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Carbon removal - an important part of California’s path to carbon neutrality

To reverse climate change, there is a need to start removing carbon from the environment and permanently store it, since reducing future emissions is not enough. For California, carbon removal is a part of the plan towards carbon neutrality: A push for new innovative technologies is emerging, and first-of-its-kind studies show that the implementation can be done – and be affordable.

Political ambitions for carbon removal in Denmark and California

Lately, carbon removal has achieved increasing attention in Denmark. Carbon capture sequestration (CCS) was recommended by the Climate Council this spring and carbon removal is included in the first climate action plan proposed by the Danish government from May: 400 million DKK per year is to be invested in carbon capture in order to develop new technologies, with a goal of capturing 0.3 million-ton CO2 per year.

California has set the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. However, as not all emissions can be eliminated by that time, California aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. This means that carbon removal solutions will have to be a part of the plan to reach neutrality by 2045. Being a front runner on climate action, negative emissions is not only crucial for California’s climate goal but is considered a part of the key to preventing the global temperature from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, as set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. To achieve that, the International Panel on Climate Change recommends large-scale carbon removal.

California working towards a carbon removal plan

The California Air Resources Board is currently in the process of drawing the roadmap for how California will achieve negative emissions between 2025 and 2045. A new study from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “Getting to neutral – Options for Negative Carbon Emissions in California” reveals that California would need to remove 125 million tons of carbon per year to reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

One of the key findings of the study is that to achieve the desired amount of negative emissions within this timeframe - and in an affordable manner – there is a need to not only look at high tech solutions for direct air capture, but to do so in combination with the restoration of natural ecosystems.The study points to a combination of three focus areas for optimal results; the first best is to support natural and working land until capacity is reached, the second best would be the conversion of waste biomass into fuel, and the third-best would be the removal of CO2 through direct air capture technology.

Companies enter the race for realizing carbon removal

Silicon Valley has an impressive track record of providing new, innovative solutions to global challenges. Whether the green technologies of the future will be developed and scaled in the Bay Area remains to be seen, however, Innovation Centre Denmark has taken a look at the carbon removal space for signals of what may come.

One way of achieving negative emissions is to rebuild forest or natural land, called reforestation. The San Francisco-based startup Pachama, which recently received $4.1M in a seed round, involving founders and early investors in Silicon Valley tech giants such as Uber, Twitter and Instagram, helps organizationsoffset their carbon emissions with verified reforestation. Pachama utilizes data from satellites and drones and LiDAR technology to digitalize and speed up the verification process, providing three-dimensional color pictures of the forests and uses artificial intelligence to predict the amount of carbon stores in a given area of forest. The digitalized verification and monitoring process assist landowners monetizing the forests they have committed to restore, and provides buyers with confidence. Pachama is also providing a platform, which creates a marketplace for buyers and sellers. It should be noted that there is still considerable debate among carbon credit institutions around accreditation of carbon credits, however, there is no doubt that offset systems are essential.

Another approach to negative emissions is to convert waste biomass into biochar, which can then be used to improve the soil. Biochar reduces waste, improves the soil, substitutes chemical fertilizer and retains water while providing soil structure. It is therefore not only carbon-capturing but also beneficial for regenerative agriculture. An example of a startup in this space is CarboCulture, which has been part of the Stanford incubator Start-X. They capture carbon by converting waste biomass (e.g. leftover walnut shells from production which are often burned) into biochar. The biochar is then used to improve cities through green roofs, stormwater management or urban trees etc.

Additionally, an interesting and innovative solution is seen in the field of concrete production, the most abundant man-made material. The company CarbonCure minimizes the carbon footprint of concrete in manufacturing by adding in a precise dosage of CO2 into the mix while strengthening the performance of the new concrete. CarbonCure is based in Canada and has received funding from the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and is a part of the Bay Area-Hawaii based cleantech-focused startup accelerator, Elemental Excelerator.

Last, but not least is the development of technology which captures carbon directly from the environment and permanently store it. These high-tech solutions have an advantage because their capacity to capture carbon is almost unlimited – compared to other solutions which, for instance, is restricted to the total amount of biomass waste. However, at the current development stage, these solutions are much more expensive, require a large amount of energy (which then needs to be low-carbon-sourced) and are considered far from market scale. New technologies are starting to pop up, and even though they are still early stage, recent investments show an interest in this developing field. Worth noting is a pledge from major online payments platform Stripe to pay $1M per year for carbon removal and long-term storage strategies.

Stripe announced that they compared 24 technologies and chose to support four of those technologies. Out of the companies invested in so far, two are in Silicon Valley: Project Vesta wants to capture and store CO2 by creating a process that makes calcium bind to CO2. This can be done with a green mineral, Olivine, that is added to the ocean, and the motion of the ocean waves support the process. The project is still early-stage, and more lab experiments and pilot beach projects must be conducted, including testing safety and viability. The other company is Charm Industrial which focuses on carbon storage by a new way of preparing and injecting bio-oil into geologic storage. The carbon is removed by converting waste biomass into bio-oil and storing it permanently in deep underground rock formations that used to store crude oil. They will begin testing this year.

A ‘carbon economy’ ecosystem on the rise

The research and development stage of carbon capture is still early-stage, technologies are high-risk and entrepreneurs having already successfully launched new companies are not abundant. A robust startup ecosystem of carbon removal ventures has yet to emerge but is supported in its development by the organization Carbon180. The Carbon180 Entrepreneur-in-Residenceprogram focuses on attracting experienced entrepreneurs and introducing them to the newest technologies and research of the ‘carbon economy’ space with a $100,000 grant and access to the network of Carbon180 and fellow entrepreneurs in the program. After a 12-month-program period, the goal is that the companies have found a product-market-fit and are ready to launch their business; however, some might even get the first customers during the program. The first cohort of six visionary carbon removal enthusiasts started in 2020, and the idea is that a new cohort will follow every year.


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