In 2011, the XPRIZE Foundation and partners set out to launch a major climate prize to jumpstart innovation in a relatively obscure, just emerging, but potentially critical space: capturing waste CO2 and cycling it into valuable products, such as fuels, polymers, building materials, and more.
It took four years of concerted engagement with leading global organizations, but in 2015, the $20MM NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE was finally launched, along with two new test centers (in Wyoming and Alberta) focused on carbon-to-value solutions, and, soon thereafter, the Circular Carbon Network, whose mission is to nurture the nascent Circular Carbon ecosystem by accelerating the flow of capital and commercial activity in the sector.
That same year, world leaders gathered in Paris and agreed for the first time to work together to limit global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The focus was largely on reducing ongoing greenhouse gas emissions, but it was also noted that Circular Carbon strategies for capturing and removing CO2 from the atmosphere might have to be deployed at some point.
Over the past five years, there has been a remarkable increase in attention to and activity in the overall Circular Carbon sector. It is now increasingly clear to many across business, government, and society that circular carbon solutions — from technological approaches like Direct Air Capture (DAC) and carbon-to-value solutions, to biological approaches like reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, to geological approaches like enhanced weathering — are critical to both addressing climate change and to creating a sustainable economic foundation for the 21st Century.
The growth in activity over the last year – even over the last quarter, as exemplified most prominently by Elon Musk’s globally reported commitment of $100MM of his own wealth to a new XPRIZE for carbon removal – has reached a level where it may be time to declare the “End of the Beginning” of the Circular Carbon era…and start thinking about the hard and exciting work that comes next. Consider just a few of the recent developments in the Circular Carbon sector globally:
- According to the data we analyzed in our 2020 Circular Carbon Market Report, there are now well over 300 start-ups developing Circular Carbon solutions, and the pace of new company formation is increasing dramatically
- Venture capital is increasingly flowing into the sector, as we found 135 start-ups that had raised nearly $2.2 billion, $200MM more than a year ago
- The number of large global companies with Net Zero commitments, such as Microsoft, Amazon, Shell, United and many more has tripled to over 1,500 in the last year
- In the financial sector, Black Rock’s CEO called for companies to report on their Net Zero goals and hundreds of the world’s largest institutional investors managing well over $50 trillion dollars have joined the Climate Action 100+ coalition
- The EU announced a “European Green Deal” to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050, which will likely require a massive scale up of Circular Carbon solutions in the interim
- In the US, the newly elected Biden Administration called for major investments in carbon removal technology and appointed climate-savvy leaders to nearly every major cabinet post, Congress passed a slew of pro-Circular Carbon policies (on a bipartisan basis!), and the IRS released their long-awaited guidance on how to implement the 45Q federal tax credit for carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration
An Opportunity as Massive as the Challenge
This is all terrific news. Circular Carbon is now firmly on the radar screen. The early movers have moved. But it’s still not nearly enough…
The latest science tells us that we need to remove up to 1,000 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2100 to avoid catastrophic climate change. To achieve that goal, it is estimated we need to start removing 10 billion tons of CO2 a year by 2050 — and possibly two to four times that amount. Even if we start deploying Circular Carbon solutions at scale today, we’ll need to achieve an annual growth rate in reductions and removals of over 55% to avoid a global temperature rise of less than 1.5 degrees celsius. Starting in 2030 means that global carbon reduction and removal capacity will need to double every year!
Estimates vary about the scale of investment required to meet the climate challenge. If capital costs range between $100 to $1,000 per ton of CO2 removed, then the investment required for building 10 Gigatons of capacity would be somewhere between $1 trillion and $10 trillion. Since governments spent more than $12 trillion in just the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic to protect society from further catastrophic damage, these numbers are not shocking to contemplate.
The good news is that many of the Circular Carbon solutions we need now exist or are well under development. For example, 85% of the companies we surveyed for our CCN’s Innovator Index are out of the lab and actively commercializing or already commercial. Moreover, many of these solutions not only address climate change, but, by converting waste CO2 into useful products or restoring the critical ecosystem services we rely on, actually create significant economic value. Multiple independent studies have laid out the massive market opportunities that a Circular Carbon economy will create (see also our Market Report Library).
It’s Time to Mobilize
So if the first phase of the Circular Carbon revolution is over, what comes next?
We need to aggressively increase investment in and deployment of Circular Carbon solutions now.
Here’s our roadmap and calls to action for market leaders on how to get started:
- Take Risk: Though scaling the Circular Carbon economy from nearly scratch will be filled with risk (technologies not working as expected, investments taking long to pay off, if at all, and more), there should be no doubt that the inevitable, catastrophic risks of inaction are far greater. The situation demands that individuals and organizations, particularly those in positions of leadership, stand up, lean in, and take risks to help kick-start the Circular Carbon sector.
- Act with Urgency: The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on what happens when we fail to prepare for a known threat, while also demonstrating how quickly business, government, and society can act if determined to do so. When the science tells us we have approximately a decade to bend the climate curve away from potentially catastrophic climate outcomes, the progress we can make (or fail to make) over even a few months matters.
- Find Where You Fit: It is increasingly hard to imagine a type of organization or sector that the Circular Carbon challenge and opportunity doesn’t touch. This is not some other person’s or organization’s problem. Be proactive and find solutions you think you might be able to test and advance – whether through your capital, expertise, infrastructure, market reach, or other capabilities – and ask what you can do to help. Don’t make individual entrepreneurs and new, fragile companies carry all the water for humanity’s future alone.
- Partner with Other Leaders: Cross-organizational, cross-sector, public-private collaboration will be absolutely critical to scaling the Circular Carbon economy in the limited time we have. Not only does that help spread the risk-taking that is required (see above), but it lenses vital resources to potential solutions and accelerates the broad distribution of learnings about what works, what doesn’t, and how to get there faster.
- Invest Now: For all the reasons above, putting real skin in the game now (whether financial, organizational, reputational, or otherwise) is absolutely critical. In order to achieve the huge scales required in the coming years, we need to immediately start bringing potential circular carbon solutions down the cost curve, developing supply chains and routes to market, and demonstrating that these solutions, and the economic opportunities and jobs they create, are real. Investing relatively moderate amounts of capital now at relatively high costs per ton of CO2 removed or cycled is vital preparation for society to learn what works and what doesn’t. Today’s investments will shape tomorrow’s investments, which will be increasingly massive, with increasingly higher stakes for humanity and the planet.
It’s time to mobilize. How we approach the next phase in the development of this sector will determine whether we find ourselves truly facing the beginning of the end, or the flourishing of a more resilient, sustainable, equitable, and prosperous Circular Carbon Economy.