Governments are adopting aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals. But they won’t be enough by themselves to keep global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius and stave off the worst effects of climate change.
The problem is rapidly getting worse. New data show climate change accelerated over the last year notwithstanding the pandemic, with atmospheric greenhouse gases now at 419 parts per million of CO2 equivalent and counting. The latest Arctic research finds sea ice, considered one of the tipping points for irreversible climate change, retreating faster than ever before. A new UN report says there’s a 40 percent likelihood we could reach 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels in at least one of the next five years.
The prospect of temporarily going above the 1.5 degree mark averaged over a given year is not the same as overshooting 1.5 degrees averaged over 30 years. But it illustrates the point of how climate math is evolving: It’s later than we think, and we need to make faster progress.
Policymakers are getting that memo but can’t do it by themselves. To go fast enough and big enough on climate change, we need to unleash innovations in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and put the power of markets behind scaling them up.
The U.S. commitment to cut emissions 50-52 percent by 2030 and get to net-zero economy-wide by 2050, are big, transformative goals. But as special climate envoy John Kerry said, “Even if we get to net-zero by 2050, we still have to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere … That means we need the innovative technologies to do that.”
President Biden’s infrastructure plan and the White House executive budget would fund CDR projects, and at the April climate summit Biden proposed his Mission Innovation 2.0 initiative, including a U.S.-led “international technology mission on carbon dioxide removal at COP26.” The UK government recognizes it won’t meet its 50 percent emissions reduction target by 2030 without removing 100 million tons of carbon annually, and recently announced $42 million to fund trials of five different CDR technologies.
These policy developments are important, but insufficient. Global goals need to include climate restoration — returning atmospheric CO2 to safe, healthy levels. To remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the speed and scale we need to achieve that, we must do more than fund pilots, or work on scaling up existing hard-to-scale technologies like carbon capture and storage. We need to incubate new CDR technologies that are scalable and financeable, and harness market forces to deploy them rapidly and widely.
To that end, XPRIZE Foundation launched a competition to find and support the best new ideas for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and the oceans. It’s the largest incentive prize in history, with awards totaling $100 million. Its goal is to identify the next generation of viable carbon removal technologies — and help them get to the point where markets can finance and deploy them at scale.
To win, projects must show they can remove at least 1,000 tons of CO2 annually, keep the carbon sequestered for at least 100 years, achieve lower cost at scale, and have a realistic path to scaling up to the gigaton level — a billion tons annually. That kind of explosive growth tracks with scientific estimates for how fast we need to scale CDR. To keep warming to 1.5 degrees, we’ll need to remove from the atmosphere and sequester 10 GT (10 billion tons) of CO2 a year by 2050. That’s in addition to aggressively cutting GHG emissions.
But beyond the 1.5-degree goal and avoiding the worst effects of warming, augmenting emissions reduction with CDR has the potential to restore CO2 levels and the climate to their pre-industrial state. That would be expensive, costing perhaps 3 percent to 5 percent of the global economy for the next 20-30 years. Some especially promising technologies might cost between $50 billion and $250 billion a year. But it can be done — and would certainly be worth the investment.
Governments have the money for this: Their collective military spending alone is almost $2 trillion a year. But although public funding is an important part of innovation, governments are unlikely to incubate and scale the new carbon removal technologies that we need to restore the climate. Markets and private capital, on the other hand, are much more likely to do this, provided the barriers to entry for good ideas are low enough for good ideas to get through. That’s what the XPRIZE competition is designed to do.
It’s important that governments are getting serious about climate restoration and beginning to direct some of their spending to carbon removal. But private investment and market-based solutions are also wellsprings of innovation, and they can transform how we tackle climate change. Those who argue that market capitalism has driven climate change are right. But with thoughtful investment unleashing innovation and scaling it up, markets can help solve it, too.