Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has offered inventors $100m in prize money to develop ways to fight global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or ocean.
“Right now we’ve only got one planet,” said Musk, the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc. “Even a 0.1 percent chance of disaster – why run that risk? That’s crazy!”
In January, Musk announced his intention to offer $100m in prizes and set out the contest rules on Thursday, Earth Day. What organisers called the “largest incentive prize in history” will last for four years through Earth Day, 2025.
Carbon capture and storage have drawn growing interest as a warming climate has melted glaciers, intensified tropical storms and resulted in “sunny day flooding” of more and more coastal areas. While countries are working to reduce emissions, scientists say carbon removal technology will also be crucial to the goal of getting emissions to net-zero by 2050.
“Both cost and scalability need to be addressed. Is it going to be enough carbon to matter, and can we afford it as a civilisation? Those are two things that matter,” Musk said on a video feed that showed him outdoors, barefoot in a black shirt with water and trees in the background.
Offsetting climate change
Carbon capture projects have already drawn backing from Silicon Valley startups, public officials worried about the slow pace of cutting emissions and emitters including oil companies seeking to offset their effect on the climate.
The technology is not yet commercially viable. Removing carbon can cost more than $300 per metric tonne in a world that each year emits greenhouse gases equivalent to about 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 2050, some 10 billion tonnes of carbon capture may be needed, by some estimates.
“I think this is one of those things that is going to take a while to figure out what the right solution is,” Musk said. “And especially to figure out what the best economics are for CO2 removal.”
Musk’s $100m XPRIZE Carbon Removal is aimed at finding a viable solution for taking 1,000 tonnes out of the atmosphere annually, with the potential to scale up dramatically.
Contenders must have a plan to sequester carbon for at least 100 years. Organisers said they will get feedback by mid-May and turn guidelines into rules.
Musk has built a reputation as an industrialist focused on environmentalism, turning electric car maker Tesla into the world’s most valuable vehicle company and expanding into solar power so customers can charge their rides carbon-free. He had conversations about the prize with Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation.
There are plenty of Silicon Valley startups eager to compete. Venture capital-backed carbon removal companies raised $336.5m last year, according to PitchBook.
On Monday, XPRIZE announced two winners of a separate, $20m prize to develop technologies to covert emissions from power plants into concrete. One is CarbonCure Technologies, based in Canada and backed by separate funds by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon.com Inc and others.
The United Nations has said carbon removal technology is needed to limit increase in planetary warming and avoid catastrophic climate impacts. But some environmentalists have argued that focusing on carbon removal reflects a lack of resolve to end the use of fossil fuels.