By Brian Kahn
An Elon Musk tweet can do everything from moving the stock market to convincing people to invest in a joke cryptocurrency. So when the richest man on Earth tweeted in late January about kicking $100 million to whoever could come up with the best technology to capture carbon from the air, the world took notice.
The prize is part of a growing movement by the billionaire class to make carbon dioxide removal, known as CDR in science and policy circles, a reality. But the narrative fit for a sci-fi movie obscures the fact that CDR comes with real issues as does the fact that a few incredibly wealthy (largely) men and industries are trying to define the scope of climate solutions. The more the hype cycles builds, the more we risk ignoring the solutions sitting in front of us, setting up future generations for needless suffering.
Musk is hardly the only billionaire interested in sucking carbon from the sky. In his new book, Bill Gates writes about it extensively and said in a recent Atlantic interview cutting the cost of new no-carbon technology is better than investing in implement the no-carbon solutions we already have. He notes in the intro of his book that he won’t be naming any specific companies working on it, though, because he’s already invested in a few via his $2 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund. The Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion venture capital endeavor founded by Amazon under CEO Jeff Bezos, is also pouring money into carbon capture and removal companies as part of the company’s plan to go to net-zero by 2040. Startup accelerator Y Combinator put out an RFP in late 2018 for companies in the early stages of hoovering carbon up.
“Is the amount of buzz proportional?” Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a group focused on climate solutions already in existence, said. “Absolutely not. We have to stop worshipping high tech and tech bros.”
The concept of carbon removal is deceptively simple. We have spent every minute since the Industrial Revolution started treating the atmosphere like a toxic waste dump for greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide. The accumulation has led to radical shifts in the climate, pushing it to the edges of what has allowed civilization to thrive. Removing the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and stashing it underground or making stuff from it is a form of remediation to make up for decades of waste mismanagement.
It’s one of those solutions we will likely need to turn to to help deal with pesky sources of emissions like air travel for which there is no easy fix. But focusing on it as the solution is completely out of touch with reality.
“There’s no viable path to stopping climate change that doesn’t begin with stopping emissions as quickly as we can,” Foley said. “Do you know how hard it is to remove CO2 from the air using the machine? It’s really, really hard. It’s a lot easier just not to put it in there.”