A firefighter manages a blaze during the Creek fire in the Cascadel Woods of Madera County, California.
Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

What time does the climate emergency start?

Protocol Climate

It’s Thursday, and President Joe Biden still hasn’t declared a climate emergency. It would unlock great powers (which would come with great responsibility). So today, we’re exploring what tools Biden does have to address the climate crisis and how the tech industry could fit in. Plus, a wild idea of carbon-sucking trains. Hop aboard!

What time does the climate emergency start?

If you’ve even glanced at the news this week, climate change? Looks pretty bad! Like an emergency, even. Yet President Joe Biden hasn’t broken the glass on what could be his last best shot at salvaging his climate agenda and cutting emissions: declaring a climate emergency.

Declaring an emergency could have far-reaching ramifications for the tech industry. (And society, of course!) A broadly structured climate emergency declaration could open the door to compelling manufacturers to prioritize making climate-protecting tech, from solar panels to EVs. And the federal government — which has the goal of cutting federal carbon emissions 65% by 2030 — could be a major buyer through a few avenues.

  • Biden invoked the Defense Production Act for heat pumps, solar panels and critical minerals as well as baby formula earlier this year. Doing the same for other climate tech could get manufacturing humming.
  • The DPA comes with a relatively small pot of cash to buy materials, and it’s on the way to being tapped out due to being invoked a number of times this year. Congress could replenish it, as it did during the early pandemic days. More likely, federal agencies could direct discretionary funding toward it.
  • Jean Su, a senior attorney and energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Protocol the $650 billion federal procurement budget could further be used to create a market for climate tech.

Bringing Big Tech to the table could pay dividends. Tech giants love to tout their climate plans. If Biden declares a climate emergency, it could put those plans front and center — and reveal how committed tech companies are to implementing them.

  • "I think this is a really key time for partnerships to be formed," Su said. "There are ways that we can also use the DPA to be partnered with private capital."
  • To figure out how to make the best of the act, Biden could convene a group of stakeholders — say, Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, Apple and other tech companies that have made a big to-do about going net zero or even carbon negative — and figure out what they need in order to get there faster, and how much cash they’re willing to pony up.
  • A single company working toward net zero in a vacuum is about as useful as one person trying to row a cruise ship across the ocean. Working together and with the federal government, tech companies could fire up the industrial engine (electric, of course) needed to get the ship going in the right direction.

There's already precedent for this: The Biden administration and a number of tech companies are members of the First Movers Coalition, which is trying to bring down the cost of carbon dioxide removal, green steel and other still-costly technologies and materials by committing hundreds of millions to purchase them.

The administration has signaled it’s not a matter of if it will declare an emergency; it’s a matter of when and to what extent. But, Su said, there’s every reason to "move as fast as possible, especially before midterms so we can see some progress." Speeding things up is probably good for the climate, too.

— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

‘Snowpiercer,’ but for carbon removal?

Trains: They’re not just the setting for a dystopian class war battle royale after the Earth turns into a popsicle. A new study proposes using them to remove carbon from the atmosphere by attaching specialized rail cars so we don’t end up in a dystopia of our own making.

  • Direct air capture — that is, pulling carbon from the sky using high-tech machines — is a favorite carbon dioxide removal technique among governments and tech companies alike.
  • Startup CO2Rail and a research team of international scientists, writing in the journal Joule, believe trains could help bypass some of the issues with DAC and bring the cost down dramatically.

There are a couple of big knocks on DAC: It’s costly and energy-intensive due to the need for fans to pull air in and the heat required to pull carbon dioxide out of filters once they’re full.

  • Permitting of plants is also a pain, and could become even more challenging as the world scales up the use of DAC in the coming decades.
  • After all, who wants a noisy piece of industrial machinery in their backyard sucking in air basically 24/7?

Freight and passenger rail may offer a solution. Trains are already zipping — or in freight’s case, chugging — around the world. CO2Rail believes that attaching rail cars outfitted with DAC technology could be a way to clean up emissions.

