What carbon dioxide removal can solve — and what it can’t
Hello, and happy IPCC Boxing Day to all who celebrate. On Monday, the world’s leading body of climate scientists dropped its report on how to fix this whole planet-on-fire thing. It includes the technofix Silicon Valley can’t get enough of: carbon dioxide removal. Grab a Yorkshire pudding and cup of hot coffee, and gather around the table so we can regale you with tales from the IPCC.
The real carbon dioxide removal deal
There is perhaps no climate tech that inspires such an intense mix of loathing and loving quite like carbon dioxide removal — CDR, for the in-the-know. Sucking carbon pollution from the air is largely the stuff of science fiction. But that hasn’t stopped major venture capital firms, the Department of Energy and at least one rogue entrepreneur from pouring money and time into trying to make it happen. And the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes it clear why.
CDR comes in many flavors. Say what you will about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but there’s no shortage of ways to do it.
Do you love trees? Then let me introduce you to afforestation and reforestation.
More of a wide-open spaces person? Meet soil conservation, biochar and dumping pulverized rocks on the ground. (No, seriously.)
Are fancy machines your thing? Direct air capture might be more your speed.
What’s that? You love the ocean? We have so much to offer you, from kelp farming, to dumping iron in the high seas to promote algae growth, to zapping seawater.
Still wanna burn things for energy? Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is your new, problematic fave.
There are even more examples, but you get the drift. There are a lot of options, and we don’t have all day to discuss them. All of the techniques come with tradeoffs in terms of cost, their impact on people and ecosystems and durability (i.e., how long they actually keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere). But all of them could play some role in our struggle to protect the climate over the coming decades.
And we’re gonna need CDR. Quite a bit of it. The IPCC makes it clear our best shot at getting the world to a more chill — or at least slightly less sweaty — place is going all-in on renewables, starting now. But the report calls CDR a “necessary element” for the world to get to net zero. Personally, I’d say it’s a super necessary one, but admittedly I do not write like a panel of world-renowned scientists.
The IPCC’s chapter on CDR shows that to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the world will need to collectively remove up to 17 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in 2050.
That number jumps as high as 35 billion tons in 2100. For comparison, that’s equal to all of last year’s energy-related emissions for the entire planet. That is … a lot of carbon dioxide.
“If we're talking about going from where we are today, where direct air capture is about 10,000 tons per year, to billions of tons per year?” Erin Burns, the executive director of CDR think tank Carbon180, told Protocol. “That's a massive industry.”
But this doesn’t exist as an industry yet. I mean, that should be obvious from Burns’ quote, but I just want us to be clear: While an array of companies are getting to work on CDR, calling it a cottage industry is honestly rude to actual cottage industries, like cross-stitchers on Etsy. In other words, there’s a lot of work to do. But luckily, we do have some time and the tools required to ensure we get there.
“We've seen a huge impact in the private sector from companies like Stripe and Shopify that have really driven a lot of innovation,” Burns said. Those companies have researched CDR startups and purchased carbon removal.
But private money alone isn’t going to make the industry into the powerhouse it needs to be. A reasonable price for CDR is $100 per ton. You do the math of how much 17 billion tons of CDR every year would cost by 2050. (It’s a lot.)
To even get to that scale, though, will require a lot of smart investments in federal R&D as well as developing an actual market for the service in the first place.
Burns pointed to federal procurement as one avenue to get that market going. “When we think about federal procurement, we often think about products, right?” she said. “The government is a customer for a ton of products. We can think about other ways in which they procure services.”
For CDR, the government could decide it wants to contract with companies that stash carbon away for a century for $100 per ton and that it’s willing to pony up the cash to sequester enough emissions to cover the military’s current and historic carbon footprint. That is … a lot of carbon dioxide. (Yes, I’m stealing my own words from earlier.)
Burns also pointed to the success of the Department of Energy’s SunShot program, which helped bring down costs of generating solar power over the past decade, as a template for another avenue to bring down the cost of CDR technology. For what it’s worth, SunShot was so successful, DOE went back to the well this decade.
Still, the IPCC says we need CDR — but not right now. The best way to ensure there’s not too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to stop putting it there in the first place. You can think of the atmosphere as a bathtub filling up with water. It’s a lot more effective to turn off the tap than running around to find a big enough bucket to bail it out before it overflows. The IPCC is extremely blunt on this point: “CDR cannot serve as a substitute for deep emissions reductions but can fulfill multiple complementary roles.” It's a small bucket, if you will.
It’s been that way for a while. “The IPCC has been clear for many years [that] this needs to be in addition to aggressive mitigation,” Burns said.
The chapter also contains a laundry list of concerns ranging from the fact that some CDR techniques could displace people from the land they live or work on, to the fact that some could turn parts of the ocean into a toxic waste zone. It’s a seriously long list (on page 39 in Chapter 12, if you’re interested!), and one that should give us major pause about leaning into CDR.
