The positive allure of negative emissions

Two Steps Forward

The positive allure of negative emissions

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

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In 2017, technology company Stripe announced a goal of becoming carbon neutral. "Our collective behavior today will no doubt determine the world we live in 30 years from now," it stated. The company said it would seek a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions footprint across all of its activities, including office and building energy use, manufacturing and industrial processes and corporate travel.

So far, so good. And no big deal these days, given the similar commitments made by hundreds of large and small companies.

Last week, Stripe, whose software allows individuals and businesses to make and receive payments over the Internet, doubled down in a big way: "We are committing to pay, at any available price, for the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its sequestration in secure, long-term storage." The company added: "Starting immediately."

Welcome to the world of "negative emissions."

That term, whose popular usage dates back a year or two, has been showing up increasingly lately, along with drawdown and carbon removal, as the notion of reducing and sequestering greenhouse gases already emitted into the atmosphere becomes a critical part of the world’s climate change strategy.

[The topic of carbon removal will be front and center at VERGE Carbon, one of four concurrent events that make up GreenBiz’s annual VERGE conference, Oct. 22-24 in Oakland, California.]

The Stripe announcement is notable because it is one of the first companies of any significant size — the privately held company is valued about $23 billion — to publicly commit to drawing down carbon gases even as it acknowledges that the technology isn’t yet ready for prime time.

"We expect that the best price will initially be very high: almost certainly more than $100 per tonne of carbon dioxide, or tCO2, as compared to the $8 per tCO2 we pay for offsets."

And lest you think that the higher price will lead to only symbolic investment, the company further proclaimed: "We commit to spending at least twice as much on sequestration as we do on offsets, with a floor of at least $1 million per year."

Bandwagon or anomaly?

It’s a bold move. And it will be interesting to see what, exactly, the economics are, and how much they change quarter to quarter and year to year. It also will be interesting to see how many companies follow in Stripe’s footsteps — whether this announcement is the front edge of a bandwagon or a one-off anomaly.

Stripe appears to be focusing on a technology called direct air capture, a means of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and turning it into materials or fuels. A handful of companies around the world are working on direct air capture technologies, including Antecy, Carbon Engineering, Climeworks, COAWAY and Global Thermostat.

Done at scale, direct air capture could become the most cost-efficient way to draw down large amounts of greenhouse gases in a relatively short time frame. But the technology has a long way to go to meet the price-performance levels that will bring it to scale.

When it does, the sky’s the limit. Literally.

Notes Stripe: "If there was scalable, verifiable negative emissions technology available in the vicinity of $100 per tCO2 captured, it could be a trillion-dollar industry by the end of the century and complement emissions reduction in halting anthropogenic climate change."

There are other, cheaper drawdown technologies, including afforestation and reforestation — basically, planting trees to replace those taken down, and turning arid land into forests — and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS, which involves burning biomass to create heat and energy, then pumping the resulting emissions to sequester underground. There’s also carbon farming, a series of techniques that increase the amount of carbon stored in agricultural soils.

Each of these technology buckets has its own positives and negatives. Direct air capture is highly energy-intensive, for example. According to one recent study, machines that suck CO2 directly from the air "would need as much as a quarter of global energy supplies in 2100" to address climate change at scale. Bioenergy plantations could be a tool in easing climate change but threaten food crops, a United Nations panel recently warned. And the science is still not settled on how much carbon farming can help to address climate change.

Moreover, there are concerns that any viable technology for removing carbon gases could undercut efforts to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions altogether.

"Negative emissions are treated as a ‘get out of jail free’ card — a license to keep emitting and clean up the mess later with new technologies," warned Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London and University of Leeds, in a recent op-ed.

It no doubt will take an all-of-the-above strategy, including both decarbonization and a variety of negative-emissions technologies, to achieve our carbon reduction goals.

What’s different now is that these technologies are starting to turn the corner into commercialization. Stripe’s stated goal to help make early-stage negative-emissions technologies viable, regardless of the current economics, is a significant part of its commitment.

As the company states:

We will work with experts to select winning carbon-capture solutions based on cost-effectiveness, and we may choose to buy from more expensive providers whose approach we think is particularly promising.… We know that the market is early-stage and are open to funding projects that have a strong plan for delivering negative emissions in the coming decade, even if they are not yet ready.

Stripe’s commitment someday may be seen as a pivotal moment in the race to bring fugitive carbon gases back to earth, where they can be transformed from a liability into an asset.