Climate Finance | April 5, 2022

How climate investors are getting ready for the carbon removal boom

Amy Cortese
ImpactAlpha Editor

Amy Cortese

ImpactAlpha, April 5 – The world is hurtling towards irreversible and catastrophic warming. The goals of the Paris climate accord are fast slipping out of reach. 

At least we know what to do. 

In the face of the gathering climate threat, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report strikes a decidedly ‘can-do’ attitude. Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 as fossil fuels are rapidly scaled down.

And carbon removal technologies, as well as natural solutions, will be necessary to make up for hard-to-abate activities and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Global temperature increases are virtually certain to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the report warns. Carbon removal may be the only way to bring them back down. 

Policies and laws enacted by governments around the world have kept emissions from climbing 3% to as much as 10% higher, according to the IPCC’s Jim Skea. 

“The next few years are absolutely critical, said Sarah Burch, the Canadian academic who is the report’s lead author. “We’re not on track to 1.5 degrees, but we also already have the tools we need to create healthy, just, resilient, low carbon communities.”

The report, the third in the IPCC’s latest series, charts the plummeting costs of clean technologies: costs for solar energy and battery storage fell by 85% from 2010 to 2019; wind energy by 55%. That’s helped boost deployments by ten-fold for solar and 100X for electric vehicles. Low-cost digital technology is driving reductions through energy efficiency and optimization.

Still to fall: the costs of removing carbon from the air. Technology to directly suck carbon out of the air is still nascent, expensive and energy-intensive. 

One reason the approach was included in the IPCC report was pressure from Saudi Arabia which, like other petro-states, sees the technology as a way to extend its fossil-based economies.

Carbon tech

A host of startups are exploring cheaper and more efficient ways to remove carbon from the air. And they are finding a warm reception from investors. 

The Biden administration has earmarked $3.5 billion to create four direct air capture hubs around the country. Later this month, Elon Musk’s Carbon Removal XPrize will announce the winners of its $100 million competition. 

The International Energy Agency estimates that direct air capture could remove more than 85 million metric tons by 2030 under its net-zero scenario. The world’s 19 current direct air capture facilities currently remove just 10,000 metric tons per year. 

Natural solutions, such as forestry, restoration of wetlands and peat bogs and regenerative agriculture, can store carbon dioxide at scale. But such solutions are also vulnerable to climate-related wildfires, droughts, and flooding. 

Demonstrating the prices that at least some early adopters are willing to pay, the direct-air capture pioneer Climeworks has fetched $600 or more per ton of carbon in voluntary carbon markets. Climeworks’s Iceland plant is pulling 4,000 metric tons per year from the air and sequestering it underground. 

The13-year old Swiss company has raised a fresh $650 million, the largest-ever haul for a climate removal company, from investors including Partners Group, GIC, John Doerr and others. “Accelerating the scale up of carbon removal capacity will play a crucial role in global efforts to keep global warming under 1.5°C,” said Climeworks’ Jan Wurzbacher.

Heirloom Carbon Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup that has created a novel and potentially less expensive carbon removal process, is building its first pilot plant with funding from Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures and other investors. Heirloom relies on the natural carbon-absorbing properties of limestone to suck carbon out of the air, rather than using expensive solvents. The CO2 is then released from the limestone, captured and stored, allowing the process to be repeated multiple times.  

Woburn, Mass.-based Verdox has developed a large, specialized battery that, as it charges, absorbs carbon from the air or a stream of waste gas, and releases the gas as the battery discharges. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff says the process is cheaper and more energy efficient than other direct air capture methods.

“The high energy efficiency and scalability of Verdox’s technology could enable the company to play a major role in addressing the carbon removal challenge,” said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Along with Lowercarbon Capital and Prelude Ventures, Breakthrough injected $80 million into Verdox in February. 

Corporations have emerged as key partners in accelerating declining cost curves for direct air capture. Microsoft, Stripe and other tech companies have committed to buying carbon removal services from startups such as Climeworks and Verdox via “offtake” agreements. Microsoft has a goal of removing all of the carbon it has emitted since it was founded in 1975.

Natural sinks

Carbon Collect Limited is looking to build mechanical trees that it says are 1,000 times more efficient than natural trees at removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The Dublin-based company was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy last year to design a commercial-scale direct air capture system with Arizona State University. The award was one of six for carbon-capture that the DOE announced last year. 

Other startups are looking to enhance the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to act as a massive carbon sink. 

Nova Scotia-based Planetary Technologies adds alkalinity to the ocean, which helps it store carbon for tens of thousands of years. Purified alkaline rocks leftover from the process can produce zero-carbon green hydrogen fuel. The company last month raised $7.8 million to build pilot projects in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Shopify has pre-ordered some of the credits Planetary aims to remove with the facilities. 

Startups are eyeing the carbon-sequestering capacity of kelp and algae. Kelp Blue, a Dutch startup, is building an off-shore kelp farm in Namibia to sequester carbon, restore marine health and create local jobs. Harvested kelp will be processed for textiles, food and fertilizer. The company recently raised $60 million from Climate Fund Managers and EOS Capital.  

U.K.-based Brilliant Planet harnesses natural processes to grow microalgae in open-air ponds on coastal desert land, including a 30,000-square meter production facility in Morocco.

A related technology approach, carbon capture storage and utilization, or CCSU, captures emissions from smokestacks or other points of release for burial underground or use as an input for everything from cement to vodka. 

Irony alert: The biggest customers for captured carbon are oil and gas companies, which inject it into wells – to help pump out more of fossil fuels.