Image source: Chien-Tong Wang
In this op-ed, Tank Chen delves into the urgent need for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions to combat global warming, emphasizing Taiwan's opportunity to enter the burgeoning CDR industry.
By Tank Chen
What if I told you that there is a small but emerging market that needs to grow by 40-50% year after year from now until 2050? Would you think that’s possible? Well, such are the hopes of scientists, entrepreneurs, and dreamers in the carbon dioxide removal (CDR) industry.
We are in an urgent race against time to make enough changes in order to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, decarbonization efforts alone are not enough. Even if we dramatically slow the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere, we will still need to remove giga-tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to reach our climate objectives. The exact amount that needs to be removed will ultimately depend on how quickly we decarbonize.
Imagine an overflowing bathtub: the water is carbon dioxide, the faucet is fossil fuel emissions and the drain is various CDR technologies. Right now, the tap is open, causing the bathtub to overflow. The first thing to do is to turn off the tap. But when we try to do that we’ll discover that we have a “leaky” faucet that cannot be turned off all the way. This represents the emissions that are unavoidable. The bathtub will overflow until we find a way to help “drain” the tub with CDR. It is important to emphasize that CDR is not a substitute for severe emission reductions. Rather, we need to remove carbon from our atmosphere in order to address residual emissions.
There are many different ways to do this. The IPCC defines carbon dioxide removal as human-initiated activities to capture carbon from the atmosphere and permanently store it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in long-lived products. These activities, known as carbon removal methods, can be divided into “nature-based” and “engineered” solutions.
However, dive a little deeper and you will realize that most are actually hybrid solutions harnessing nature’s power through human ingenuity. Conventional land-based carbon removal methods include afforestation, reforestation, and changing land-use practices. More novel CDR methods include sexier technologies such as enhanced rock weathering, direct air capture, ocean alkalinization, and bio-oil sequestration.
Direct air capture (DAC) is likely the poster child of carbon removal tech given all the attention it’s getting. To put it simply, DAC is a process by which air is passed through a contacter to react with CO₂-grabbing materials such as solid “sorbents” or liquid solvents. The CO₂-rich material is then heated so that carbon dioxide can be separated for permanent geologic storage or for use in products, greenhouses, or industrial processes.
Each of the methods has its own unique characteristics and required conditions for development. It is important to consider tradeoffs when evaluating CDR technologies. Factors such as resource (land, water, energy, and material) consumption and impacts on local communities and biodiversity must be taken into account.
At present, DAC technologies are generally energy-intensive and expensive and need the resources and support of governments in order to drive the cost down and to scale. The U.S. government is doing this by including DAC in the Inflation Reduction Act. It just announced $1.2 billion dollars of funding for two DAC hubs in Texas and Louisiana. The U.S. Department of Energy is also launching the “Carbon Negative Shot”, an ambitious effort to fund a portfolio of CDR solutions. The goal is to drive costs under $100 USD per ton of CO₂ removed within the decade. Europe is also positioning itself as a leader in CDR efforts.
What about Taiwan?
In March 2022, Taiwan pledged to go net zero by 2050 and established a roadmap outlining key goals. Apart from an NT$84.7 billion budget to increase natural carbon sinks through afforestation, CDR is completely missing from the roadmap. This is unfortunate.
Relying on afforestation and soil management alone to neutralize residual emissions is not enough. These solutions are limited by Taiwan’s small land area and are subject to reversal risks. CO₂ could be re-released due to a wildfire, for instance.
Furthermore, it would be a great shame if Taiwan missed out on the opportunity to develop carbon removal technology, a potential export industry, due to its narrow focus on forestry-based carbon removal strategies.
If the carbon removal market is to grow to the trillion-dollar industry that many are projecting it to be, Taiwan shouldn’t be missing from the table. Taiwan’s existing expertise in high-tech solutions makes it an ideal player to incubate and accelerate the development of future carbon removal technology. The government should invest in the future accordingly.
About the author:
Tank Chen has a background in international business and K-12 education. He earned an IMBA from NCCU and a Professional Carbon Asset Manager certification from Feng Chia University. He currently volunteers as a Market Data Analyst at CDR.fyi, a platform that tracks the worldwide transactions of durable carbon dioxide removals. He is a member of the OpenAir Collective, a global carbon removal policy advocacy group and is also the co-producer of the Carbon Curve podcast.