Carbon, Sequestration & Hope

(Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times / Redux)

When I read about a promising new technology related to carbon sequestration, I am ambivalent based on the experience of many past false hopes. Carbon is a very large problem. Finding new methods of sequestration is a very challenging puzzle.

I track such developments every week by reading the newsletter that Bill McKibben posts on Substack. Most weeks I post something here from that, and do my best to balance the terrifying and enraging with the more hopeful news he occasionally shares there.

The only other newsletter I read regularly is Robinson Meyer’s newsletter for the Atlantic, called The Weekly Planet. Here is one of his worth reading for a bit of encouragement (when you click the hyperlink it will go to the current newsletter, which until April 20 is this one; after April 20 scroll to find this edition):

The Biggest Investment Ever in Sucking Carbon Out of the Sky

The world’s biggest tech companies are getting serious about carbon removal, the still-nascent technology wherein humanity can pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yesterday, an alliance of prominent Silicon Valley companies—including Google, Meta, Shopify, and the payment company Stripe—announced that it is purchasing $925 million in carbon removal over the next eight years. In a world awash in overhyped corporate climate commitments, this is actually a big deal.

The purchases, which will be made by a new Stripe-owned company called Frontier, will dwarf any previous efforts of their type. In 2020, Stripe announced that it would spend $1 million buying carbon-removal credits—at the time, the largest purchase ever. Since then, Stripe and its customers have spent about $15 million on carbon removal, Nan Ransohoff, a Stripe employee who will lead Frontier, told me. That figure alone is more than other companies have spent on such technologies. Now Frontier is vowing to increase it by a factor of 60.

Carbon removal will not solve climate change by itself. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of warming, we must reduce carbon pollution as fast as possible. That means phasing out fossil fuels, adopting clean energy, and switching to public transit and electric vehicles. But even in situations where humanity aggressively reduces its carbon pollution, some carbon removal is now “essential” to zeroing out emissions: This was one of the headline findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report from last week. Even the IPCC’s most conservative estimates say that humanity will need to capture more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year to keep the planet’s average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above its pre-industrial level, an already unlikely proposition. The median estimate is an even more onerous 31 billion tons a year.

But the technology to actually do any of that on a grand scale remains nebulous. Scientists and engineers are still exploring different ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and permanently store it, such as constructing factories that cleanse carbon from the air or cultivating vast undersea farms of kelp, which can then be harvested and buried deep in the ocean.

Either way, those efforts will have to accelerate by several orders of magnitude for humanity to meet its climate goals. There is no global total of how many tons of carbon dioxide have ever been permanently removed from the atmosphere so far, but Ransohoff estimated that they numbered in the thousands.

To go from thousands to billions, virtually everyone—including members of the Frontier team—agrees that the federal government should eventually pay to remove most of that carbon. The carbon-removal market will probably need to reach $1 trillion a year, Ransohoff told me, a figure that places it well outside any company’s reach.

But today, the government is not yet making those purchases, so the companies behind Frontier have pledged to begin buying carbon instead. “We are trying to buy ourselves time to get the right policy mechanisms in place to take this market where it needs to go,” Ransohoff said. Nearly “a billion dollars is roughly 30 times the carbon-removal market that existed in 2021. But it’s still 1,000 times short of the market we need by 2050.”

I first covered Stripe’s carbon-removal purchases in 2020. The company has now contracted to buy carbon removal from 14 different start-ups. They include CarbonBuilt, which is trying to sequester carbon by capturing it in concrete; the Future Forest Company, which seeks to accelerate the natural process of rock weathering; and Project Vesta, which wants to line beaches with a carbon-capturing mineral called olivine. Stripe was just a customer for those start-ups, providing them with money today to capture carbon in the future. As I wrote last year, Stripe—and now Frontier—aims to be a “buyer of first resort,” sending a demand-side signal to entrepreneurs and investors that a large market for permanent carbon removal exists.

If $15 million was a dog whistle, $900 million is a bullhorn. With this new investment, Frontier will take the same approach. “We’re not making an equity investment in any of these companies. It’s dollars in, tons out,” Ransohoff said. This idea—that by committing to buy a product early, you can help bring it to market faster—was first pioneered in the field of medicine. In 2010, a set of donors committed $1.5 billion to buy doses of a vaccine for Streptococcus pneumoniae before it had been invented. That “advanced market commitment,” as it’s called, spurred the rapid invention and deployment of a pneumococcal vaccine, which was credited with having saved 700,000 lives worldwide as of 2020.

Much of Frontier’s work will take the form of this kind of commitment. Every year, Frontier’s supporters will spend a certain number of dollars on carbon removal. Frontier will then pool their dollars and pay different different companies to remove carbon through the method that that firm is exploring.

If those start-ups don’t deliver the promised tons, then Frontier has no recourse to get its money back, Ransohoff said. But it hopes that its broad payments will accelerate the industry’s development, helping discover which techniques and methods will actually allow carbon removal to scale as much as is needed.

And now Frontier will have another tool in its box: an “offtake agreement,” a contract in which Frontier pledges to buy a certain amount of carbon removal from a company as soon as it is available. Banks and investors tend to be uncertain about lending to carbon-removal companies that want to build a facility to test their ideas, Ransohoff said. But with an offtake agreement from Frontier, a carbon-removal start-up can prove to a bank that it will have a customer once the facility is up and running…

Read the entire newsletter here.

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