of addressing emissions that cannot be eliminated in other ways.

“We see direct air carbon capture and storage as a complementary solution – not a replacement for – other carbon-reduction solutions like sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and future hydrogen-powered aircraft,” says the Airbus spokesperson. 

“Carbon removals are only intended to address the residual emissions, i.e. those that are not possible to eliminate, remaining from aircraft already operating with the latest decarbonization innovations.” For example, SAF can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by up to 85%, says Airbus, and carbon removals “could thus assist in neutralizing the remaining 15%”.

Airbus also sees DAC as a “core component” of the aviation industry’s SAF strategy, with power-to-liquid fuels made from captured CO2 “potentially contributing up to 50% of total SAF supply by 2050”.

On the same day that Airbus announced its investment in Carbon Engineering, Air Canada revealed it is providing an “equity investment/loan” of C$6.75 million ($5 million) to support the advancement of the company’s DAC technology.

“We remain focused on seeking innovative, long-term, sustainable greenhouse-gas emissions-reduction solutions for aviation, and carbon capture is one we have outlined in our strategy to achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050,” said Air Canada chief executive Michael Rousseau on announcing the investment.

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Air Canada was among a group of airlines that signed letters of intent during this year’s Farnborough Airshow to explore opportunities for a future supply of carbon-removal credits from DAC technology. Other signatories included Air France-KLM, easyJet, International Airlines Group, LATAM, Lufthansa Group and Virgin Atlantic.

In addition to moving further up the aviation industry’s agenda, the topic of carbon removals was also under discussion during the COP27 climate summit in Egypt, which has just come to a close. According to Carbon Removals at COP – a group of NGOs and carbon-removal specialists which tracked discussions on the issue throughout the summit – parties were invited to submit their views on DAC ahead of COP28 in Dubai next year, where it is expected to be “an important focus area”.

The idea of vacuuming carbon out of the air has drawn past criticism from environmental campaigners, who have expressed concerns that it could be used as a license to continue burning fossil fuels. However, there are signs that such views are softening amid the sheer urgency of addressing the climate crisis.

“We don’t have time to choose between stopping emissions and removing CO2 from the air. We need to do both to survive,” says Kumi Naidoo, a former executive director of Greenpeace. “Just a decade ago, supporting carbon removal was unthinkable for activists like me. Many, including myself, thought these strategies would be an excuse for the fossil fuel industry to avoid action. 

“Today, while there is a global consensus that we need to get off fossil fuels, we have no time left to wait. Even if we stop all emissions tomorrow, the problem remains.” 

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Featured image credited to Air Canada