Carbon Dioxide Removal: The Unreasonable Bet We Need

By Ilan Gur

Carbon Dioxide Removal: The Unreasonable Bet We Need

By Ilan Gur

Last month, we launched Activate’s CDR Imperative to support entrepreneurial scientists whose ideas can allow for permanent, gigaton-scale carbon removal. We’ve been thrilled by the positive response so far, including from potential applicants. But I’m concerned that we failed to include an important disclosure: 

Starting a company to do gigaton scale carbon removal is an entirely unreasonable proposition. 

Separating carbon dioxide from air requires sifting through 10,000 fairly inert air molecules and grabbing hold of the four that are CO2—basically the chemical equivalent of harvesting four-leaf clovers. Now, do it efficiently with a process that can scale to processing a few hundred thousand liters of air per day per person on the planet. Now make it dirt cheap (removing CO2 at anything sub-$100/ton will require a process as economical as those used to produce the cheapest commodity chemicals on earth). In case that doesn’t sound daunting enough, there’s one more small hurdle: the market for large-scale removal doesn’t exist.

Nothing about large-scale CDR provides a reasonable basis for a startup. But history has taught us that unreasonable may be exactly what we need right now. Let me share a story to illustrate what I mean:

In 1985, an electrical engineering Ph.D. scientist named Dick Swanson decided to start a solar company. Dick believed the research in his budding field of photovoltaics (PV) would yield an industry capable of displacing fossil fuels in powering our world. He had enough conviction in that vision to walk away from a coveted tenured professorship at Stanford to jump in unharnessed as a first-time entrepreneur. 

What must have gone through people’s minds when Dick told them about the bet he was making? In 1985, PV was little more than a novelty, producing electricity at the equivalent of over $5 per kWh, 100x more costly than electricity from a home outlet. Meanwhile, a processed silicon wafer that yielded dozens of microprocessor chips and many thousands of dollars in revenue for a company like Intel could generate at best a few watts of electricity if deployed as a solar cell. The viability of PV powering homes or the grid was unimaginable. Dick’s startup was as unreasonable as they get.

But the future need not always be reasonable. 

Researchers and developers, subsisting on grants and niche markets, quietly advanced PV technology. Meanwhile, policymakers in the US, Germany, and Japan quietly advanced the market. Soon enough the tech push linked arms with the market pull, and everything changed. Dick’s startup Sunpower grew into one of the solar industry’s biggest corporations, solar became energy’s fastest-growing sector, and today solar PV produces the cheapest electricity the world has ever seen.

Maybe it’s not such an unreasonable proposition to suggest that CDR is destined for a similar trajectory. The tech push has already begun, with direct air capture and early demonstrations across a range of other technical approaches like accelerated mineralization, bio-conversion, macroalgae sequestration, and more. And advanced bioengineering, combined with the natural chemical plants of our forests or oceans, may offer new solutions with even faster and cheaper scaling laws. On the demand side, corporations like Stripe and Microsoft have stepped in as buyers of first resort, creating a nascent market far sooner than anyone expected, and raising the prospect of further action from governments around the world. Such accelerants are critical since we no longer have the luxury of taking decades to scale climate solutions.

Neither the conviction nor the financial backing existed to support Activate’s CDR Imperative a mere 18 months ago. But what was unreasonable then seems like a no-brainer today. As part of our new imperative, Activate Fellows advancing CDR solutions will benefit from a powerful syndicate of support, leveraging philanthropic funding from the Grantham Foundation, Climate Pathfinders Foundation, Additional Ventures, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, as well as carbon removal procurement contracts from Stripe, and ecosystem and policy support from Carbon180. 

I often think of George Bernard Shaw’s assertion that all progress depends on the unreasonable individual. It’s far too easy to assume that Shaw is referring to someone else, someone more exceptional than you or me. I’d like instead to imagine that each of us can choose to be that person. To be unreasonable. To attempt the impossible and lead us forward.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Dick when he served on Activate’s board of directors. If you ask him about that early decision to leave his job and start Sunpower, he’ll humbly tell you there was nothing superhuman about it. It was simply the path he was excited to take, motivated by a future he was excited to see. He’ll also tell you that no matter how hard things got along the way, he woke up every day knowing that simply being on the journey was a privilege. 

Dick is right: diving into the deep end of the unreasonable is a privilege, predicated on access to knowledge, networks, and resources that are far too inequitably distributed. One way we’re using our privilege in the innovation ecosystem is to reach and support innovators from populations traditionally excluded from the sciences and in entrepreneurship. We’d love for the passionate, committed MCJ community to join us: Help us reach more aspiring science entrepreneurs across the country who need resources to turn their innovations into solutions!

  • Nominate scientists who are developing products aimed at CDR or any other aspect of decarbonization and climate resilience to apply for the Activate Fellowship. If you’re the first innovative, climate-focused scientist who comes to mind, and if you’ve got the technology you’re ready to commercialize: Apply for the fellowship!

  • Let your networks know about Activate and our paid, two-year fellowship.

  • Join us! We’re growing our team and partnerships.

  • Get involved—there are many ways to pitch in.

Applications for Cohort 2022 are open until November 30, and this year applicants have four different communities to choose from: Berkeley, Boston, New York, and Activate Anywhere, which will support fellows anywhere in the U.S. 

Thank you! When it comes to climate, the unreasonable individual won’t cut it. Progress depends on all of us, supporting one another as we work to create an unreasonably better future together.

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Community news and announcements

  • This week, long-time community member and MCJ podcast alum, Bill Weihl, was highlighted in Grist! Check out Report: Corporations are tanking America’s best shot at fighting climate change for more on Climate Voices and how corporate America is affecting climate change!

  • 📋The results of our quarterly member survey are in. Thank you to the many MCJ members who took the time to respond and share their views on how we can improve the community experience. Here are some quick highlights:

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🗽MCJ NYC Meet up (Wednesday, October 20th at 6:30 pm ET)
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