Eight years ago, the field of carbon removal consisted of a handful of academic lab projects and a few start-ups working on a novel concept: extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
That’s when Giana Amador, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, founded a non-profit organization called Carbon180 with another student, Noah Deich. They hoped to convince policymakers and the climate community that reversing carbon emissions, as well as reducing them, was essential to limiting the worst impacts of climate change.
A lot has changed since then. Scientists have become more open about the need to remove carbon. Last year, a major UN report concluded that meeting international climate goals would be Almost impossible without cleaning up some of what has already been issued. Startups hoping to make that number in the hundreds now. Universities have opened research centers to explore the best methods. Private companies and venture capital firms have committed hundreds of millions to the cause, and Washington has followed suit. There’s a new carbon removal research program within the Department of Energy, $3.5 billion in federal funds available to build machines that pull carbon out of the air, and a tax credit of up to $180 for every ton of carbon those machines sequester under land.
This explosive growth led Amador to see the need for a different type of advocacy. Last week, he launched the Carbon Removal Alliance, a group of startups and investors who will lobby for policies that support “permanent removal of high-quality carbon.”
“I’m very excited that we have more than 20 companies that have come together around those principles to set the standard for what good carbon removal should look like,” Amador, the group’s chief executive, told Grist.
The group’s explicit focus on “high-quality” or “good” carbon removal underscores a simmering debate within the field about how best to meet the challenge of cleaning up the atmosphere, drawing a sharp line between methods that could remove and store carbon. for millennia, and those that are more temporary.
In general, there are two reasons why scientists say carbon removal will be necessary to address climate change. First, it is a way to balance emissions that are difficult to eliminate, such as from airplanes or agriculture. Second, if the planet warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as many models show, the only way to cool it will be to remove carbon from the atmosphere. There’s no consensus on exactly how much carbon removal will ultimately be needed, but scientists put the number in between 450 and 1,100 gigatons at the end of the century.
Almost all of the carbon removed from the atmosphere to date has been achieved by nature. a recent CO2 removal status review estimates that conventional land management techniques, such as reforestation, absorb about 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, or about 5 percent of global fossil fuel emissions in 2021. Trees, soils, Wetlands and other natural carbon sinks can be improved to absorb even more of that, and many companies are focused on doing so. But these are considered short-lived solutions. Forest fires, droughts, disease and natural death threaten the carbon stored in trees, while any disturbance to soils and wetlands can also cause a release. Polluting companies often buy carbon offsets from these solutions in the relatively short term. but Scientists have criticized that practice.noting that fossil fuel emissions remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, while trees typically store carbon for hundreds or less.
The Carbon Removal Alliance, by contrast, is made up of companies focused on absorbing carbon and storing it virtually forever. Some, like Climeworks, build direct air capture machines that suck up the air, separate the carbon, and then hide it underground. Others, like Charm Industrial, refine corn stalks into a stable, viscous oil and inject it into the earth’s crust. Other companies grind rocks and spread them on agricultural fields to speed up a natural erosion process that absorbs carbon. Still others hope to sink carbon into the deep ocean. But these approaches are much more expensive and technologically challenging than planting trees. It is not yet clear what a successful business model for permanent carbon removal looks like. Until now, entrepreneurs have relied on venture capital and selling their services as expensive carbon offsets to a few charities eager to support the field.
Many Alliance members are seeking to distance themselves from traditional carbon offsets by not only advancing methods with longer timescales, but also pushing for more rigorous standards for measuring and verifying the amount of carbon they remove. Researchers have found that many forest and soil-based projects are Full of accounting problems and they don’t remove as much carbon as they claim. But while newer, more highly engineered approaches have come a long way since Amador began, they have yet to remove significant amounts.
“We have made a lot of progress on the pitch,” he said. “That being said, we have still captured only about 10,000 tons of permanent carbon removal today. And that is a very, very small fraction of the billions of tons that we need to catch 30 years from now.” She said the next chapter is about building larger proof-of-concept projects and cutting costs.
Amador and other members of the Alliance make it clear that reducing emissions is much more urgent in the short term. But they argue that permanent carbon removal will not be an option down the road without immediate and sustained investment. Companies need funding and regulatory support to determine what works; what are the risks and how to measure the benefits. And while policymakers have begun to create programs to support the field, they have focused on a limited set of solutions. Take the $180 per ton tax credit, for example. Only direct air capture projects can claim it. Peter Reinhardt, CEO and founder of Charm Industrial, was frustrated that his company’s bio-oil solution didn’t qualify despite his best efforts to lobby lawmakers.
“What really matters is how much carbon we take out of the atmosphere and put underground,” he said. “So I did kind of a solo effort to try to push that forward, and I learned very quickly that building a broad coalition is the only effective way to do things.” That’s why she joined other founding members to create the Carbon Removal Alliance.
The group wants to discourage lawmakers from supporting specific technologies and instead prioritize certain criteria, such as the duration of carbon storage. It’s an approach that another carbon removal trade association, the Carbon Business Council, disagrees with.
“We see the benefits of a strategy of all of the above and not necessarily choose one or the other,” said Ben Rubin, the organization’s chief executive.
The council was launched last year and includes more than 80 members representing a wide range of solutions. While there is some overlap with the Carbon Removal Alliance, the group also has entrepreneurs focused on capturing carbon in soil and trees, and using the material to make products like jet fuel and diamonds. It also has a handful of members focused on building carbon credit markets to help companies market their services.
Rubin said the benefit of relatively temporary forms of carbon removal is that they are “abundant in today’s market” and very affordable. “If CO2 is released again in the future, we still believe it has a role in helping to buy society the time we need to decarbonise. As we look at the trends of where renewable energy is going, where EV adoption is going, we need more time.”
Amador agrees with that idea, at least in the short term. He did not rule out the possibility that the two groups could work together. “But the reason we’re focusing on the long term is because we know, from a climate perspective, that we need to store carbon on time scales that match how long carbon actually stays in our atmosphere,” he said.