Future or Fiction: Carbon Dioxide-Sucking Factories

Brian McFarland, Kogod/MBA ’10, SIS/MA ’10, senior vice president, carbon projects and origination, Foundation, opines on a potential climate change solution blowing in the wind

Brian McFarland

Q. The Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. One proposed solution: a different kind of plant. In September, Iceland opened the Orca, a CO2-sucking factory that will capture 4,000 metric tons annually. The project is being hailed as a roadmap for large-scale, crisis-time response to climate change. Do you buy it?

A. I buy direct air capture as part of the solution to mitigating climate change, but just like anything in life, it has potential drawbacks.

If it fails to reach the necessary scale, could that lead to net positive emissions growth? How do we deter free riders? And how do we pay for a trillion-dollar-per-year project? The scale of the climate crisis we’re facing calls for that level of spending—and it’s almost certainly cheaper than the consequences of allowing climate change to continue unabated. But the mind-boggling figure begs the question: What could that money do elsewhere?

There is no climate silver bullet. I would never advocate throwing all funding behind this technology alone and crossing our fingers. We need to also support the many natural carbon removal processes at our fingertips that can be executed at a fraction of the cost. These include restoring degraded land using climate-smart agriculture, which has positive impacts on soil carbon; implementing large-scale reforestation efforts; halting tropical deforestation; electrifying transportation networks; and researching processes to make energy-intensive materials like cement, steel, and aluminum more climate-friendly. 

I recognize the severity of our global environmental crisis, but I choose to be an optimist—that’s the only way I can think about this. We haven’t yet lost all our biological diversity; we need to keep fighting to preserve what we have and restore what’s been lost.


Confronting climate change on an individual level can feel hopeless. We’re each just one tiny carbon footprint on the path to destruction, we reason. What difference can we possibly make?

A surprisingly big one, McFarland says.

He recommends chipping away at the largest source of emissions in the United States—the transportation sector—by taking fewer trips, using public transportation, and walking and biking whenever possible. At home, turn off the lights when they’re not needed; crank the thermostat down or up, depending on the season; and opt into utility companies’ renewable energy programs.

Tropical deforestation contributes to about 20 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. McFarland recommends purchasing Rainforest Alliance–certified paper products or Forest Stewardship Council–certified timber, which “have a direct impact on emissions around the world.”

In McFarland’s world, progress means following these measures at home, financing and implementing hundreds of climate change mitigation projects at work, and encouraging his son to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.

“We’re at the precipice of losing a lot of this—rainforests, coral reefs, and all sorts of wonderful species from elephants to macaws,” McFarland says. “We all need to do our part. Whether large or small, everyone has a role.”