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The carbon dioxide removal movement is scaling rapidly. Philanthropy must steer it toward greater impact.

The carbon dioxide removal movement is scaling rapidly. Philanthropy must steer it toward greater impact.

In the past year, public and private funders have mobilized more than $6 billion for carbon dioxide removal (CDR), building the momentum needed to remove 5-16 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually and curb climate change. The movement is poised to accelerate after the April 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III report identified CDR as an essential climate solution.

Recent weeks have seen a wave of announcements from the private sector for landmark investments in CDR. Days after the release of the IPCC Working Group III Report, Climeworks, a Swiss direct air capture startup, announced $650 million in new funding. Frontier, which has successfully scaled other public goods, including vaccines, committed $925 million to advance carbon removal on the heels of this announcement. Shortly after Frontier’s announcement, Lowercarbon Capital announced a $350 million venture fund to invest in carbon dioxide removal startups. Finally, on Earth Day 2022, XPRIZE identified finalists for the $100 million carbon removal competition, including several scientists previously supported by ClimateWorks who are now taking their science from the lab to the market.

These private sector funding efforts — representing the second and third largest removal investments ever — came amid the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) announcement that it will invest $14 million to advance direct air capture using waste heat, rather than relying on renewable energy alone. The DOE announcement is just the latest in a series of announcements from Congress and the Biden administration that total nearly $5 billion in new public support for carbon removal. (These include $1 billion in cumulative Congressional appropriations for carbon removal and $3.5 billion to build direct air capture (DAC) facilities in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act).

Laying the groundwork for CDR growth

While these headlines are extraordinary, they follow years of philanthropic work to help advance a portfolio of carbon removal approaches, ranging from forests to fans that remove and lock carbon dioxide away for a long time or convert it into clean alternatives such as jet fuel to power long-distance aviation. ClimateWorks and our partners have had the opportunity to help build the field of CDR philanthropy. For example, several years ago, ClimateWorks seeded the concept of corporate carbon dioxide procurement with a grant to the World Resources Institute (WRI) to engage major carbon removal purchasers. And ClimateWorks provided support for the peer-reviewed journal article on which the DOE’s recent $14 million announcement was based.

Today, ClimateWorks CDR program alumni work at companies ranging from Meta to Microsoft to deploy carbon removal. Recently, long-time ClimateWorks advisor Etosha Cave raised $57 million for Twelve, a startup that removes carbon dioxide from the air and recycles it into carbon-neutral jet fuel and other clean materials. Other previous program grantees are working with the U.S. federal government at the Departments of Energy, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Transportation.

Philanthropy’s continued involvement is key in ensuring that scaling efforts are grounded in scientifically rigorous and socially responsible ways. Additionally, philanthropic support can provide an unbiased evaluation of carbon removal opportunities and challenges — and help inform decisions to select removal approaches that have real climate benefits.

Philanthropy is crucial in scaling CDR responsibly

CDR is an essential climate solution. But as with any technological intervention, it must be scaled safely and responsibly. Philanthropic investment and involvement remain a key part of ensuring the ethical and strategic expansion of the field. Here’s how ClimateWorks is working with philanthropy on the responsible scaling of carbon dioxide removal solutions:

  1. Help steer carbon dioxide removal away from fossil fuel interests, which could attempt to co-opt this critical emerging field. For Climateworks, this has involved committing to never support the scaling of carbon removal via fossil fuels, opposing the use of removed carbon dioxide for fossil fuel production, and avoiding the use of carbon removal as offsets for abatable emissions. We are making grants to support the use of carbon removal to de-fossilize sectors such as long-haul aviation. In the process, this prevents the conversion of farms and forests into jet fuel, as some sustainable aviation fuels are made from trees or crops. Making aviation fuel from legacy carbon dioxide pollution in the sky has shown to have enormous air quality benefits, especially for frontline communities.
  2. Seed scientific research on ocean carbon dioxide removal. While the private sector races to deploy certain approaches to remove carbon from seawater, we’re working with philanthropy to support careful research to ensure that it produces broader climate benefits. Philanthropy is also supporting scientists who are working to answer key questions such as whether ocean CDR approaches are scalable, durable, safe, and responsible.
  3. Bolster efforts to ensure that the deployment of CDR technologies is just and equitable. Increasingly, the philanthropic sector has acknowledged the need to consider the implications of CDR efforts on frontline communities. In 2018, ClimateWorks launched the first philanthropic effort to make grants focused on advancing environmental justice as it relates to carbon removal and has supported organizations around the world — for example, by helping Carbon 180 create their Environmental Justice Initiative.
  4. Support the development of monitoring and verification methods for CDR projects. Currently, there is limited research on the governance and responsible deployment of carbon dioxide removal. To that end, the IPCC report recommends accelerated research, development, and demonstration of CDR projects; improved tools for risk assessment and management; and targeted incentives and development of agreed methods for measurement, reporting, and verification. At the moment, most private sector-led carbon removal initiatives do not address the need for better monitoring and verification methods. Philanthropy can and should step up to fill this key gap — and ClimateWorks will continue its commitment to improving monitoring and verification for CDR.

The time to scale is now

Years of groundwork have made possible the momentum for CDR that is evident today. With the private and public sectors mobilizing, now is the time for philanthropy to scale CDR funding and steer that momentum toward greater impact.

Scaling CDR will require both buyer ambition and increased research and deployment funding to drive down costs. And it will require wider acceptance and adoption of CDR efforts. To help unlock additional public funding and provide a roadmap for research, ClimateWorks sponsored a recent National Academies study that recommended a $2.5 billion investment to better understand the tradeoffs inherent in ocean carbon removal. Increased and aligned philanthropic funding in this area could create scale-up conditions to help ensure that carbon dioxide removal remains a public good and delivers meaningful climate benefits.

Carbon removal only constituted $50 million of the roughly $1.3 billion average annual climate-related giving by foundations from 2016 to 2020, according to a ClimateWorks study. Although philanthropic funding for scaling carbon dioxide removal has been modest when compared with billions in funding from the public and private sectors, philanthropy has played and continues to play an outsized role in helping to ensure carbon removal efforts scale safely, equitably, and effectively.

The recent public and private funding of over $6 billion is certainly worth celebrating and indicative of rising interest in the field, but there is much more work to be done. Keeping warming below 1.5°C would require a 20-fold funding increase in CDR solutions by 2030 combined with ambitious decarbonization, according to a new report by the Energy Transitions Commission.

The momentum for CDR is growing. It’s time for philanthropy to increase its engagement with the movement, coordinate and partner with governments and the private sector, and activate the funding needed to ethically and strategically scale CDR to reach its full potential as a key tool in ending the climate crisis.

To learn more, read about ClimateWorks’ CDR Program and follow along as ClimateWorks continues to expand its CDR work.

Published May 20, 2022

Jan Mazurek, Ph.D.

Senior Director, Carbon Dioxide Removal