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The role of startups in restoring our climate with carbon removal

As the world faces a growing list of climate disasters, from unprecedented summer wildfires in Alaska to record-breaking heat waves in Asia, congressional negotiations on climate action continue to sputter. Amidst this landscape, the U.S. Department of Energy is convening a Carbon Negative Shot Summit this week on climate solutions. The summit is not focused on stopping climate pollution, which is essential to limit the devastation of climate change, but on another growing pillar of climate action: managing the massive amount of pollution that humans have already lodged in our atmosphere. Removing and managing carbon dioxide (CO2) is already happening in tandem with reducing climate pollution, but to reach gigaton-scale carbon management that can make a meaningful dent in U.S. and global climate targets, we need the innovation and ingenuity of startups.

The summit is part of the Energy Department’s efforts to lower the cost of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to $100 per ton or less, when it will be even more commercially viable to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The federal government’s “moonshot” initiatives have a track record of success, like the 2011 SunShot Initiative lowering the cost of solar energy. Can the Carbon Negative Shot accomplish similar breakthroughs for CDR that the solar industry benefited from in the previous decade? To get to yes, the answer lies with start-ups, which operate in a currency of new ideas, nimbleness and innovation — necessary ingredients for scaling up carbon management. 

The roadmap to gigaton scale removal and management requires multiple approaches because each method provides unique benefits, from the length of time that carbon remains sequestered to the footprint of land area required. The need for a diversity of approaches is reflected in startups themselves, which are advancing a range of solutions to remove, utilize, and manage CO2. 

The increasing number of companies marshaling their talent toward carbon management solutions are guided by global scientific consensus that the world needs to remove gigatons of CO2 to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, in tandem with reducing emissions. As startups work to lower the costs of carbon management, there are precedents for success. Startup innovations have helped to bend the technology cost curve for everything from solar panels, DNA sequencing and 3D printing. Companies managing the opportunities and challenges around CO2 management are buoyed by billions of dollars in private and public funding, highlighting the growing resources for the industry to scale. 

Early-stage companies are uniquely positioned to ensure that the emerging CDR industry not only grows economically, but also responsibly. As the industry continues to grow, it needs a principle akin to the Hippocratic oath that doctors sign, an “Ethical Oath to Restore the Earth.” Designing projects with community benefits in mind is one example of how startups can ensure the responsible growth of the industry. 

Government policies that create a level playing field will help ensure that the best and most economical solutions are the ones that grow as we scale to gigatons of removal by 2030 (a target date established in the United Nations’ science reports). Policies like 45Q, which provides a tax credit for carbon sequestration, is an example of a policy where early-stage companies face challenges. 45Q was adopted before many promising forms of removal were developed and these solutions were not written into the policy. The eligibility requirement sets such a high bar for amount of removal that many startups are precluded.

With startups essential for bending the technology cost curve of carbon management, they are an important group to have at the policy table, to ensure that their voices are heard and that no promising solutions are cut out of the equation prematurely. Summits like Carbon Negative Shot benefit from multiple groups coming together. This includes corporations who rely on carbon management startup solutions to achieve their net-zero pledges, academics who guide research, community voices around project development, as well as governments that set the policies. As the industry scales up, we should not overlook the importance of having early-stage companies join this table. 

From the printing press to penicillin, innovation has a track record of improving our world. Startups can help us do the same for carbon management. 

Ben Rubin is the executive director and co-founder of the Carbon Business Council, a nonprofit trade association of more than 40 startups unified to restore the climate. 

Tags carbon removal Climate change Energy Global warming Technology

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