Tesla boss Elon Musk has put aside $US100 million ($A130 million) to fund innovation in technology that draws carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and stores it in a way that removes it from the carbon cycle.
The international competition, intended to help halt global warming, is open to Australian businesses and organisations and will be administered by XPrize, which runs competitions to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Carbon removal is a broad term. It can refer to biological sinks such as forests, soil and the ocean (“blue carbon”) that naturally draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it. It can also refer to artificial processes that use chemicals to capture carbon from the air and pump it into underground wells, often those that once held natural gas or oil. Or it can refer to the storage of carbon in materials such as cement or biochar, among many others.
Competitors must show they can draw down and store 1 tonne of carbon dioxide for at least 100 years at a given cost, and that the technology can be scaled up to gigatonne levels. The goal is to be able to draw down as much as 10 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2050 – equivalent to about one quarter of annual global emissions today.
After 18 months, the 15 most promising entries will receive $US1 million each to further develop their technology. At the end of the four-year competition, the winning team will receive $US50 million, second place will receive $US20 million, and third place $US10 million.
Musk said the aim was “carbon negativity”, not carbon neutrality.
“The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton’ which includes the environmental impact. This is not a theoretical competition; we want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigatonne level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence,” said Musk, who was last month declared the world’s richest person on the back of Tesla’s rocketing market value.
While there are cross-overs with carbon capture and storage (CCS), particularly in storage methods, carbon removal differs from that technology because it does not capture carbon at source – e.g. from a coal or gas-fired power plant – but rather draws it down when it is already in the atmosphere.
As a climate change mitigation technology it is far behind well-developed technologies such as renewable energy, electrified transport and energy efficient buildings. However, scientists believe it will be a necessary technology if we are to keep global warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century.
At current rates of emissions, the planet’s 1.5 degree carbon budget – that is, the amount of carbon we can emit before 1.5 degree of warming is locked in – will run out in around eight years. In the likely event that the world exceeds this budget, carbon removal could help partially wind back the clock.
Last year a large number of nations and corporations committed to net-zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, by the middle of the century. But already some companies are talking about carbon negativity. Microsoft has committed to becoming carbon negative by 2030, and to offset its historical emissions entirely by 2050. Its $1 billion climate fund is intended to stimulate innovation in carbon removal technology.
James Fernyhough is a reporter at RenewEconomy. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and the Financial Times, and is interested in all things related to climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.