By Noah Deich, executive director
The Carbon180 team is moving east. It came as somewhat of a surprise to us, but despite our foundation in science and technology and our Silicon Valley core, we recognized that the move will be a critical step as we focus increasingly on policy change to catalyze the innovation needed for building an economy that sequesters more carbon than it emits.
Back in 2016, the UC Berkeley campus and the Bay Area more broadly was the perfect place to begin our mission. We had access to cutting edge research, tech focused entrepreneurs, early stage investors, and wealthy philanthropists interested in fresh approaches to tackling climate change. It was the combination we thought we needed to catalyze carbon removal innovation, especially given the incoming administration’s reluctance to address climate change.
Indeed, we’ve made great progress in changing the conversation in the Bay Area, and we’ve seen some exciting developments here over the past four years.
Carbon management technology companies Opus12 and Mosaic Materials have spun out of big research universities and gained commercial traction with the support of startup accelerators Activate and Elemental Excelerator. Direct air capture (DAC) startups have raised capital from impact investors here, and early stage accelerators like Y Combinator have called for carbon removal entrepreneurs to apply. The ClimateWorks Foundation, a SF based climate philanthropy, launched dedicated carbon removal funding pools. Tech “unicorns” Stripe and Shopify have set a negative emissions procurement commitment, allocating over $1 million to purchasing carbon dioxide that’s been removed from the atmosphere.
Despite this undoubtable progress, however, we’ve also learned that Silicon Valley isn’t going to spark carbon removal innovation alone. The vast majority of Silicon Valley investors are often waiting for policymakers to take action before they are willing to deploy the capital needed to set innovation in motion. Though comfortable with taking certain types of tech risks, they’re surprisingly skittish when tech risks are paired with policy risks — especially when investments in carbon removal innovations need decades to achieve climate and financial impact.
As a result, Silicon Valley needs DC. Tech investors see certain types of policy — whether it is non-dilutive grants for early-stage technology development or tax and financing incentives to improve the economics of early carbon removal projects — as critical for unlocking the floodgates of greater private sector capital to flow into carbon removal.
Which leads to the good (and perhaps most surprising given the political climate) news: the federal policy world is actually where we’ve seen the greatest success advancing carbon removal innovation, and we believe the opportunity will only grow in DC in the coming years.
Seizing Policy Momentum
Already, our work expanding the choir of science policy experts calling for action has grown rapidly. Take a look at recent NAS studies or WRI and EFI reports as examples of how we’ve been able to unshackle carbon removal from its early home under the geoengineering umbrella and make it a key piece of the mainstream climate conversation. We’ve helped get key bipartisan legislation including the Farm Bill, 45Q and the SEA FUEL Act get signed into law, thereby securing funding, creating incentives, and paving the way for carbon removal R&D. We’ve worked with organizations within the Department of Energy (DOE) to build a funding hub for a portfolio of carbon management efforts. A $15M DAC funding opportunity, $12M in utilization, and new carbon removal programs at ARPA-E are just a few examples of what we’ve achieved together with DOE staff.
And while this policy progress may seem incremental in comparison to what’s needed to catalyze the carbon-removing economy of the future, it has laid a foundation for progress at a moment that’s ripe with potential. For the first time in a long time, there are signs of light on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle on climate, opening the possibility for transformative change.
The left is uniting its efforts more efficiently than they have in generations. From the U.S. Climate Action Network’s “Vision For Equitable Climate Change” to the BlueGreen Alliance’s “Solidarity for Climate Action,” groups are putting pen to paper to offer comprehensive, bottom-up approaches to green industrial policy.
The right is making moves as well, with groups like the ClearPath Foundation building the coalition of Republicans unafraid to acknowledge that climate change is happening and to propose substantive, valuable, and innovation-focused climate policies that would be so valuable for carbon removal solutions today. Even some industry-led groups such as the National Petroleum Council are getting serious about climate change, and we were happy to provide technical input for their recent report on carbon capture technology.
All of this progress leads us to believe there will be opportunities for carbon removal in the near future, regardless of 2020 election outcomes. As the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a need for a major stimulus to restart the economy. Carbon removal can play a part here. If there is a huge infrastructure spending push in the coming months, even small carve-outs for carbon removal technology can have a significant impact on advancing carbon removal innovation while helping to get workers back on the job and money flowing through the economy. And carbon removal remains a fresh, non-partisan, and innovative climate policy area with the potential for high impacts, even with relatively modest policy changes.
So, with all that in mind, Carbon180 is shifting our center of gravity east.
Bringing Silicon Valley innovation to the policy conversation remains a core part of our identity. We will continue to apply the lessons we’ve learned from scientists, entrepreneurs, and investors to shaping catalytic policy in D.C. And, we’re confident that the knowledge we gain from the frontlines of innovation positions us to be more thoughtful and effective policy advocates.
From everything we’ve learned over the past four years, one thing is clear: we have to get the policy piece right if we want to achieve our mission for a carbon-negative economy. And now’s the time to make it happen.