Alban Wesly drives an electric car and eats a vegetarian diet in an effort to live a climate-friendly lifestyle. This month, the bassoonist in Amsterdam completed another task on his greener living to-do list: Paying to have carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.
Wesly is among a small but growing number of individuals that are bankrolling a crucial climate technology that has grand designs of scaling up. While corporate buyers and governments are pouring billions into the carbon removal industry, individuals like Wesly have opened their wallet, too. Though the payments are relatively small, startups working on pulling CO2 from the air are using sales to individuals as a way to build support for their grander ambitions.
There are a number of ways to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere, ranging from directly capturing CO2 from the air to spreading crushed volcanic rocks to accelerate natural processes that remove CO2. Wesly turned to Climeworks AG, a Swiss company that has developed technology that does the former, paying the firm about €880 ($930) to remove nearly 700 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of carbon pollution from the atmosphere. Climeworks works with a partner company, Carbfix, to turn the captured carbon into stone. (Wesly’s bandmates also paid for carbon removal.)
“We need to do everything we can in all the fields to change things for the better,” says Wesly, 56, who recently heard of Climeworks’ technology from an acquaintance and decided to support it.
While remediating less than a ton of CO2 cannot turn the tide in the world’s fight against climate change — it amounts to less than 10% of an average European’s annual emissions — Wesly says his hope is to invest in the nascent carbon removal industry while inspiring others to do the same.
“If everyone would do this, it would be an immense amount [of carbon removed],” he says.
A growing number of individual buyers are popping up. That includes big name purchasers, such as Bill Gates, who has paid millions for carbon removal services. But Alex Roetter, founder of the nonprofit Terraset, says his organization has received donations ranging from $20 to six figures that will be channeled to support carbon removal projects.
To keep the climate within livable limits, United Nations-backed scientists say that the world will have to cut emissions dramatically while also pulling billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually by mid-century. That’s a far cry from the industry’s current capability to gather up thousands of tons of CO2 a year.
Individuals have had the option to purchase carbon offsets for years, but buying removal services is different. Traditional carbon credits focus on funding renewable energy projects or financing forest protection. While a number of companies offer customers the chance to purchase these types of offsets, the projects they help fund often fail to deliver on their promise to reduce CO2 emissions. In comparison, carbon removal startups are promising to take CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently store it.
Carbon removal could grow into a nearly $1 trillion business as early as the next decade, according to BloombergNEF projections, but the technologies are currently unproven at scale. To help the industry get off the ground, the Biden administration has pledged billions of dollars in tax credits for carbon removal and funding for research hubs focused on direct air capture. Deep-pocketed corporations have also agreed to purchase carbon removal services as well in an attempt to help create a new market. Frontier Climate, a consortium that includes H&M, Shopify, and Google’s parent company Alphabet, is among the biggest corporate efforts and has vowed to purchase $1 billion worth of carbon removal services by 2030. Other big buyers include JPMorgan and Microsoft, which have pledged hundreds of millions.
While government incentives and corporate procurement are vital to scaling up carbon removal, Harris Cohn, head of sales at carbon removal firm Charm Industrial Inc., says that individuals have a role to play, too.
“Even a small purchase helps,” says Cohn, whose company offers monthly subscription plans to individual buyers starting at $25 to remove 42 kilograms of CO2.
Charm removes and stores carbon by taking waste biomass, transforming it into bio-oil, and injecting it deep underground where it’s sequestrated permanently. The San Francisco-based company says it has removed more than 6,000 tons of CO2 so far and is working to expand its operation.
While individual purchases contribute to less than 5% of carbon removal credits Charm has pre-sold so far, Cohn says every additional dollar allows the startup to hire engineers, build machines and find carbon sequestration sites.
“It just helps us keep on growing,” he says.
Other carbon removal companies, from Undo Carbon in London to Noya in San Francisco, have also started selling services to individuals. Climeworks, for its part, has attracted nearly 20,000 individual buyers to participate in its carbon removal program since 2019. As it takes time for companies to build out infrastructure to remove carbon and undergo a third-party validation of their work, it’s not uncommon for buyers to wait for years until their purchases can be delivered.
For all the promise of the carbon removal industry, there’s a risk it could distract the world from pursuing emission cuts right now. The technology also has a long way to reach a meaningful scale and remains extremely expensive.
Julie Gosalvez, the chief marketing officer of Climeworks, says companies like hers view individual purchases as a tool to help tackle some of those problems. She and her team have answered a long list of questions from prospective customers – including how direct air capture works and why the company wouldn’t just plant trees to remove CO2 – and each interaction helps raise public awareness of carbon removal while growing the number of buyers, which could help drive down costs.
“The web shop in a sense is more than a business,” she says. “It is really a critical tool to engage people.”
To ensure that their work doesn’t release more greenhouse gas emissions than what they help lock away, both Climeworks and Charm have conducted full lifecycle assessments for their operations. They, like many others in the sector, also hire independent auditors to monitor, report and verify the amount of CO2 their technology removes.
For individuals who may not have the expertise and resources of big corporate purchasers, these efforts can help them feel more comfortable that carbon removal companies are doing what they promise. But self-policing is still a long way from what’s needed to ensure the industry’s integrity.
There is a “gap around setting standards,” says Giana Amador, executive director at Carbon Removal Alliance, an industry association whose members include Charm and Climeworks. In an absence of universally accepted protocols, Amador says industry players have no choice but to develop their own, an exhausting process given the myriad ways to pull CO2 from the air. The lack of standards also makes it hard to compare solutions across the carbon removal arena and prioritize purchasing services that can yield the biggest climate benefit, she says.
Wesly, the Dutch musician, acknowledges that he doesn’t know which carbon removal method works the best, nor is he certain that the concept will work at the scale needed. Nevertheless, Wesly says he is determined to continue purchasing carbon removal services unless it’s proven ineffective.
“We’re in such an emergency situation that we must find things that we can do,” he says. “If it doesn’t seem to be feasible, then at least we tried and helped make it clear why it doesn’t work. But we cannot do nothing.”
To contact the author of this story:
Coco Liu in New York at email@example.com
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