A steep Learning Curve : It remains to be seen, however, whether carbon removal companies can lower their prices to a level that's attractive to the average buyer.

Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company supplying the technology for the direct air capture plant in Texas thinks it can eventually get the prices down to $94 $232 a ton.

''To finance a first plant is expensive,'' said Steve Oldham, Carbon Engineering chief executive the Texas facility, part of Occidental Petroleum's strategy to use direct air capture to offset emissions even as it continues extracting oil is scheduled to come online by 2025 and remove up to 1 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

''But as we build more plants, I have confidence those costs will come down.''

For some potential customers, price remains an issue. Boston Consulting Group, the management consulting firm, plans to purchase carbon removal to offset any emissions it can't cut by 2030. But it has set a price target of $80 per ton, on average, and will rely more on cheaper natural solutions, at least initially.

The company plans to invest in engineered removal, said Rich Lesser, Boston Consulting Group's chief executive, ''but it will be a small portion of the mix for a while because the technology is still nascent.''

For now, most large companies are vowing to pursue carbon removal have been vague about what that actually entails, according to an analysis of corporate pledges from American University.

Some talk about investing in forests and wetlands, while others are still exploiting their options.

Experts say the advantages of engineered carbon removal are often poorly understood. Companies can generally earn as much good will by cheaply planting trees to offset emissions as they can by spending large sums on on direct air capture - even if the latter presents a more durable solution.

''The price difference between those two options in the marketplace is enormous,'' said Sasha Mackler, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a research organization in Washington, But as far as most of public can tell, ''it sort of looks like the same thing.''

So persuading companies to pay that extra cost will require educating investors, activists and customers about why engineered carbon removal can take more carbon dioxide out of the air, and sequester it more reliably, than just planting trees, Mr. Mackler said.

Ultimately experts say, policymakers may have to step in. In December, Congress authorized $447 million to research and demonstrate large-scale carbon removal. But many companies are unlikely to use it without legal requirements to slash emissions.

''If companies are serious about putting money into carbon removal now and investigating their options, that's fantastic,'' said Simon Nicholson, co-director of American University's Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy.

''But of this doesn't work, or if carbon removal at scale isn't as cheap as everyone hopes, then what's Plan B?''

The World Students Society thanks authors Brad Plumer and Christopher Flavelle.


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