Despite a multi-billion dollar market, carbon removal technology is still fringe. Carbon180 is out to make them mainstream.
It wasn’t long ago that critics dismissed as fantasy the idea that wind or solar would ever make up a significant portion of America’s energy mix. But now not only do wind and solar energy make up more than 9% of all electricity generated in the U.S., they’re also consistently cheaper sources of energy than fossil fuels.
For Noah Deich, founder of tech nonprofit Carbon180, it’s time for a new fantasy to become reality: Carbon removal, a family of technologies and techniques that can take CO2 out of the air.
The carbontech market is already worth at least $3 billion, and it’s a key part of the future plans of companies like Exxon, BP, GE, Siemens, and Mitsubishi. But carbontech, on the whole, is also new, experimental, and wildly varied. Carbon180 aims to make it mainstream, supporting projects and initiatives that work to place carbon removal at the center of America’s climate economy.
Working with a team of 10-strong out of offices on both coasts, last year his fledgling organization helped secure nearly $70 million in government funding to support carbon removal initiatives. These include a regenerative agriculture project in the Rocky Mountains, a knowledge-sharing consortium of universities and national labs, and a fellowship program in which aspiring entrepreneurs receive office space, mentorship, and $100,000 in funding to incubate their carbontech startups.
The carbon cutting edge
One of the first Carbon180 fellows was Jeremy Freeman, who used his Carbon180 grant to seed the startup CarbonPlan, which develops open-source, data-driven tools to evaluate different carbon removal technologies and projects.
CarbonPlan’s tools are necessary, Freeman explains, because “carbon removal” describes a vast array of approaches, each with their own risks and opportunities. These range from complex CO2 separation technologies to ancient farming practices.
“Carbon removal” describes a vast array of approaches, each with their own risks and opportunities.
“[Carbon removal] is an incredibly complicated variety of areas and that makes it extra challenging for folks trying to make decisions about projects, whether in the public or private sector, [about] what to choose and how to make decisions,” Freeman says. “We see our role as surfacing a lot of the science and data that help inform those decisions.”
On paper, the already multi-billion dollar carbon capture and sequestration market is forecasted to grow nearly 14% per year through 2026, according to market research firm Global Market Insights. But in practice, carbon removal is still largely experimental. Even the simplest methods, like simply planting CO2-absorbing trees, have mixed outcomes. And the more proven methods, such as direct air capture technology, are often prohibitively expensive. Swiss engineering firm Climeworks may boast 30 direct air capture machines whirring away on the roof of a power plant near Zurich, but the carbon they capture costs between $94 and $232 per ton. (By contrast, the going rate for carbon offsetting via regenerative agriculture is only around $15 per ton.)
“That’s why the role of government, and to some degree philanthropy, are so important,” argues Deich. He believes government regulation and incentives will motivate the private sector to embrace and streamline currently niche technologies. “Direct air capture can follow a similar cost reduction trajectory [to wind and solar]. But it will likely only do so if there are actors who are willing to invest in the technology [while it’s still capital-intensive]. That’s a job that most investors are hesitant to take on themselves.”
The multi-billion dollar carbon capture and sequestration market is forecasted to grow nearly 14% per year.
Thus, in addition to supporting entrepreneurs and scientists, Carbon180 lobbies policymakers directly, hosting events like last year’s Carbontech on the Hill, in which leaders in the carbon removal industry had the opportunity to make their case to national lawmakers. The organization lobbied for legislation such as the 2019 SEA FUEL Act, which provided $8 million in funding for direct air and ocean capture technologies. And last year, Carbon180 managing director Gianna Amador pleaded the case for carbon removal before the U.S. House of Representatives; Congress would later authorize $60 million in funding for the federal government’s first dedicated research program on carbon removal, with $35 million explicitly allocated for direct air capture and negative emissions.
A shared climate struggle
Worries about widespread carbon removal aren’t just limited to its cost or technical feasibility. Another common fear is that investing in carbon removal could discourage investment in renewables, since focusing on what some consider to be a distant goal, if not outright fantasy, could distract from the practical changes scientists say we need to make right now to avoid climate disaster.
“We make sure that we’re not just having these monolithic policy approaches that only think about carbon removal.”
Deich dismisses those worries. He says he hasn’t encountered that attitude in his experience. “It’s certainly a worry from the academic community, but that’s part of our role as a nonprofit, to make sure we’re advocating for carbon removal alongside accelerated mitigation, not as an excuse to continue business as usual,” he says. “Because so much of our work is focused on the policy front, we make sure that we’re not just having these monolithic policy approaches that only think about carbon removal.”
For Deich, protecting the climate isn’t about choosing between emitting less carbon or removing it from the air. It’s about supporting lots of different approaches from scientists, policymakers, and entrepreneurs across the board. “Our mission is climate change.”