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Practical Magic

How Stripe’s ‘negative emissions’ team picked its first four carbon removal projects

Project Vesta carbon removal approach

Project Vesta is focused on capturing CO2 within the ocean.

Project Vesta

Among the many notes to myself about potential follow-up stories lies my scribbled reminder to check in on online payment tech company Stripe’s pledge last year to put at least $1 million annually toward carbon removal activities. Last week, the company knocked that item off my checklist.

After a "rigorous" search, Stripe disclosed that it will support four "high potential" carbon capture and storage projects — picked from 24 applications. The action was detailed in a blog by Ryan Orbuch, a member of the internal climate strategy team leading the push. Stripe's other climate lead, Nan Ransohoff, was also deeply involved in the decision-making process.

"Our initial priority was working out how we could use our funds to have the biggest impact … Next, we want to make it ‘much’ easier for businesses to make these kinds of purchases, which, we hope, will begin to grow the market for carbon removal far beyond Stripe’s contribution," Orbuch wrote in response to questions I submitted for this article.

We want to make it ‘much’ easier for businesses to make these kinds of purchases.

Here’s a rundown of the organizations that Stripe plans to support (presented alphabetically). If you do the math, you’ll see these projects (in aggregate) account for all of the company’s annual commitment.

CarbonCure: The Canadian firm is using mineralized CO2 — aka calcium carbonate — in concrete. The CO2 is captured from industrial processes at plants creating things such as ethanol, fertilizer or cement. Stripe is supporting 2,500 tons at a price of $100 per ton.

Charm Industrial: The San Francisco-based startup is working on an approach that injects bio-oil captured from biomass into geologic storage. Stripe is the company’s first customer; the project will support the capture of 416 tons at $600 per ton.

Climeworks: The Swiss company, which uses renewable energy to capture carbon dioxide from the air, offers a sequestration approach called Carbfix that injects concentrated CO2 into basaltic rock formations. Stripe’s commitment is 322.5 tons, for which it will pay a price of $775 per ton. Ultimately, though, Climeworks has said it is working toward a long-term price of $100 to $200 per ton.

Project Vesta: This organization, which hails from San Francisco, is focused on capturing CO2 within the ocean and storing it using olivine, a natural mineral. The idea is to embed the captured carbon dioxide with limestone on the seafloor. This is an extremely early-stage approach, and the company needs to test it for both safety and viability. Stripe’s commitment to help it capture 3,333.33 tons at $75 per ton will help it with both lab experiments and pilot beach projects.

The criteria that Stripe used to assess its various options were pretty specific — they’re summarized below in the graphic. 

In response to my question about which were the most important considerations, Orbuch said no project was a perfect match nor did the Stripe team expect any to be. It didn’t specifically set out to pick four (although the math worked out well, with roughly $250,000 committed to each.) What stood out was the projects' particularly high potential as well as the fact that they work toward closing the gap of what’s available for companies to use as part of their carbon removal strategy.

He wrote: "One thing that really stood out to us was how few existing projects even attempt to sequester carbon outside of the biosphere. There’s a particularly large gap in non-biospheric solutions (such a large gap, in fact, that we decided that we’d also support R&D for these kinds of projects going forward — to help increase ‘top of funnel’). While sequestration beyond the biosphere certainly wasn’t the only criteria we considered, this one became increasingly important to us."

We’ve been encouraged by how many businesses, including many Stripe users, have expressed interest in purchasing alongside us.

Stripe didn’t make the decision about which projects to choose on its own. It consulted a number of advisers from academia (including scholars from Worcester Polytechnic, Heriot-Watt, Harvard and the University of Utah) and NGOs (Environmental Defense Fund and Carbon180). 

One thing that intrigues me about Stripe’s interest in funding carbon removal is its potential to help other companies act. How cool would it be, for example, if Stripe could include an option in its online payment service that allows businesses to fund these sorts of projects directly, perhaps as a percentage of a transaction or as a flat rate that customers could add to a purchase? Shopify, another e-commerce merchant platform, has said that it eventually will allow its business customers to do this although it hasn’t offered much detail.

When I asked Orbuch how Stripe customers might benefit from the projects announced last week, he basically said to stay tuned.

"We’ve been encouraged by how many businesses, including many Stripe users, have expressed interest in purchasing alongside us, and we want to make it as frictionless as possible for them to do so," he wrote. "More details to come at a later time."

In the call to action in its blog, Orbuch indicated that Stripe would like to create an ecosystem of "funders and founders" that can help it create an ecosystem of carbon removal opportunities to support that vision.

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