We’ve Never Seen a Carbon-Removal Plan Like This Before
Companies including Google and Facebook are pouring more than $900 million into a nascent technology that’s essential to zeroing out emissions.
Updated at 3:45 p.m. on April 13, 2022.
The world’s biggest tech companies are getting serious about carbon removal, the still-nascent technology wherein humanity can pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yesterday, an alliance of prominent Silicon Valley companies—including Google, Meta, Shopify, and the payment company Stripe—announced that it is purchasing $925 million in carbon removal over the next eight years. In a world awash in overhyped corporate climate commitments, this is actually a big deal.
The purchases, which will be made by a new Stripe-owned company called Frontier, will dwarf any previous efforts of their type. In 2020, Stripe announced that it would spend $1 million buying carbon-removal credits—at the time, the largest purchase ever. Since then, Stripe and its customers have spent about $15 million on carbon removal, Nan Ransohoff, a Stripe employee who will lead Frontier, told me. That figure alone is more than other companies have spent on such technologies. Now Frontier is vowing to increase it by a factor of 60.
Carbon removal will not solve climate change by itself. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of warming, we must reduce carbon pollution as fast as possible. That means phasing out fossil fuels, adopting clean energy, and switching to public transit and electric vehicles. But even in situations where humanity aggressively reduces its carbon pollution, some carbon removal is now “essential” to zeroing out emissions: This was one of the headline findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new report from last week. Even the IPCC’s most conservative estimates say that humanity will need to capture more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year to keep the planet’s average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above its pre-industrial level, an already unlikely proposition. The median estimate is an even more onerous 6 billion tons a year.
But the technology to actually do any of that on a grand scale remains nebulous. Scientists and engineers are still exploring different ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and permanently store it, such as constructing factories that cleanse carbon from the air or cultivating vast undersea farms of kelp, which can then be harvested and buried deep in the ocean.
Either way, those efforts will have to accelerate by several orders of magnitude for humanity to meet its climate goals. There is no global total of how many tons of carbon dioxide have ever been permanently removed from the atmosphere so far, but Ransohoff estimated that they numbered in the thousands.
To go from thousands to billions, virtually everyone—including members of the Frontier team—agrees that the federal government should eventually pay to remove most of that carbon. The carbon-removal market will probably need to reach $1 trillion a year, Ransohoff told me, a figure that places it well outside any company’s reach.
But today, the government is not yet making those purchases, so the companies behind Frontier have pledged to begin buying carbon instead. “We are trying to buy ourselves time to get the right policy mechanisms in place to take this market where it needs to go,” Ransohoff said. Nearly “a billion dollars is roughly 30 times the carbon-removal market that existed in 2021. But it’s still 1,000 times short of the market we need by 2050.”
I first covered Stripe’s carbon-removal purchases in 2020. The company has now contracted to buy carbon removal from 14 different start-ups. They include CarbonBuilt, which is trying to sequester carbon by capturing it in concrete; the Future Forest Company, which seeks to accelerate the natural process of rock weathering; and Project Vesta, which wants to line beaches with a carbon-capturing mineral called olivine. Stripe was just a customer for those start-ups, providing them with money today to capture carbon in the future. As I wrote last year, Stripe—and now Frontier—aims to be a “buyer of first resort,” sending a demand-side signal to entrepreneurs and investors that a large market for permanent carbon removal exists.
If $15 million was a dog whistle, $900 million is a bullhorn. With this new investment, Frontier will take the same approach. “We’re not making an equity investment in any of these companies. It’s dollars in, tons out,” Ransohoff said. This idea—that by committing to buy a product early, you can help bring it to market faster—was first pioneered in the field of medicine. In 2010, a set of donors committed $1.5 billion to buy doses of a vaccine for Streptococcus pneumoniae before it had been invented. That “advanced market commitment,” as it’s called, spurred the rapid invention and deployment of a pneumococcal vaccine, which was credited with having saved 700,000 lives worldwide as of 2020.
Much of Frontier’s work will take the form of this kind of commitment. Every year, Frontier’s supporters will spend a certain number of dollars on carbon removal. Frontier will then pool their dollars and pay different different companies to remove carbon through the method that that firm is exploring.
If those start-ups don’t deliver the promised tons, then Frontier has no recourse to get its money back, Ransohoff said. But it hopes that its broad payments will accelerate the industry’s development, helping discover which techniques and methods will actually allow carbon removal to scale as much as is needed.
And now Frontier will have another tool in its box: an “offtake agreement,” a contract in which Frontier pledges to buy a certain amount of carbon removal from a company as soon as it is available. Banks and investors tend to be uncertain about lending to carbon-removal companies that want to build a facility to test their ideas, Ransohoff said. But with an offtake agreement from Frontier, a carbon-removal start-up can prove to a bank that it will have a customer once the facility is up and running.
One of the most important aspects of Frontier’s purchases is that the company is taking an intentionally non-efficient approach to buying carbon removal. Frontier, like its predecessor, Stripe’s climate division, has set a maximum amount that it will spend to remove a ton of carbon. On average, Stripe paid a “couple hundred dollars a ton” to remove carbon dioxide, Ransohoff said, but its purchases ranged from $75 to $2,052 a ton.
The goal, of course, is to eventually remove carbon at the cheapest per-ton price possible, but simply paying for efficiency is not necessarily the fastest way to get there. The history of American technology policy helps demonstrate why. In the 1950s and ’60s, the United States promised to purchase the fastest semiconductor from any company that could produce it at essentially any cost. This program helped the new computer-chip industry flourish: Small firms were able to explore experimental new techniques for making very expensive but fast computer chips. Because the government would buy fast chips at any cost, a firm could break even just by selling a few chips to the government every so often.
In the 1970s, the government adopted a similar program to help commercialize solar panels. But as I’ve written, this program was far less successful, in part because it sought to buy the most efficient panels—which meant, effectively, the cheapest. Instead of supporting a vibrant ecosystem, this program encouraged companies to compete one another out of existence.
The end result of those two policies is that America remains a major player in semiconductors but hardly makes solar panels anymore—even though both underlying technologies were invented here. Of course, carbon removal is a long way from matching the economic importance of either of those industries. But if it gets there one day, Frontier could be a crucial part of its story.
This article originally misstated the estimated tons of carbon that would need to be removed from the atmosphere annually to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.