CO2 removal is having a moment and not everyone’s happy

Investors are showering love on nascent tech that pulls carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but the vibes aren’t so rosy everywhere in climate circles, Ben writes.

Driving the news: The VC firm Lowercarbon Capital just launched a $350 million fund dedicated to carbon removal startups. They’re casting a wide net, co-founder Chris Sacca writes.

  • His post cites tech that boosts natural absorption in minerals, talks of manipulating aquifer brines, enhancing ocean alkalinity, and growing plants that don’t decompose, and other methods.
  • There are also approaches “with massive potential that haven’t even been discovered yet.”

Catch up fast: Sacca’s unveil came 48 hours after Meta, Alphabet and other corporate giants pledged about $1 billion in removal purchases between 2022 and 2030 to help create market demand.

  • That effort, led by payment tech company Stripe, is the latest of several recent investments. For instance, last week the Swiss direct air capture company Climeworks raised a fresh $650 million.
  • There’s public support too. Yesterday the Energy Department announced$14 million in studies for projects to fuel direct air capture (DAC) with clean energy.
  • The bipartisan infrastructure law has $3.5 billion for developing U.S. DAC “hubs” to demonstrate the tech.

Why it matters: landmark United Nations scientific report this month calls carbon dioxide removal (CDR) a “key element” for tackling global warming, though amounts vary.

  • CDR includes bioenergy with CO2 capture and storage; direct air capture machines; large-scale vegetation; tech that speeds natural CO2 absorption in minerals; and other ideas.
  • It can help compensate for emissions that can’t be completely negated in tough-to-decarbonize industries, and also could help moderate temperatures after any “overshoot” of Paris goals.

Yes, but: The UN report and others consistently show the most important thing is cutting fossil fuel emissions by deploying clean energy — including mature sources like solar — much faster.

Threat level: Growing focus on CDR is nonetheless worrying people including prominent climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State.

  • He’d prefer to see the money spent on speeding clean energy use. Mann told CNBCthere’s “no evidence” that CDR can scale in time.
  • Mann tells Axios he’s concerned that focus on CDR, along with ideas like unproven geoengineering, distract from the need for near-term clean energy and emissions-cutting policies.

Separately, Greenpeace USA research manager Tim Donaghy says via email, “Funding and investments must prioritize proven mitigation solutions like a rapid transition to renewable energy sources.”

  • He’s concerned about using CDR to compensate for the temporary overshoot of the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
  • “Returning to 1.5°C would not undo the irreversible impacts triggered by then,” he notes, a risk the UN report pointed to as well.



Is carbon removal real?

 Time to suck!

The news: In just the past few days, almost a billion and a half dollars have been pledged or raised from Stripe, Meta, Alphabet, Shopify, and Lowercarbon to jumpstart carbon removal from the air and oceans, at scale. Or, you know, to work at all.

Understand it: The latest IPCC report documents our need to remove billions of tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere.

But let’s back up and try to understand why this mandate is so complicated, and controversial:

The One Ring To Unite Them All is decarbonization of every industry we’ve got, as soon as possible. This is not only the most affordable way to transition to a cleaner future, but the most affordable way to run our economies right now

It’s affordable and doable because we’ve spent decades iterating on the various technology stacks involved, and then scaling the shit out of them.

The result? In 2021, 10% of the world’s electricity came from wind and solar. That’s fucking awesome, and accomplished with the equivalent of one hand behind our back.

However: A growing number of companies, utilities, and governments have tasked their marketing departments with splashing “net zero” plans that make few measurable commitments to decarbonization, but do heavily depend on carbon removal and other offset mechanisms that are either hot air, or still unproven.

I sincerely believe they’re “hot air” not because of liquidity concerns (though even with this week’s deals, offsets are a small % of committed global climate action), but because the fundamental assets and mechanisms involved have been nearly impossible to prove, much less at scale, from planting or protecting trees, to building huge vacuum cleaners for the sky (examples herehereherehereherehere, and here).

So, to date, whether via traditional markets, government purchases, or the blockchain, an enormous number of low-quality credits are being purchased and used as escape hatches by the entities above. This is not helpful.

But here’s the thing: We do need to remove a boatload of historic carbon from the atmosphere if we want to stay anywhere under 2°C, and the Global North should pay our fair share to do so.

But as long as people, companies, and governments are able to legally “offset” continued emissions, and advertise and capitalize on their ability to do so, with no standardization or accountability or actually reducing their emissions, we will never get to net zero.

Moral of the story: Decarbonize is priorities 1, 2, and 3.

And simultaneously, throwing money at basic science, tech labs, established carbon removal companies and startups — like we did with solar — is really the only way to find out if carbon removal tech going to A) work and B) scale, ever. Same with biotech, etc! These new deals could go a long way to doing that and I applaud the very smart folks behind them for trying to kickstart this thing.

Action Step: It’s well past time for the US Congress to vote on decarbonizing our economy, stat. Call your senators with Climate Changemakers and demand they do so.


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