The carbon removal industry is reaching a critical mass. Not in terms of how much carbon is being removed from the atmosphere — that number is still trivially small compared to how much has been emitted over decades of intensive fossil fuel use. But there are now so many fledgling companies working on ways to make money managing carbon dioxide — by sucking it up, utilizing it, or storing it — that the industry is now undergoing a rite of passage: It is forming a trade association.
On Tuesday, 42 startups announced the launch of the Carbon Business Council, a nonprofit that aims to “create a seat at the policy table for early-stage companies focused on restoring the climate,” according to the group’s press release.
The council’s first set of actions include releasing an “ethical oath” that companies can sign to signal their commitment to scaling up the industry responsibly, and urging policymakers to support the full diversity of methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere, most of which are still in relatively early stages of development.
“We feel like it’s too soon for the government to pick winners and losers about what pathway to removal is going to be most promising,” said Ben Rubin, the executive director and co-founder of the group.
Scientists now conclude that we’ve dumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that cutting emissions — while urgent — will not on its own be enough to achieve international climate goals or avoid more extreme climate impacts than the ones we’re already experiencing. Actively drawing down carbon that’s already been released can serve to balance out ongoing greenhouse gas emissions that will be hard to cut, like those from agriculture and flying. Eventually, carbon removal could even hypothetically reverse warming.
Last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law contained $3.5 billion for demonstration projects of one particular pathway known as direct air capture, which usually refers to machines that suck carbon dioxide from the air. Some members of the Carbon Business Council are working on that approach, while others are working on methods that involve enhancing the natural uptake of carbon by plants, soils, minerals, or the ocean. The group also includes startups that are creating marketplaces where carbon removal companies can sell their services to polluters in the form of carbon offsets, and others that are developing products made out of the captured CO2 itself.
The council’s first policy move is endorsing a bill that was introduced in the Senate last month called the CREST Act, which would create new federal research programs to examine all of the different scientific pathways for carbon removal. It also would provide funding to startups to measure how much carbon they are actually removing — an expensive and complicated endeavor, in many cases — and require the federal government to begin paying companies to remove carbon.
Deploying carbon removal at a meaningful scale will come with untold trade-offs. It can be energy intensive or land intensive, pose ecological risks, or exploit communities. Many in the climate movement are skeptical that it should be given any resources at all. In response, the Carbon Business Council has created what it is calling a “first of its kind standard for the responsible growth” of the industry. Rubin likened it to the Hippocratic oath, a sort of do-no-harm pledge that companies can sign — though members are not required to do so. So far, 25 have.
The statement is brief, just 15 sentences, and commits signatories to abstract ideals like acting with humility and honesty, being guided by science, and recognizing the value of “including voices from all backgrounds in conversations” about carbon removal.
Rishabh Varshney, the CEO of a member company called Sequestr, said that to him, responsible growth means making sure people on the ground benefit the most from carbon removal projects. Sequestr helps communities and tribes create carbon offset projects involving forests and agriculture, and then sells the offsets on its own marketplace. “We’ve heard a lot of stories in the carbon market, especially where a landowner is getting ten cents on their dollar for something that gets sold at full price,” he said. “We want to make sure that this is a bottom-up industry first and foremost.”
The oath also fends off a common attack launched at the nascent but fast-growing industry. Critics contend that pouring too much money and attention into removing carbon from the atmosphere will detract from efforts to get off fossil fuels and stop emitting in the first place. The oath promises to “support efforts to reduce climate pollution.”
But the statement avoids what some experts see as a more salient question for the industry — how much reduction, and how much removal? If the world over-relies on the promise of some massive future deployment of carbon removal, we could be dooming the whole mission of halting climate change. In a recent op-ed in MIT Technology Review, two carbon removal experts wrote that if governments and businesses move ahead thinking they can reduce emissions by only 50 percent and offset the rest with carbon removal, “that would necessitate sucking up and storing away carbon dioxide at levels that are almost certainly technically, environmentally, or economically infeasible, or possibly all of the above.”
Emily Cox, a research associate at the University of Oxford studying responsible innovation in the carbon removal field, wondered whether the diverse group of companies in the Carbon Business Council would interpret the statements in the oath the same way. “Even the term ‘carbon management,’” she said — “what that actually means in practice could be something that’s really amazing for the climate. It could also be the opposite.”
To Cox, there is an inherent tension between some of the underlying interests of these companies. For example, an active debate in the field right now is how long carbon should remain out of the atmosphere for it to be considered “removed.” The carbon sequestered by trees and soils could be re-emitted in a matter of decades due to disturbances like fire or disease. Some experts argue that short-term carbon removal just kicks the can down the road, and that carbon must be removed more permanently to truly offset ongoing emissions. The Carbon Business Council includes companies working on shorter-term solutions as well as more durable forms of carbon storage.
It’s notable that a few prominent carbon removal companies are absent from the group’s member list, including the direct air capture companies Climeworks and Heirloom and the bio-oil company Charm Industrial. All of them are focused on approaches that would sequester the removed carbon for thousands of years. The companies did not respond to a request for comment, and Rubin declined to comment on their absence.
Danny Cullenward, the policy director for Carbon Plan, a prominent watchdog for the carbon removal industry, said it’s hard to disagree with anything in the oath — “values, data, rigor, that kind of stuff.” But it’s hard to actually apply it to the conflicts that are emerging about how to scale carbon removal, like the questions of how much removal will be needed, how permanent removal should be, or which potential impacts on communities and the environment are acceptable. “When it comes to the debates people are having, this is at a higher level, and it doesn’t really commit people one way or the other to a particular course of action,” he said.
Rubin acknowledged this. “The oath is one part of a larger process,” he said. “Responsible growth will ultimately be talked about and developed by government policies and by regulations.
“As the industry grows, the oath will hopefully continue to be a benchmark or guidepost that we can come back to,” Rubin added.
Editor’s note: Climeworks is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.