Current CO2 levels in our atmosphere and oceans are a clear sign that the climate crisis is getting out of control. Stopping global warming undoubtedly requires immediate and rapid strategies to reduce emissions. Yet, according to the latest IPCC climate report, it is equally important to develop additional tools that allow us to capture excess carbon dioxide. While research into carbon removal is still in its early stages, significant improvements have been made in recent years and a number of carbon capture plants around the world have started operations. Tech billionaire Elon Musk is one of the few people betting on the technology and is now funding the USD$100 million XPRIZE for carbon removal projects.
Current atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are estimated to be approximately 417.4 ppm (parts per million), jumping 17.5ppm from 2019 levels despite the economic slowdown from the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest measurement also demonstrates an unrelenting upward trend since assessments first began in 1958, with humans adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere every year. The last time our planet’s atmosphere held such a high amount of CO2 was around four million years ago, long before humans even existed.
Figure 1: Global Monthly Mean CO2, 1980-2022
There is no doubt among experts today that carbon dioxide is one of the key contributors to climate change and global warming. In the latest climate report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the urgency of developing carbon removal technologies – including capture and storage – as an unavoidable tool to achieve and maintain global net-zero emissions. It estimated that the world needs to remove approximately 10 gigatonnes of net CO2 per year by 2050 in order to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5C.
Despite capture and storage technologies being still in their infancy, the carbon removal discourse has been gaining traction in recent years. Tools to achieve negative emissions are being tested worldwide and in some parts of the world, they are already in operation, like in the case of the Orca plant in Iceland, the world’s largest direct air capture facility, whose operations kicked off in late 2021. Now, even tech billionaire Elon Musk is getting involved in the race by launching a USD$100 million XPRIZE to encourage more research and development in this field.
We take a look at what carbon removal is and how Musk’s competition might be the spark the world needs to galvanise the development of this technology into one of the most effective tools we can implement in the fight against the climate crisis.
What Is Carbon Removal?
In the race to meet the climate targets that world leaders have set, implementing strategies to reduce emissions is imperative. However, these alone will not be enough to stop global warming. Instead, we need to focus on developing technologies that will allow us to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere. Carbon removal solutions involve actively taking out existing emissions from the atmosphere and oceans to help bring our planet’s carbon cycle back into balance.
There are many ways in which CO2 can be durably sequestered. Some of the most common carbon negative solutions are nature-based, such as afforestation and reforestation as well as soil carbon sequestration using no-till farming, an agricultural practice that allows growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil through tillage. However, direct air capture technologies are also gaining popularity. Iceland recently inaugurated the world’s largest plant that sucks carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere. It is expected to collect around 4,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and store it underground. Given the extremely high commercial demand, the Swiss company behind the plant – Climeworks – is already working on a new facility that will be 10 times larger and could collect millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the next three years. Several ocean-based methods have also proved to be efficient in removing carbon from waterbodies. Some of these strategies include ocean alkalinisation and fertilisation, artificial upwelling (fertilising selected areas of the ocean by pumping nutrient-rich waters from the depths to the surface) as well as downwelling (accelerating the transport of carbon to the ocean depths by pumping surface waters downward). Lastly, projects to capture and sequester carbon from biofuels and bioenergy plants are being tested, mostly in North America and Europe.
What Is the Link Between Elon Musk And Carbon Removal?
While the small-scale removal technologies we have today are a great resource, the goal is to create a system so powerful it can halt the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. And this requires much larger and more ambitious projects. Little can be done without adequate financial investments, and Elon Musk knows it. The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is an advocate for sustainability and on multiple occasions he expressed his viewpoint on the need to phase out fossil fuels and focus on greener alternatives to build a zero-emissions future. Through his influence, he has been able to amplify this message to millions of people around the world.
The billionaire is now funding a USD$100 million XPRIZE – the “largest incentive prize in history” –to encourage the development of carbon capture projects, The competition opened on Earth Day 2021 and it will last four years through Earth Day 2025. The winner of the grand prize will have to come up with “a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tonnes removed per year, model their costs at a scale of 1 million tonnes per year, and show a pathway to sustainably achieving a scale of gigatonnes per year in the future”. In the autumn of 2021, XPRIZE and the Musk Foundation named 23 winners in the USD$5M Carbon Removal Student Competition, which funds early-stage concepts from the next generation of carbon removal innovators. Among the innovative projects selected were several carbon removal demonstrations across various pathways such as air, land, rocks, and oceans as well as five measurement, reporting, and verification technologies that can enable carbon removal. They were developed by students representing 10 countries and 31 international educational institutions.
Moreover, on Earth Day 2022, judges reviewed all submissions received within the first year since the competition’s launch and awarded 15 Milestone Prizes of USD$1 million each as a “welcome boost for the teams to carry on with and scale up their work”. The prize announcement came just weeks after the IPCC climate report warned in ever-starker terms of the threat of rising global temperatures. Among the winners is the Climate Foundation’s SeaForestation, an initiative that tackles one of humanity’s biggest threats – food security – by establishing deepwater-irrigated, open-ocean seaweed mariculture that can regenerate ecosystem services and help with carbon sequestration.
It is not the first time that wealthy individuals have offered a prize to find a solution to climate change. In 2007, billionaire Richard Branson created the USD$25 million Virgin Earth Challenge to find commercial solutions for extracting greenhouse gases out of the air, and in 2020, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos awarded monetary prizes to 16 projects partially centred on finding carbon capture solutions.
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On the one hand, Musk has been praised for his successful efforts in expanding the electric vehicles market through its trillion-dollar company Tesla – which has sold nearly 2 million cars since its inception. On the other, the tech billionaire has been the subject of extensive criticism regarding the environmental impacts of commercial space tourism, which SpaceX – the company he founded and is projected to become even more valuable than Tesla – is promoting. Indeed, recent data from the 2022 World Inequality Report showed that the carbon footprint of a single flight to space produces more emissions than what the bottom billion of the world’s population does in their entire lifetime. In a bid to alleviate the effects of climate change – and most likely also to squash these criticisms – in early 2022 Musk announced plans to launch a new initiative to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into rocket fuel. The announcement did not come as a surprise. While the plan might sound extremely ambitious, Musk’s strong interest in alternative tools to fight climate change besides relying on renewable energy sources is quite obvious, as he sees carbon taxes and carbon capture technologies as some of the best ways we have to reverse the current trajectory of global warming.
EO’s Position: Carbon removal is without a doubt a key resource and a valuable solution to reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. And as the latest IPCC report suggests, now is the time to do everything in our power to develop these new technologies. It is true that electric cars, solar energy, and carbon capture alone cannot solve climate change, and only when fossil fuels are completely eliminated from the energy mix can the world breathe easier. However, what XPRIZE and other billionaires are offering are much-needed incentives for more research to be conducted in this field as well as a good way to promote carbon removal solutions.
Featured Image by: James Duncan Davidson (CC BY-NC 3.0)