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As carbon removal gains traction, economists imagine a new market to save the planet

Climeworks factory with it's fans in front of the collector, drawing in ambient air and release it, as largely purified CO2 through ventilators at the back is seen at the Hellisheidi power plant near Reykjavik on October 11, 2021.
Climeworks factory with it's fans in front of the collector, drawing in ambient air and release it, as largely purified CO2 through ventilators at the back is seen at the Hellisheidi power plant near Reykjavik on October 11, 2021.

Up until recently, the idea of sucking gigatons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to reverse climate change was solidly in the realm of science fiction. For believers, it's been an exciting fantasy in which human ingenuity and technology triumph in saving the planet. For naysayers, it's been a fantastical distraction from the urgent work of cutting emissions. Climate activists fear that focusing on carbon removal might lull us into a false sense of complacency as humanity careens a fossil-fuel-powered locomotive off a cliff. The fact that fossil fuel companies have become prominent advocates for developing carbon removal technologies has only added to their distrust.

But the issue of climate change has become so pressing — and the lack of real political progress in slashing emissions has become so apparent — that 2021 saw a growing movement in support of removing gobs of carbon from the atmosphere as a life-preserver for the planet. To be clear, serious proponents of carbon removal see it as a now-necessary complement to — not a substitute for — dramatically cutting emissions.

Over the last year, respected climate scientists have backed carbon removal efforts. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, released a report making clear that it believes carbon removal is an important part of a comprehensive strategy to combat climate change. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently released a study warning that simply reducing emissions "may not be enough to stabilize the climate" and that carbon removal "likely will be needed to meet global climate goals."

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and startups have intensified efforts to develop carbon removal technologies. Elon Musk, for instance, announced in early 2021 that he was awarding a $100 million prize to anyone who can "create and demonstrate a solution that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently in an environmentally benign way." Companies like Stripe are giving millions of dollars to carbon-removal startups. Some are already showing progress. In September, a startup called Climeworks opened a new facility in Iceland called Orca that is the world's largest "direct air capture and storage" plant, sucking carbon out of the air and turning it into rock for permanent storage underground.

Governments have begun taking carbon removal seriously as well. Last month, the European Union announced it was pursuing a plan to remove five million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air by 2030. In November, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new "Earthshot" initiative that they called "the U.S. government's first major effort in carbon dioxide removal." A few weeks later, President Biden signed into law an infrastructure bill that contained more than $12 billion for carbon removal, including $3.5 billion to build four machines that will suck carbon out of the air with gigantic fans and then dispose of it with chemicals.

But humanity is still light years away from possessing the technology to remove and dispose of carbon at the scale needed to make a real dent in climate change. To rev the (electric) engine of innovation, economists Susan Athey, Rachel Glennerster, Nan Ransohoff, and Christopher Snyder argue we need more than just prizes or government grants. They argue we need the power of markets. But the problem is there is no real market for carbon removal.

In order to jolt innovation and encourage progress in developing carbon removal technologies, this team of economists argues we should create such a market. It may sound like another far-fetched pipedream in an area of perpetual political inaction, but leaders have created artificial markets that have changed the world before.

Creating A Market Where There Is None

In building their case for an artificial market for carbon removal, Athey, Glennerster, Ransohoff, and Snyder point to the recent success in building a market for pneumococcal vaccines in low-income countries. In the early 2000s, pneumococcal disease — which causes illnesses like pneumonia and meningitis — killed around 1.1 million people every year, most of them kids under age five.

While pharmaceutical companies possessed the know-how to develop a vaccine to save these lives, they were reluctant to sink millions of dollars into R&D for it because the financial rewards were too small and uncertain. As it is now with carbon removal, there was basically no market for a pneumococcal vaccine in the developing world.

In 2007, five countries — Canada, Italy, Norway, Russia, and the United Kingdom — and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to try and change this. They donated $1.5 billion to create an "Advance Market Commitment," which pledged to buy vaccines from pharmaceutical companies at a set price. In doing so, they created a market where there wasn't one.

It worked. Not only did the Advance Market Commitment convince one pharmaceutical company to create such a vaccine; it convinced three of them to do it (GSK, Pfizer, and the Serum Institute of India). In the years since, more than 150 million kids have been immunized against pneumococcal disease, saving an estimated 700,000 lives.

Athey, Glennerster, Ransohoff, and Snyder now want governments and NGOs to create an Advance Market Commitment for carbon removal. "If you look at the numbers, you'll realize we've got to figure this out," says Athey, a technology-focused economist at Stanford University. "We've just got to do it. Most models show that just reducing emissions won't work."

In the sort of dream version of this plan, Athey envisions a world where — in addition to drastically cutting emissions and funding basic climate R&D through traditional government grants — governments or NGOs set a price on carbon removal. They commit billions of dollars to the cause, specifying how much they are willing to pay to private companies for a given amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere.

Athey says she imagines funders setting different prices for carbon removal. At first, the price could be set high, since many startups are still at the expensive prototyping stage and need all the help they can get. Funders, she says, could also commit to buying greater amounts of carbon removal at lower prices. In this way, innovators can get some guarantees that once they get costs down and are able to scale up, there will be buyers eagerly waiting. Such a system would create a viable business model for entrepreneurs experimenting with embryonic carbon-removal technologies.

"Our planet depends on solving this problem," Athey says. "But, currently, if you're an entrepreneur with an idea that could be extremely important if it succeeds — but has a low probability of success — you can't go to the bank and get a loan to fund it."

Unlike a prize, Athey says, an Advance Market Commitment creates a real market, with all of the benefits that come with it. "Winning a prize is not a business model," she says. Not only would an Advance Market Commitment create economic incentives for carbon removal, it could allow companies to get private financing from banks and investors, allowing them to fund teams of engineers and new machines. These companies would then compete and the best technologies and methods would rise to prominence.

Athey says the companies and foundations already funding carbon removal could create a prototype of this system themselves. They could commit to paying for units of carbon removal, jumpstart this sector, and prove the viability of the AMC approach to carbon-removal technologies. "Then it would be something governments could start to lean into at a larger scale," she says.

When it comes to the continued failure of humanity to confront climate change, Athey says, "it's hard not to get depressed and fatalistic and throw up your hands," Athey says. "But I think one way to help avoid that is to break the problem down into smaller pieces and then figure out what can be done."

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Greg Rosalsky
Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.