Iceland’s Attempts to Battle Climate Change Take a Step Forward

Hellisheidi Power Plant in Iceland | Photo by Arni Saeberg
Hellisheidi Power Plant in Iceland | Photo by Arni Saeberg
Climate change is ravaging some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. The threat of rising seas and more frequent extreme weather hangs over large parts of the planet. Some believe efforts to reduce carbon emissions have come too late, but a new technology introduced in Iceland brings hope that mass devastation can yet be avoided.

At a geothermal power plant in Iceland, a Swiss startup called Climeworks has inaugurated a system that utilizes a concept called direct-air capture, making the power station emissions negative. This means that it removes more carbon dioxide than it emits, while creating power at the same time.

Direct-air capture allows a machine to imitate trees and suck carbon dioxide out of the air—but on a much larger scale. The technology has been around for a while, but estimates suggest it would be incredibly expensive to implement on any kind of scale.

The project is currently in its pilot stage, and only captures 50 metric tons of CO2 from the air each year, which is about the same amount emitted by one average American household.

“The potential of scaling-up our technology in combination with CO2 storage, is enormous. Not only here in Iceland but also in numerous other regions which have similar rock formations. Our plan is to offer carbon removal to individuals, corporates and organizations as a means to reverse their non-avoidable carbon emissions,” said Christoph Gebald, Founder and CEO at Climeworks, in a press release.

The technology works by taking carbon dioxide from the air, bounding it to water, and then sending it more than 700 meters below the ground. The CO2 then reacts with basaltic bedrock and forms solid minerals, creating a permanent storage solution.

Northern Lights (Iceland) © David Phan / Flickr

Tourism is an integral part of Iceland’s economy. More than 2.2 million tourists are expected to visit the country this year—roughly six times the country’s population. But many of these tourists come to enjoy features of the country that are being irreversibly changed by climate change. A 2015 study by the University of Arizona and the University of Iceland found that the country’s ocean is rising 1.4 inches every year, as a direct result of climate change. In short, Iceland is melting, and its landscape will never be the same again.

That’s why technologies like direct-air capture offer hope to a country that doesn’t want to see its glaciers completely melted within 200 years, and hopes to see summer ice in the arctic beyond the middle of this century.

Fortunately, incredible startups backed by some of the wealthiest people in the world are attempting to solve the problem. There are three major companies working on direct-air capture technology, including Switzerland’s Climeworks. Along with Canada’s Carbon Engineering and the Global Thermostat from the U.S., these companies have been partially funded by the likes of Bill Gates of Microsoft and Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Warner Music.

Right now the biggest barrier to implementing this technology on a meaningful scale is cost. If Iceland can use it to protect its environment and keep its tourism industry thriving, the rewards will surely be endless.