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 cryptic tweet was followed by details that the billionaire donated $100 million to XPRIZE for a carbon capture competition that will last four years. It’s a neoliberal meets techno-optimist wet dream. Here is the world’s richest man teaming up with a group founded by a futurist and with board members including Larry Page and James Cameron, all in the service of creating technology that doesn’t exist anywhere near scale to address a problem our broken political system hasn’t been able to solve.
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.”
It’s not just tech billionaires investing massive sums of money into it. Major oil companies are plunging billions into research to preserve the status quo that they’ve benefitted from. By promising they’re investing in a far off solution, oil companies are essentially trying to buy license to pollute more now. A ton of carbon emitted today will do real damage to the climate and society for decades to come that the all the R&D into carbon removal will do nothing to abate. There’s also a very real risk that CDR never comes to fruition, that it’s essentially a waiting for Godot scenario that ends in climate ruin. It also will do nothing to deal with the other dangerous greenhouse gases ranging from methane to HFCs.
“As long as we’re giving out trophies for effort, we’re going to get people showing up to practice who haven’t been doing their homework,” Olufemi Taiwo, a philosopher at Georgetown who has written extensively on CDR, said. “We need to start making demands that are focused on results.”
In that regard, Musk’s prize is good at least. It will require the winners to prove they’ve created a solution that can suck up a ton of carbon dioxide per day, is scalable to remove 10 billion tons per year by 2050, and store it for at least 100 years. But while Taiwo noted tons of carbon is a key metric, “if it’s the only result that we’re interested in, then we could see lots of authoritarian, anti-Indigenous, anti-low income strategies employed to get those results.” That’s because removing carbon will inevitably come with societal costs and impacts.
One form of carbon removal is relying on so-called natural solutions like planting trees or tending to forests. Marc Benioff, another billionaire, has advocated for planting 1 trillion trees to address climate change. But that strategy can obscure what trees get planted, where, and how. Foisting tree planting programs on developing countries can reduce access to cropland or result in dispossessing Indigenous groups of their land. Or it can lead to mono crop plantations of trees that are essentially toothpicks of carbon rather than intact ecosystems that provide other services.
Or consider machines that suck up carbon. Right now, there are only a few test sites around the world that do it because it’s expensive and energy-intensive. None work at the scale needed; Climeworks and Carbfix, two of the few companies doing CDR in the wild, inked a deal last year to build a plant that remove up to 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Let’s say, though, that costs come down thanks to Musk’s prize and Gates’ and Bezos’ investments, and the world starts deploying carbon removal plants. If the past is any indication, those plants are unlikely to be sited in the Hamptons, instead appearing in fenceline communities in Houston or strewn across the Global South. If CDR becomes so widespread that it allows oil and gas companies to continue to exist, then communities living in the shadows of refineries and pipelines will still have to deal with the other toxic air and noise pollution that comes with living there.
“If we just perpetuate that system one day longer. Of course, it’s a massive injustice,” Foley said. “Imagine a world where we have a bunch of power plants in poor neighborhoods, but then we have these magic machines and other places in the world to suck out the CO2 so rich people can still go skiing and enjoy their mansions on the ocean or something. You took care of one problem, but you perpetuated another one.”
Alex Guerrero, a philosopher at Rutgers, said all the focus on CDR could be “crowding out other directions or ideas” to deal with climate change in our popular discourse. Rich white guys giving out prizes for science and investing venture capital in CDR also subverts democratic input on the one of the most consequential issues humanity has faced and cements rising inequality.
“A lot of efforts at international aid have undermined local democratic institutions,” Guerrero said. “One worry is that this is the next version.”
They may not have the sci-fi draw of carbon-sucking machines, but the real climate solutions at our disposal right now are our best shot at saving ourselves. Project Drawdown, Foley’s group, has identified 76 avenues to address the climate crisis at the scale needed. We don’t need an XPRIZE for them, either, since they already exist. They include things like installing more wind power, reducing food waste, restoring wetlands, and improving women’s access to education. Many, if implemented properly, have the power to improve people’s lives in other ways as well, whether its giving communities more control over their energy system or reducing energy bills. They would also cut our reliance on fossil fuels, reducing the need to rely more heavily on CDR in the first place.
“In the ideal world, we’d focus on the important here and now things,” Foley said. “Let’s get the low hanging fruit today, then the next fruit and the next fruit. And while we’re at it, maybe somebody in the corner should be investing in a ladder to get the last fruit on the top of the tree when we picked all the others.”
That last fruit is the hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation or steel, and that’s where CDR could come in most handy. But there, there’s a better approach than letting rich guys drive the bus. Foley noted that the Trump administration kicked $200 million into CDR research over its last 18 months, one of the only climate-forward things it did. The National Academies of Science also recently put out a research plan for approaching CDR, and Taiwo said that could be a good place to start putting the money so that it’s publicly accountable R&D.
But letting the U.S. alone drive the bus is hardly better than the rich guys at the wheel. The U.S. is the largest historical emitter, has vested interests in continuing fossil fuel production, and has been at absolute best a mixed bag when it comes international climate diplomacy. Taiwo said the country along with the EU and growing emitters like China have an outsize moral obligation to fund R&D in climate solutions and their deployment, but that doesn’t mean it should set the terms of engagement on how to do so.
“Based historically on what the relevant levels of emissions were and what the relevant political relationships were between, say, the former colonizers of the world and formerly colonized countries should inform how we decide to divvy up benefits and burdens in different places,” he said.
Guerrero has argued for a “lottocracy” approach to governance, where random citizens are put in charge. It’s an intriguing option to think about in the context of CDR and whether a representational global citizens’ assembly come up with an equitable R&D and deployment plan. While that may seem like a radical idea, is it any more radical than, say, letting a handful of people who have a net worth greater than most countries decide the course of humanity?
Updated, 2/17/21, 9:55 p.m.: This post has been updated to more clearly state the Climate Pledge Fund is tied to Amazon and was created while Bezos was CEO, not as a personal venture.