Silicon Valley is Spending $925 Million To Suck All the Carbon From the Air
THE TECH INDUSTRY is no stranger to moonshot ideas. But its most consequential climate gambit is aiming a little lower: specifically, the atmosphere.
Four major tech companies have partnered to form Frontier, a $925 million fund to pay companies to pull carbon from the sky. The money will be spent over the next seven years to help create a from-scratch industry to actually scrub our atmosphere clean by sucking out damaging heat-trapping gases. Frontier has already purchased removal services from companies using technologies that sound somewhere between science fiction and dark arts. Among them are startups that turn carbon into rocks, zap seawater with electricity, and build machines that act like carbon vacuums.
Silicon Valley has become enamored with climate tech, with more than $50 billion in investments just last year. Plus, major tech companies have been looking at their own carbon emissions and making promises to clean up the millions of tons of carbon they’ve already put in the atmosphere. So, carbon removal — an industry in its fledgling stages and one that helps Big Tech meet its own goals, too — is a new darling.
Back in 2019, Shopify committed to spending $5 million a year to clean up its historical emissions. Stacy Kauk, the company’s head of sustainability, said the goal was to send a market signal to startups focused on carbon removal that they’d find buyers.
The e-commerce company wasn’t alone: Stripe, Google, and Facebook were among other major tech companies that said they’d put money toward carbon removal. The four companies teamed up with consulting firm McKinsey to pool resources and create Frontier. The financial platform Stripe leads the effort that will spend nearly $1 billion from now until 2030 to buy carbon-removal services. The goal is to get more science out of labs and into the field.
Travertine is a Frontier-funded company using an electrochemical process to use mine waste to suck up carbon. It began in the lab of Laura Lammers, a geochemist who started experimenting with the process in 2021. The company plans to use its funding to remove a ton of carbon a day at its first pilot project, starting this spring.
“The work Frontier is doing to usher this baby market into reality is incredibly crucial because it’s making it possible for many different concepts to be tested simultaneously,” Lammers says. “It’s a catalytic program.”
For an industry that barely exists, Frontier represents a lot of money. But it’s also nowhere near enough. Removing carbon is a costly endeavor, ranging from hundreds of dollars to more than $2,000 per ton. Frontier-backed projects could remove some hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon by 2030. But for perspective, the world emitted nearly 41 billion tons of carbon last year alone, and it has put 1.7 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since the first steam-engine belch of the Industrial Revolution.
“[Frontier’s] $925 million represents less than one percent of what the market needs to grow every year up to 2050,” says Ben Kolosz, a carbon-removal expert at the University of Hull. “It’s like throwing a stone in a millpond.”
Some say Silicon Valley’s fascination with carbon removal could also distract from cutting emissions right now. It’s frankly a lot easier to cut a ton of carbon out of the picture before it heats the planet rather than remove it down the road. And letting the tech industry — instead of the government — lead on carbon removal poses its own set of risks.
But to reach those net-zero targets the world is angling for by midcentury? The world needs to cut greenhouse-gas emissions immediately by getting everything from e-bikes to wind turbines deployed at a breakneck pace. And according to recent studies, it requires nailing carbon removal along with those efforts. Though the companies snatching carbon from the air are small today, the endeavor itself is too big, too important to fail.