Skip to content

Vacuuming the Atmosphere

A new plant in Iceland is designed to address climate change by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.

Two people in neon green uniforms stand in front of a large facility against a mountainous backdrop.
© OZZO Photography
Can Climeworks’ new facility make a dent in the climate crisis?

As the world continues to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, a company called Climeworks aims to do the opposite. Recently, Climeworks opened a plant in Iceland that’s designed to suck the carbon out of the atmosphere like a vacuum cleaner. Climeworks says it’s the largest plant of its kind so far.

The plant uses a technology called direct air capture (DAC). DAC technology sucks in air and then uses chemical reactions to remove the carbon dioxide from it. The carbon dioxide can either be used for some other purpose, like growing plants, or injected into the ground. Climeworks will send the carbon it captures deep underground, where it will naturally turn to stone. Otherwise, that carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and other forms of climate change. The video below demonstrates how the giant vacuum works.

© 2024 Climeworks AG

This is Climeworks’ second DAC plant and one of several around the world, with more in the works. But the growth of DAC doesn’t mean the climate crisis is solved. Combined, all the DAC plants on the planet capture a very small percentage of the carbon dioxide produced in the world. Experts say we’ll still need to produce less carbon dioxide to tackle the climate crisis. 

Climeworks and other companies plan to build additional DAC plants—bigger ones that can remove even more carbon. But even the head of Climeworks agrees people and governments need to do more to curb climate change.

“Whether we are taking the right direction will depend as much on societal things [as] on technical matters,” Carolos Haertel told 60 Minutes. “Am I optimistic as an engineer? I am, absolutely. Am I optimistic as a citizen? Maybe half [and] half. I haven’t made my mind up yet.”

Did You Know?

Which countries emit the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? The answer is complicated. China emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, but China emits less per person than the U.S., on average. (China’s population is about three times that of the U.S.) The small country of Qatar emits more carbon dioxide per person than any other country, but its small population means its total emissions are low.

The graph below shows some major carbon emitters, along with the average amount of carbon dioxide emitted per capita, or per person, in each place.

A graph called Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions shows data for four countries and the EU, with the United States with the highest amount of emissions per person.
Data Source: Global Carbon Budget (2023), © kodda—iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Green Cities

Plugged in electric cars, a geothermal plant, bikes at a bike rack, artificial trees in Singapore, and residents exchanging recyclables for produce.
© Baloncici, Javarman, Frank Bach, 123sasha/Dreamstime.com, © Marion Kaplan/Alamy; Photo composite Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The center photo shows Curitiba residents trading recyclable items for produce. The remaining photos (clockwise from top left) show electric cars at charging stations in Oslo, a geothermal power plant in Reykjavik, bikes being stored at racks in Copenhagen, and Singapore’s artificial trees.

Many cities are taking steps to become more environmentally friendly. Here’s just a handful of examples:

Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba recycles about 70 percent of its waste. The city also has a “Green Exchange” program, which lets residents exchange recyclable items for vegetables and other produce.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark’s capital city has more bicycles than cars, a sign of its commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Between 2009 and 2024, Copenhagen reduced its carbon emissions by 80 percent.

Reykjavik, Iceland

The capital of Iceland plans to stop using fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, by 2050. Already, 85 percent of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable sources such as geothermal energy (heat energy from deep under Earth’s surface). 

Singapore

Singapore’s capital city, also called Singapore, has many gardens, some on building rooftops. These gardens help cool buildings and support local insects and birds. One city park has towering artificial trees that support vertical gardens and generate solar power.

Oslo, Norway

Norway’s capital city aims to reduce the missions it produces by 95 percent by the year 2030, and it’s making progress. Most of its trains, ferries, and buses are electric. Few cars are allowed in the city’s center, and most of the cars that do travel Oslo’s streets are electric.

Why Climate Change Happens

A farmer walks in a field in which the soil is dry and cracked.
© Arief Budi/Dreamstime.com

How does carbon dioxide contribute to climate change? You can learn more about the greenhouse effect at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

initiative

PART OF SPEECH:
noun
Definition:
: a plan or program that is intended to solve a problem
Definitions provided by
Merriam-Webster Logo

Word Search

See if you can find all the capital cities.
O
O
O
O
O
O

In Case You Missed It

German cockroaches evolved to live in human homes. Scientists now think they know how.
June 6, 2024
A new plant in Iceland is designed to address climate change by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.
June 2, 2024
For several days in May, an aurora borealis decorated the night sky over much of the Northern Hemisphere.
May 30, 2024
Dr. Catherine Wu is working on vaccines that could treat many forms of cancer.
May 22, 2024