It started with a tweet. And like many Elon Musk tweets, it wasn’t immediately clear if it was something to take seriously. But his promise to offer a $100 million prize for carbon dioxide removal was indeed serious. And on Friday, a group of 15 "milestone winners" took home $1 million each.
The $100 million competition to suck carbon from thin air is being run by the nonprofit XPrize. The 15 companies and research teams who won the milestone money use a variety of techniques to pull carbon from the sky and are a small number of the 1,132 teams in the competition.
The winners come from the U.S., the Netherlands, the U.K., Iceland, France, Kenya, the Philippines, Australia and Canada. The techniques are even more diverse the geographies the group hails from. One company uses targeted algae farming to help regrow rainforests while another uses mine waste to sequester carbon. Not all carbon removal tech is about massive machines sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, though one company that does just that was also a winner.
In addition to the $15 million distributed today, the competition will award three final winners $80 million in 2025. XPrize’s stated goal is to scale climate solutions so that at least 10 gigatons of carbon can be collected per year by 2050. For reference, yearly global carbon dioxide emissions were more than 36 gigatons last year. Meanwhile, one of the biggest carbon dioxide removal plants in the world captures just three seconds' worth of the world's annual emissions.
Other tech companies and venture capital firms have also recently thrown their hats in the carbon removal ring. Alphabet, Stripe and Meta have joined forces in a new venture called Frontier that's promised to purchase $925 million in carbon dioxide removal. Lowercarbon Capital has raised $350 million for a carbon removal fund, and other firms are also spending big bucks on startups sucking carbon from the sky.
While the world will need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a much larger scale to stave off catastrophic climate change, the scale the competition is calling for is on the extremely high end. It's an outlier from a 2017 United Nations report, and more recent estimates — in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that just came out, as well as other analyses — are much lower. Aiming for 10 gigatons, though, reflects some of the challenges with letting billionaires set the climate agenda. The reality is we'll only need that much carbon dioxide removal if the world keeps burning fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere.
Prizes for removing carbon could help drive some of the technological innovation we need, but they also risk limiting attention on the solutions we desperately need to deploy at a much more rapid pace starting now like wind, solar, battery storage and energy efficiency. Those solutions are less splashy and some — like reducing energy demand — would curtail the lifestyles of the same wealthy people touting carbon dioxide removal at such a massive scale.
Time will tell whether the 15 groups that Xprize and Musk have identified as promising will have the ability to scale up. But regardless, we can hold our collective breath and wait to find out.