Carbon Engineering, a company owned in part by Bill Gates, has its headquarters on a spit of land that juts into Howe Sound, an hour north of Vancouver. Until recently, the land was a toxic-waste site, and the company’s equipment occupies a long, barnlike building that, for many years, was used to process contaminated water. The offices, inherited from the business that poisoned the site, provide a spectacular view of Mt. Garibaldi, which rises to a snow-covered point, and of the Chief, a granite monolith that’s British Columbia’s answer to El Capitan. To protect the spit against rising sea levels, the local government is planning to cover it with a layer of fill six feet deep. When that’s done, it’s hoping to sell the site for luxury condos.
Adrian Corless, Carbon Engineering’s chief executive, who is fifty-one, is a compact man with dark hair, a square jaw, and a concerned expression. “Do you wear contacts?” he asked, as we were suiting up to enter the barnlike building. If so, I’d have to take extra precautions, because some of the chemicals used in the building could cause the lenses to liquefy and fuse to my eyes.
Inside, pipes snaked along the walls and overhead. The thrum of machinery made it hard to hear. In one corner, what looked like oversized beach bags were filled with what looked like white sand. This, Corless explained over the noise, was limestone—pellets of pure calcium carbonate.
Corless and his team are engaged in a project that falls somewhere between toxic-waste cleanup and alchemy. They’ve devised a process that allows them, in effect, to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Every day at the plant, roughly a ton of CO2 that had previously floated over Mt. Garibaldi or the Chief is converted into calcium carbonate. The pellets are subsequently heated, and the gas is forced off, to be stored in cannisters. The calcium can then be recovered, and the process run through all over again.
“If we’re successful at building a business around carbon removal, these are trillion-dollar markets,” Corless told me.
This past April, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record four hundred and ten parts per million. The amount of CO2 in the air now is probably greater than it’s been at any time since the mid-Pliocene, three and a half million years ago, when there was a lot less ice at the poles and sea levels were sixty feet higher. This year’s record will be surpassed next year, and next year’s the year after that. Even if every country fulfills the pledges made in the Paris climate accord—and the United States has said that it doesn’t intend to—carbon dioxide could soon reach levels that, it’s widely agreed, will lead to catastrophe, assuming it hasn’t already done so.