Carbon dioxide removal is increasing demand for STEM expertise

Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is set to play an important part in efforts to halt climate change. What does this mean for employment and what skills will be needed?

Male climate engineer tracking performance of wind energy from turbines

Efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions may get most attention, but there is increasing consensus that carbon dioxide (CO2) removal will play just as crucial a role in helping to prevent the threat of global climate change.

What is carbon dioxide removal (CDR)?

The best-known approach is restoration of forests, mangrove swamps and peatlands – environments threatened by human exploitation but which can take huge amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Other CDR methods include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which involves producing energy from biomass and capturing and storing CO2 underground, while direct air capture and storage (DACS) is the use of various physical and chemical processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

Increased demand for Carbon dioxide removal solutions

Demand for carbon dioxide removal solutions is likely to grow as more organisations realise the contribution they can make towards their decarbonisation targets. Pledges like those from Swedish retail giant IKEA and Indian cement company Dalmai to switch to 100% renewable energy are just two examples.

Funding for the emerging industry is creating jobs at start-ups, research institutes and larger corporations. The US is likely to be a recruitment hotspot, in part because of investment from the Inflation Reduction Act. Microsoft has also created a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund for carbon dioxide removal technologies, and both Microsoft and Facebook have hired carbon-removal specialists.

For many companies, carbon dioxide removal could become a new component in their carbon-offsetting strategy, creating demand for specialist experts at the environmental consultancies that advise businesses.

Hunt is on for engineering talent

However, the energy sector will be most impacted as operations using technologies like BECCS are created from scratch or retrofitted at existing power-generating plants. A variety of engineering disciplines – from mechanical and process to chemical and electrical – will be needed to get these carbon dioxide removal facilities started and then to keep them running.

Identifying opportunities for carbon capture technologies will require business development managers, consultants and commercial managers, while determining the feasibility of projects will need analytical expertise in financial and technical viability and various data analysis roles will also be important in getting projects off the ground.

These and many other roles supporting carbon dioxide removal will surely be among the 14 million new jobs the International Energy Agency estimates will be created in energy supply by 2030 as the global economy pursues a path to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Carbon dioxide removal is already being deployed

At a national level, a study in Sweden shows that the deployment of BECCS could lead to 11,500 direct employment opportunities and 28,000 jobs in total, if counting indirect employment.

In the US, research by the scientific journal Joule suggests a combination of BECCS and the replacement of aging coal plants with natural gas plants would retain 40,000 existing jobs and create 22,000 more jobs by mid-century.

Climeworks’ Orca DACS plant in Iceland is already operational, using enormous fans and filters to collect up to 4,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. The company’s recently advertised vacancies include automation technician, chemical laboratory technician in analytics, continuous improvement manager in plant operation, and controls engineer – testing.

In the US, California-based Twelve is a company developing technology to convert captured CO2 into useful chemicals, such as plastics and transportation fuels. Combining “multiple scientific, engineering and operational disciplines” in its work, Twelve’s recruitment includes filling positions in business development and intellectual property, but the bulk of jobs are in IT, chemistry and engineering.

Purpose-driven careers in the fight against harmful climate change

The same study on the potential for BECCS in Sweden also discusses the challenges, with a lack of skills being among the most pressing.

Developing a rich pool of talent won’t happen overnight, so the early focus is likely to be on retraining workers with transferable skills. That means opportunities for job candidates from the oil and gas industry, especially in construction, engineering and management roles.

Tech experts made redundant from big tech companies can also find opportunities in carbon dioxide removal, as everything from data analysts to engineers will be in demand. Many candidates will have relevant skills but don’t yet realise it. Contractors will also be needed as the growing sector struggles to find enough permanent staff and short-term projects require expertise for shorter periods.

In the long term, despite the fact that CDR should prove attractive to candidates looking for a job with a more worthy purpose, there is concern that there isn’t enough understanding of the future demand for engineering and technical skills that will be required.

The UK, for example, could experience a net zero skills shortage because of a lack of students gaining STEM qualifications at schools and in further education, says a report by EngineeringUK. The picture is the same in many other countries with the International Energy Agency reporting that a lack of skilled workers is a bottleneck in green transition projects.

For candidates with the right skills, opportunities within the emerging carbon dioxide removal sector offer purpose-driven careers in the fight against harmful climate change. Whatever developments lie ahead, SThree will be supporting both candidates and clients in this intriguing field.

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