Who's got next?
Waves of key actors—with philanthropy and heavy industry on deck—in the journey toward gigaton-scale carbon removal
In my posts so far I’ve been zooming in and out, from the biggest-picture questions about market shaping for durable carbon removal (What’s our ideal portrait of the future CDR market? How big can it get? Etc.) to individual building blocks (How do we shape MRV arrangements? What role might volume guarantees play?). Today I want to zoom back out and reflect on the “who” dimension of all of this. What sets of actors will need to drive all the moving-mountains work that will need to happen to realize our vision for the future of durable CDR?
For those of us plugged into today’s durable CDR community, it can be easy to lose sight of just how narrow and idiosyncratic this particular slice of humanity is. Standing on the shoulders of early carbon removal pioneers in academia and government labs, the leading players on today’s CDR mainstage are largely startups, VCs, incubators, and early-adopter corporate buyers. It’s Stripe, it’s Shopify, it’s Lowercarbon, it’s Charm Industrial, and so forth. It’s an overwhelmingly Global North scene; within that, it skews American; and within that, a Bay Area epicenter. Maybe more than any other characteristic, it’s becoming a tech-heavy crowd—both individually and institutionally.
Everyone agrees that tech can’t lead the charge in the long run. Government will have to take center stage as a buyer and regulator and planetary-scale enabler. And yes, government is starting to show up on the scene in critical ways even today. But is this just a story of tech players getting the snowball rolling and then getting government to take over?
That seems a skimpy take on the stages of the pathway forward. In what follows, we’ll consider a couple of key “who” phases in between the tech-heavy ignition phase and the ultimate government-stewarded phase. Two particular groups of actors will need to step up in a big way in this intervening period: philanthropy and heavy industry. This post will give a broad overview of the successive “who” waves, and in subsequent posts I’ll unpack in more detail the ways that philanthropy and heavy industry will need to help carry the flag.
The “who” waves of the durable CDR journey
In my last post on market shaping for MRV, I suggested a deliberately oversimplified mental model for the stages of high-durability carbon removal market evolution:
Through this zoomed-out lens, we have recently entered the ‘toddler’ stage of the market. Real tons are just starting to get delivered, though at a very small scale. Durable CDR is becoming an active but niche market operating at somewhat of a remove from the broader mainstream voluntary offsets market. Thinking ahead to the ‘adolescence’ stage starting later this decade, if all goes reasonably well we will be seeing deliveries at a large and fast-growing scale—and as prices start to fall, the durable CDR market will begin to fuse more meaningfully into broader voluntary and compliance markets, with mainstream buyers showing up alongside the earliest-adopter buyers.
This very loose market evolution framework doesn’t align cleanly with the past and coming waves of ecosystem actors, but is a helpful backdrop nonetheless. For almost all of the infancy (er, gestation?) period, scientists in academia and national labs were building out the case for durable carbon removal. A wide range of thought leaders—like Klaus Lackner, David Keith, Roger Aines, Jennifer Wilcox, Kenneth Möllersten, Michael Obersteiner and many others—evaluated the feasibility of different pathways, fleshed out opportunities and risks, and established a strong corpus of peer-reviewed research.
In a dizzyingly-fast spate of developments over the past three years, a subsequent wave of mission-driven tech- and startup-ecosystem actors have led the infancy-to-toddlerdom charge and created the beginnings of a real market. They have been natural kickstarters: taking big risks on an unproven market opportunity, tackling big innovation and engineering challenges, attracting and incentivizing world-caliber talent, moving (relative to current scale) large amounts of money in very short order, and so forth. If over the last few years we had been more narrowly reliant on academia and nonprofits and government labs to continue moving the ball forward, we’d have achieved only a fraction of the eye-popping recent progress.
Who needs to step up next? As we head into the guts of toddlerdom and early adolescence, private philanthropy has a particularly important role to play in these next clay-shaping years. Yet, as with climate philanthropy more generally, levels of philanthropic support for carbon removal are far too low relative to the challenge in front of us and (given traditional foundations’ tendency toward risk aversion) giving patterns and strategies are rarely bold or creative.Analysis from the ClimateWorks Foundation puts total foundation grants into CDR at just under $100M annually in recent years, or just over 5% of foundations’ total climate grantmaking.
The opportunity to kick giving into full gear and truly meet the historical moment revolves around a few things that are uniquely true of philanthropy. First, like tech- and startup-ecosystem players, it can afford to take large doses of risk and bring large amounts of capital to bear. Second, unlike VCs and startups, it can take that risk without any expectations of financial return. And third, in part because they aren’t out to make a buck, philanthropists and foundations often have a lot of soft power—the ability to influence, legitimize, draw attention, lend moral authority, and more.
As I will cover in my next post, these advantages position philanthropy to address three crux needs in the toddler and adolescence periods: 1) tackling big science and knowledge gaps, 2) influencing the public narrative about carbon removal, and 3) supporting ambitious CDR market shaping. As billions of new philanthropic dollars continue to flow into climate, foundations and ultra-high-net-worth individuals will need to step up their CDR giving by multiples without losing sight of the primacy of emissions reduction initiatives. In doing so, they will need to think bigger and more courageously in their giving strategy, and get “out on the balcony” to shape the public conversation. Both in how they allocate their funds and in combating the false dichotomies that continue to swirl around CDR, philanthropies can help carbon removal settle into the right frame in our response to the climate emergency.
