Iceland rolls out devices to help capture and bury carbon dioxide

▶ Watch Video: New facility in Iceland will capture 4,000 tons of carbon out of atmosphere per year

Iceland is famous for its stunning natural beauty, but it’s the devices that resemble giant air conditioners that are making history as the world’s first large-scale attempt to directly capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground.

The Swiss company Climeworks started operating 96 fans powered by a nearby geothermal plant Thursday.

“As soon as the fans are on, every ton of CO2 that’s removed is a ton that’s actually helping, fighting climate change and not contributing to global warming,” Julie Gosalvez, an executive with Climeworks, told CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent Ben Tracy.

Gosalvez said the units are compact and can capture and then store “a lot of CO2.”

The carbon dioxide first gets drawn into collectors and then is processed in a room and mixed with water. Inside a domed building, it gets injected into the ground and trapped in stone. It can stay there for more than 1,000 years.

“So how much carbon dioxide is this thing going to suck out of the air every year?” Tracy asked.

“So the capacity of this plant is 4,000 tons,” Gosalvez said.

That’s a drop in the carbon dioxide ocean. Nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 are now released into the atmosphere every year, much of it from fossil fuels.

Climate specialists say eliminating those emissions means abandoning gas-powered vehicles, finding new fuels to power airplanes, new materials to build buildings and getting all of our electricity from renewable sources.

Scientists say carbon capture, if dramatically scaled up, could help buy time. Climeworks has big investors, including Microsoft, which is also paying to offset its own emissions.

“We do believe that those companies that have more should do more,” said Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer.

“Is this in some way just kind of letting you off the hook, knowing that you can spend money to offset your emissions?” Tracy asked Joppa.

“I don’t believe so,” Joppa said. “There’s no credible economic model that shows the world achieving a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, which is what the world must do, without carbon removal playing a significant role in that equation.”

A Canadian company is planning to build a carbon removal plant in West Texas, which it says will remove about 1 million tons of CO2 a year.

United Airlines is a major investor, but skeptics like climate scientist Zeke Hausfather say carbon removal is still too expensive and complicated to replicate worldwide.

“And we certainly should not see it as an alternative to cutting our emissions when we can,” Hausfather said. “So there’s no magic bullet for climate change; there’s only magic buckshot. It’s thousands of different solutions working together that’s gonna solve the problem.”

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