Just months after committing to spend $925 million on carbon dioxide removal, a collection of major tech companies has announced its first purchases. The group, operating under the banner of Frontier, announced it had purchased nearly 2,000 tons of CDR services from five companies. It's a small ripple in the CDR pond, but one Frontier hopes will turn into a wave to bring down the costs of removing carbon.
The five companies in question — Lithos Carbon, Calcite-Origen, AspiraDAC, RepAir and Travertine Tech — all use a variety of techniques to pull carbon from the sky. The partnership between Calcite-Origen, AspiraDAC and RepAir, for example, uses direct air capture, while Lithos Carbon and Travertine rely on improving rock weathering to pull carbon dioxide from the air. The group also gave Living Carbon, a synthetic biology company, an R&D grant to further work on carbon removal using algae and biopolymers. The five purchases plus the grant reflect Frontier's approach to let a thousand carbon removal flowers bloom to see what sticks.
Frontier came online in April. Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta and McKinsey pooled $925 million to form what's dubbed an advance market commitment. In essence, they're promising to buy CDR services with the hopes of spurring innovation in the field, which can help bring down the cost. The First Movers Coalition, another collection of companies and governments, has similarly said it will buy hundreds of millions of dollars in CDR services with the same intent to kickstart the market and innovation.
Right now, sucking carbon from the sky is expensive. Among the projects in Frontier's first purchases, the cost to remove a ton of carbon ranges between $500 and $1,800. That's well above the holy grail of $100 per ton price point that would make CDR (relatively) affordable given the world will potentially need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide a year depending on how fast we collectively stop chucking the stuff into the atmosphere.
"We look for durable carbon removal solutions that have the potential to be low-cost and high-volume in the future, even if they’re not today," Joanna Klitzke, who leads Strategy and Operations for Frontier, said in an email. She noted that while Calcite and Origen's technique currently clocks in at $1,800, the duo projects it could dip below $100 per ton as it scales. (Calcite also recently won the first stage of the CDR XPRIZE, sponsored by Elon Musk, so clearly Frontier isn't the only group that believes in the technology.)
Frontier is betting on that scaling happening, and the companies have until 2027 to deliver the agreed-upon tons. But Klitzke also said if some of these groups don't hit their targets, Frontier is "comfortable" with that. "We’re the first customer for all six of these projects because we’re trying to help get as many projects as possible to the starting line," she said.
The group plans to make larger, multiyear offtake agreements down the road in addition to smaller purchases, like the first round, to keep the innovation pipeline fresh. While Klitzke said R&D won't be a major focus, Frontier saw Living Carbon's technique as "an exciting pathway for carbon removal that we want to see develop," and other grants may be forthcoming if the team dubs an early-stage carbon removal approach novel enough.
Frontier's purchases are important given the almost certain need for some amount of CDR to keep the planet from heating to dangerous levels. But they are not a reason for decision-makers to be lulled into complacency around actually cutting emissions. The roughly 2,000 tons of removal services in Frontier's first round of purchases is equal to less than two seconds' worth of humanity's yearly carbon emissions.
Scaling the cheap carbon-cutting solutions we already have today such as renewables, bike lanes and heat pumps has never been more important. Because ultimately, the cheapest ton of carbon to remove from the atmosphere is the ton that doesn't end up there in the first place.