Consider for a moment the transformative role philanthropy has played in the huge leveling-up of the global health ecosystem over the last twenty years. The Gates Foundation is the most prominent example, although it’s had plenty of philanthropic company.It arrived on the scene at a very analogous toddler-stage moment. Surveying a landscape rife with gaps and under-powered responses to health emergencies, the Gates Foundation ramped up quickly in a variety of ways: identifying and systematically tackling R&D gaps, standing up key new entities in the ecosystem, funding market-shaping initiatives (including CHAI’s work and incubation of Frontier’s AMC progenitor), and more. In total it has disbursed more than $24 billion to global health efforts.
Beyond direct giving, the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies have exercised their influence and soft power—to bring once-ludicrous goals (like eradicating polio or malaria) into the mainstream; to shape public narratives and debates (e.g., on prevention versus treatment); to ingrain an evidence-based mindset in fields sometimes driven by knee-jerk biases; and to make work in global health seem exciting and anything’s-possible. The philanthropy movie in durable CDR will not be a rinse/repeat of global health philanthropy, but some of the opportunities in CDR philanthropy are harmonics of what we’ve seen in global health.
As CDR philanthropy ramps up, the other category of actors that we can’t afford to have trailing far behind is heavy industry. Here I mean not just the “cement and steel” sphere of heavy industry that climate discussions sometimes gravitate toward (because of emissions intensity) but heavy industry generally—including oil, mining, shipbuilding, steel, chemicals, machinery manufacturing and more.
One reason we need heavy industry to come to the table is pure demand. Having tech companies like Google, Meta, Stripe and Shopify build an initial wave of demand for durable CDR has been powerfully catalytic. But tech companies aren’t the ones who will be carrying huge carbon footprints decades into the future. The most obvious bridge between early tech-ish corporate demand and long-term government and compliance-market demand is some kind of organized and actively-cultivated heavy industry demand—whether in the form of an even bigger AMC or buyers club or otherwise. The durable CDR field will start to wither on the vine if we don’t successfully build this bridge during the market’s late toddler-dom and early adolescence.
We will be equally dependent on heavy industry when it comes to scaling up supply. The absolute scale of the mass-moving challenge in front of us is enormous. Who can mobilize and train (or re-train) the size of workforce we will need to move that mass? Who has balance sheets big enough and costs of capital low enough? Who is already producing alkaline materials at gigaton scale? Who has existing logistics infrastructure and capabilities anywhere close to the level we are forcing ourselves to contemplate? You could answer “governments and militaries” to many of these questions (though not without gaps or caveats), but the only other answer is heavy industry.
As we think ahead to what may amount to a quasi-wartime mobilization, it’s worth recalling how this has played out in the past. During World War II the US had to mobilize its “arsenal of democracy” in just a few years—overhauling and dramatically expanding manufacturing capacity to produce orders of magnitude more planes, boats, tanks, jeeps, ammunition, machine tools and more. The main thrust of this mobilization involved re-orienting and re-gearing industry to manufacture close cousins of their usual products. Ford made bombers, GM made tanks, clock companies made time-fuse parts, toy companies made warship compasses, and so forth.
A small minority of early CDR startups may end up becoming very large companies delivering tens of millions of tons down the road. Setting aside the inevitable raft of startup failures, we have to imagine that many more will get to scale via heavy industry players moving laterally into carbon removal—CDR startups will partner, license their technology and/or get acquired.
There will be risks with the advent of heavy industry as major players in durable carbon removal. The BHPs and Holcims and Rio Tintos of the world won’t be engaging in a lot of Stripe- or Shopify-like behavior, trying to maximize transparency and the long-term health of the market in a mission-driven way. They will be out to maximize profits—for better and worse—and we won’t be in Kansas anymore. I’ll return to these risks in a future post. But it’s important to point out that we don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to entertain these risks any more than we do the myriad other calculated risks of large-scale CDR unless we choose not to believe in the future the IPCC is painting. It’s the path we need to walk.
What of government’s central role in the long run? The arsenal-of-democracy mobilization involved the same kind of government-industry symbiosis we will need to reach multi-gigaton CDR scale. Endgame carbon removal will see government acting as the primary buyerand regulating with a heavy hand, but as in wartime, government will need to go beyond its funding and regulatory role. During WWII, the War Production Board did whatever it took to actively enable industry’s Herculean ramp-up in production: conducting statistically complex demand forecasting, building new transportation infrastructure, running national communications campaigns, mediating labor disputes and investing aggressively in workforce development.
This eventual government-industry symbiosis underscores how the successive waves of new actors in durable carbon removal won’t involve handovers. Academia didn’t step back when the tech world got involved, nor will tech or philanthropy or heavy industry step back as the next pairs of hands get added to the helm. The future of carbon removal is all hands on deck.
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Initiatives like Additional Ventures’ ambitious concerted research effort in ocean alkalinity enhancement—with a big price tag covered by a coalition of funders—are the exception that prove the rule.
A range of other foundations have also played a big role in global health philanthropy, including The Rockefeller Foundation, CIFF, and Wellcome Trust.
Here I mean toddler stage with respect to the major scale-up in international aid for global health programs over the past twenty years.
This has included new organizations such as GAVI, UNITAID, and numerous product-development partnerships like the Medicines for Malaria Venture.
Or more precisely, the primary mover behind carbon removal purchasing, through a combination of direct procurement and compliance markets.