  • Because trains are already in motion, DAC devices in rail cars don’t need fans to pull air in. That cuts down the energy needed to get carbon dioxide-laden air sucked up.
  • When trains stop, the technology could also get a boost through regenerative braking to power up onboard batteries. Roof-mounted solar panels would further keep things charged up. It’s basically a Prius on steroids.
  • Those batteries are used to power the process that takes the carbon dioxide captured by the rail car and compresses it until it can be taken to a storage facility.
  • The researchers’ projections indicate this scheme, rolled out at scale, could sequester 0.45 gigatons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030 and reach 7.8 gigatons by 2075. That’s well within — or even above — what the world would likely need to keep warming within the range outlined in the Paris Agreement.
  • Oh, and the paper finds it could do all this for $50 per ton, well below the $100 per ton mark most CDR projects are shooting for. And there would in theory be no permitting fights.

But before you get too excited, consider this: There isn’t a single DAC train car currently roaming rails anywhere on Earth. CO2Rail says its first prototype could hit the rails by next year, and it’s competing in Elon Musk’s XPrize for CDR, so there’s no shortage of confidence. The peer-reviewed paper certainly adds some credibility to the project, but let’s not count our DAC chickens before they hatch. Otherwise, we may end up with a world worse than the one in “Snowpiercer.”

— Brian Kahn

A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO

The emissions that make up a full greenhouse gas footprint can emanate from outside the four walls of your own manufacturing operations, like in the case of PepsiCo, where 93% of emissions come from its value chain.

Learn more

Make it rain

The VC fund Fifth Wall raised $500 million for the debut of its climate fund, which will invest in projects specifically aimed at decarbonizing the real estate sector, such as smart buildings and energy storage.

Terra CO2 Technology is striving to replace a widely used type of cement with a lower-carbon alternative derived from silicate rock; the startup raked in $46 million in its series A funding round to help it make the low-carbon concrete material a reality, led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures and LenX.

The sustainable housing tech company Intelligent City raised $17 million in series A funding, which came from investors including BDC Capital’s Cleantech Practice, Greensoil PropTech Ventures, UIT Growth Equity GP and Fulmer & Company.

Electrified Thermal Solutions, which is developing thermal batteries that store heat for industrial processes, raised $4.5 million in its seed financing round, co-led by Clean Energy Ventures and Starlight Ventures.

The German green hydrogen developer Sunfire got funding from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, though neither company disclosed how much.

Some IPO news: The solar farm company SolarMax Technology, which is based in California and operates in China, filed for an IPO of up to $30 million to be listed on Nasdaq. SolarMax previously filed to go public in December 2018, but then withdrew.

— Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)

Hot links

Heat pump summer continues. In the midst of a scorching heat wave, it’s clear that Europe is unprepared for the high temperatures the climate crisis is bringing, let alone what’s to come. But there are tech solutions for that — and we already have them.

Speaking of scorching: Data centers in the U.K. are getting so hot that their cooling systems are failing.

More Russia gas woes for Europe: Putin says Russia will fulfill its natural gas commitments, but he also warned of future disruptions. A prolonged outage could lead to energy rationing, dealing a huge blow to European economies.

Breaking: Crypto mining is bad for the climate, consuming massive amounts of electricity. Unfortunately for the U.S., mines are only getting bigger.

VC goes down, climate tech goes up. While the rest of the startup world is contracting, climate tech deals are bucking the trend, inking deals at a record pace.

China is still hooked on coal. The country promised it would strictly control coal power capacity, but it’s still increasing its approvals of new coal plants, according to a new Greenpeace report.

Adam Neumann’s at it again. Here’s a fun look at the WeWork founder’s crypto-climate scheme that he claims will solve the climate crisis. No joke: It’s called the Goddess Nature Token.

— Michelle Ma (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM PEPSICO

Asking suppliers and associated companies to overhaul the way they work is no small feat, but PepsiCo is taking a three-pronged approach centered around the principles of educating, enabling and incentivizing. The Sustainability Action Center aims to engage and equip value chain partners with tools to undergo their own sustainability journey.

Learn more

Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you next week!

Recent Issues