For many of us, the Climeworks start-up came out of thin air.
Suddenly, two young Swiss engineers were all over the airwaves, talking about extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And they were not talking about some distant utopia but a real project already delivering on this promise.
Global warming is no fake news. Ask a sub-Saharan African farmer or a ski lift operator in Arosa. Due to the increase in harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Earth's temperature has risen since the industrial age. If there was a way to reverse, or at the very least slow down this toxic spiral, we could spare the Earth from the worst.
Six stories above a trash-burning plant in Hinwil near Zürich, Climeworks went to work. They installed a battery of 18 suction vents to filter out the CO2 from ambient air. If this were not enough, the start-up figured out a workflow where the harvested carbon dioxide is sold to businesses in need.
Have a closer look, and you can recognize the massive fans on the roof of the KEZO trash incinerator plant in Hinwil:
Inside the tubes, proprietary filters trap and collect the CO2 molecules. In turn, the chemicals are sold in the form of concentrated gas to a nearby greenhouse as well as to producers of carbonated beverages, such as Coca-Cola.
While commercial CO2 used to be trucked in from far away, the bi-product from next door has already decreased the time to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers by 15 percent. That's what I call a win-win situation - mainly because I am a consumer of their produce!
Here are the two co-founders, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, with the world's first commercial plant to capture CO2 from the atmosphere:
The CO2 captured by the Climeworks plant in a year is equivalent to taking 200 cars off the road.
The engineers have the ambition to build 250'000 such plants to remove one percent of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2025. (Given that the CO2 filters will become more efficient with time, this number will likely drop.)
Put into perspective, this seems like a massive undertaking for seemingly small environmental gains. (Switzerland currently has 30 trash incinerator plants and some 4'524'029 registered vehicles. If each plant were to run a battery of suction vents, it would be the equivalent of removing 0.001 percent of cars from Swiss roads...)
There might be a clue to the founder's mindset in the name of his start-up: The term "works" makes me think of a utility company. So Climeworks may be just as much a business model as an environmental initiative. This, in turn, will be the reason why they might just succeed.
I imagine a future where gas guzzlers burning fossil fuels have no raison d'être.
It will be a future where individuals combine various modes of transportation based on a triage of CO2 emissions, cost per kilometer, and level of convenience. For example, the more convenient and less economical a trip from A to B is, the more expensive it will be.
Finally, I firmly believe that on a personal level, only real-time usage data combined with economic incentives change behaviors for the better.
On a governmental level, the Climeworks initiative could be somewhat groundbreaking. Since the plants are built for scaling up, the sky is the limit of how much CO2 our society wants to remove from the atmosphere!