There’s also the issue of cost. While $100 per ton is ideal, most techniques aren’t close to that at this point. And some — maybe even most, or all — may never be. That makes banking on CDR as a panacea an incredibly risky financial, social and ecological bet.
The real risk is that we delay taking concrete steps to reduce emissions now waiting for a train that’s never going to come. And frankly, we’ve already delayed long enough.
The VC fund looking to shift how and what we buy, for the planet
What do Dick’s Sporting Goods, HVAC systems and leather have in common? They’re all getting an assist in cutting their carbon emissions from companies backed by the venture capital fund Regeneration.VC. The fund made headlines with news that Leonardo DiCaprio signed on as a strategic adviser, and it also features a former touring DJ as one of its general partners.
While I didn’t get to talk to Leo (Call me!), I did get to spend some time on the phone with Michael Smith, the aforementioned DJ-turned-general partner, just days after the fund closed its first $45 million round of funding last week. The early-stage fund is focused on the consumer sector, zeroing in on backing companies that aim to reduce the climate impact of what we buy, from materials that go into products, to the services using those materials, to the reuse technology that keeps those materials in circulation.
I confess, I tend toward skepticism when it comes to these kinds of investments in “greening” our stuff: How could buying more stuff result in fewer emissions than just … not buying stuff? How many of the biodegradable bikinis that eco-chic companies keep advertising to me actually end up in a compost pile?
So I asked Smith; these are also questions that Regeneration.VC has thought long and hard about. Below is an excerpt of our conversation that focuses on the fund’s philosophy, edited for brevity and clarity.
It’s relatively common to hear that individual actions have such a vanishingly small impact on the climate crisis, so changing our consumer habits should not be our priority. How does Regeneration.VC contextualize its consumer-focused approach, given the enormity of the challenge?
We firmly believe every person can play a part in the climate emergency, and each one of us can shift the conversation in the supply chain and vote with our wallets. The CEOs of companies, the folks voting on climate legislation: All of those are individual consumers as well. And the more that momentum occurs in apparel or in food systems, it sets the table for major regulatory shifts. If people aren't demanding alternative packaging or food products or apparel products, how can we attack the embedded emissions in the supply chain just by regulation alone?
To say that the consumer and that our individual actions don't matter, I think is just wrong. There is an opportunity to educate and to be mindful of how we consume things. And that can drive our decision-making with our families, with our communities, with the companies we work for, with the countries we are a part of. And hopefully that trickles up to [United Nations climate talks called] the Conference of the Parties and has real meaningful impact and outcomes.
Most environmentalists and climate scientists say we need to be purchasing fewer things altogether. Do you think the projects that Regeneration.VC is investing in could result in more consumption in a way that could prove counterproductive?
The minimum viable opportunity for us is that we are a drop-in replacement for something that's already being made, and are able to reduce emissions associated with it or even apply regenerative thinking and draw down carbon in the soil and make materials from it.
The maximum — and really what you're getting at is something that really excites me — is getting more from the things we have. How do we extend the life of products? How do we make heritage products? When you and I were kids, you'd have pieces from the grandparents passed down through generations. We want to encourage that and we're looking for companies that are building things that are not single-use and going to landfills. We need to treat everything on the planet as vital and important and connected, and find new ways of consuming that look a lot more like our grandparents’ and generations before us. Are we out to eliminate consumption? No, that’s not viable; but we think there's better ways to consume.
For more of this conversation, read on here.
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One big number: The 38% EV market boom
While most of the auto sector saw a whopping 15.3% decline in new vehicle sales, electric vehicles sold like hot cakes in the first quarter of 2022. While it is still a niche market, EV sales jumped nearly 38% compared with the first quarter of 2021.
This spike was dominated by Tesla, which saw even bigger gains. The company reported delivering a total of 310,048 vehicles in the first quarter of 2022, up nearly 68% compared to the same quarter in 2021. Tesla told investors that it achieved these numbers "despite ongoing supply chain challenges and factory shutdowns."
But the company still has had its hurdles. It announced a price hike of between 5% and 10% across its entire range in mid-March, citing inflation as the reason for the uptick in prices. (It's hardly alone in the EV maker price hike department.) Yet the company remains by far the biggest seller of EVs in the U.S.
How much power do chief sustainability officers have? Here’s a close look at just that when it comes to eight of the biggest tech companies.
There’s a new climate eye in the sky. On Friday, a satellite launched that will use high-tech imaging to make the invisible — including methane emissions, agricultural diseases and mineral content — visible.
So, about that direct air capture. A report found that the technology could theoretically capture almost 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 if — and it’s a major if — there is a meteoric scale-up and cost reduction in the interim.
What would 24/7 carbon-free energy actually look like? This, apparently.
One more reason for climate action that (here’s hoping!) might actually get through to policymakers: A White House study found that climate change could result in massive revenue loss for the federal budget by the end of the century.
A father-daughter startup wants to bury nuclear waste. The duo is using directional drilling technology to solve the problem of the country’s lack of a permanent nuclear waste depository.
— Lisa Martine Jenkins
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