Y Combinator plans to back carbon removal ventures

The prominent early stage investor has invited startups exploring novel ways of sucking greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to apply for its accelerator program.

Background: A growing amount of research concludes it will be nearly impossible for the world to avoid a dangerous 2˚ C rise in global temperatures merely by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, given the concentrations already in the atmosphere and slow pace at which nations are shifting to clean energy. At this stage, the UN’s climate change panel and other institutions have said various methods of capturing and storing carbon dioxide will be required as well.

The problem is, scientists and companies haven’t yet figured out a way to do so economically at anywhere near the scale required.

“It’s time to invest and avidly pursue a new wave of technological solutions to this problem – including those that are risky, unproven, even unlikely to work,” Y Combinator said in an announcement on Tuesday. “It’s time to take big swings at this.” 

Four areas: Several startups, including Climeworks and Carbon Engineering, have raised money and built facilities to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. But Y Combinator highlighted four even earlier stage approaches to removing greenhouse gases that “we think deserve more research and attention – which YC would be excited to fund.”

Those include: using an electrochemical process to accelerate the natural process of mineral weathering, which pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and oceans; creating genetically engineered phytoplankton that can use photosynthesis to capture and store carbon dioxide in the ocean; artificially flooding deserts to create oases that can support phytoplankton for the same purpose; and engineering enzymes that can efficiently capture and store carbon, and then be disposed of or used to create other products.

Y Combinator said it would consider funding startups or non-profit research in these areas.

Risks v. rewards: Given the rising risks of climate change, and the muted public policy response, it’s crucial to support research into areas that could potentially address the dangers.

But there’s a separate question of whether such ideas have reached a point where it makes sense to create a for-profit venture that could face commercial pressures to deploy solutions before their environmental risks and benefits have been adequately explored. Adding a profit motive to an audacious proposal — like flooding deserts — is also sure to complicate what’s already an incredibly intense public debate over the use of these technologies. 

Notably, in 2012, a California entrepreneur involved in carbon offset markets sparked international controversy by dumping iron dust into the Pacific ocean in an effort to promote plankton growth, in contravention of scientific protocols. 

As a Nature article noted last year, researchers have carried out 13 major studies exploring the use of iron-fertilization since 1990, but have yet to conclusively show it sequesters carbon dioxide. Some scientists do worry, however, that it can adversely impact ocean ecosystems, by spawning toxic algal blooms.

Premature interest: Gernot Wagner, executive director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, said it is crucial for the private sector to help develop commercially viable ways of removing greenhouse gases. Notably, funding projects enables direct-air capture ventures that are further along technologically “to climb up the learning and slide down the cost curve,” he said in an email.

“That’s where Y Combinator shines,” Wagner added. “For more experimental applications like cultivating genetically engineered phytoplankton, where the emphasis ought to be on basic research, commercial interest today would be premature.”

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