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Interview With Carbon180 Co-Founder Noah Deich

Benjamin Schulz: Hi Noah! What is the background story of Carbon180 and what led you to create the organization? 

Noah Deich: When we launched Carbon180 about six years ago at this point, the idea of carbon removal was far outside of the mainstream of climate policy and business decisions. And it was something that I came to not as a technical expert but as somebody who had worked with a lot of big companies on corporate sustainability and climate policy and regulatory issues in the past. I think I had the simultaneous experience of seeing how little those companies really prioritized climate action in any meaningful way. They basically were trying to do the bare minimum of what made money today versus what they were mandated to do by regulators. And also just the pure lack of discussion on carbon removal.

Noah Deich

Noah Deich (CEO & Co-Founder of Carbon Removal NGO Carbon180)

And I think the question that I had a few years ago was if we are going to be so slow at responding to climate change, do we not only have to stop emitting at breakneck speed but do we also have to do something with carbon that’s in the atmosphere from all of the past decades of inaction on climate? And it was that very naïve question that it turns out, the scientists at UC Berkeley, which is where I was pursuing my Business Master’s Degree at the time, all knew that this was something that was going to be absolutely essential for meeting our climate goals, and I think many of them had the assumption that people in climate policy and large corporate decision making around climate action, understood this. And to somebody who had been in that seat from the corporate side, I knew that was far from true.

And so it was really that disconnect that led us to found Carbon180. We got a lot of support from other environmental groups at the time, which was a little surprising. Many of them said, we can’t support this publicly, or we’re not ready to invest our resources into it because we’re working on so many other pieces of the climate puzzle that are still so far behind where we need to be. And it was that support that enabled us to actually make the leap and get off the ground with Carbon180.

Benjamin Schulz: So in a way, they were thankful for an organization to be dedicated to it because then they didn’t have to also add carbon removal to their own story? 

Noah Deich: Exactly. I don’t think it was they didn’t have to add it to their story, it was that they could collaborate with another group that was dedicated to it, as opposed to having to build up that expertise in-house and kind of do that dedicated work. That was my guess at the time.

Benjamin Schulz: That makes a lot of sense. And if you look back over those six years, how did the information on carbon removal that people have in the boardrooms change, in percentage or in any other measure you can think of? 

Noah Deich: I think it really took two phases. The first was we very much were focused on the academic understanding of carbon removal initially. We helped get a National Academies study funded that looked at what carbon removal solutions have the most promise and what the research agenda for that would look like. We helped other environmental groups and other philanthropies that funded climate work to understand some of the technical dimensions of different carbon removal pathways.

And really about three years ago, a lot of that analysis that we were working on and others outside of the work that we supported all converged on a similar set of answers, which I summarize as carbon removal is essential to actually meet our climate goals and it is not a substitute for really rapid emission reductions, it needs to happen above and beyond those. And that there’s a huge portfolio of solutions that holds technical promise, whether it’s planting trees or farming in ways that sequester carbon in soils, to just building direct air capture machines that can filter CO2 right out of the atmosphere and store it in underground rock formations, permanently taking it out of the atmosphere. And everything in between.

A lot of promise but none of those individual solutions looked like a silver bullet. All of them had some set of concerns, whether it was high costs initially of these solutions on the technical side, or challenges with measuring and verifying carbon in an additional and permanent way, when it came to the nature-based side, that we really needed to have a portfolio approach to supporting solutions, and we really needed policymakers and industry alike to start investing way more of their resources on the full chain of commercializing carbon removal solutions. Not just the science projects that we’d seen to date, but lots more money for funding applied innovation efforts, all the way up through commercial demonstrating funding, and then starting to make a market for carbon removal solutions through not just the sort of standard suite of incentives but new sets of regulations and eventually dedicated carbon removal purchasing efforts.

And we’ve actually seen immense progress in the past few years alone on that policy framework. The list is growing, it seems like all the time, but at least a dozen companies have started shifting their voluntary carbon offset purchasing into high-quality carbon removals, and companies like Microsoft have set negative emission goals where they are focusing on their legacy emissions, not just their future emissions.

And we’ve seen public funding for carbon removal go from, effectively zero, which is where we started in 2015, to there were billions of dollars appropriated at the end of last year here in the US alone for things like direct air capture and storage hubs. And so, the growth in the field has just been really, really substantial in the past few years, as I think the realization that we need carbon removal urgently but not as a substitute, really started to permeate through the community of environmental advocates that worked on climate change.

Benjamin Schulz: In your opinion, what is the important next milestone for carbon removal and maybe also for Carbon180, what do you work towards?

Noah Deich: So, for the field, I think there are three interconnected challenges. The first is technology cost, where right now if you look at things like the straight climate portfolio of carbon removal purchasers, it’s between $200 and $2,000 a ton for carbon removal. And if you look at what the National Academies and other groups who have analyzed the technical details say, it’s possible well below $100 per ton is where the experts think the field can go.

And so for us to reduce costs, what we see as essential is demand. That there needs to be demand for innovation in the same way that early incentives for solar wind, electric vehicles, etc., drove those technologies from niche and way more expensive than fossil polluting alternatives, into what is now the fastest growing segment of the energy and transportation sectors respectively. And so we need a similar type of demand pull from governments, corporations, and philanthropies alike to make this happen.

Back on the technology side, I think across the full portfolio solutions, it’s essential to have really high quality and transparent standards for what we call carbon removal, how we measure it, how we make sure that people who are claiming that they are producing carbon removal actually generate the amount that they say will for as long as they will. And that just gets trickier and trickier for the nature-based solutions, where carbon inherently is cycling through to our soils, our forests, our biomass, and figuring out how to permanently and additionally account for carbon removal in those systems is very challenging. I don’t think impossible — but what we need to see today is a rapid increase in the integrity and robustness of the carbon accounting standards that we see in the voluntary market. Because many of them are far short of delivering on the carbon removal that is promised.

And so those are the kind of two initial levers, and one that spans all of them is equity. Right now, carbon removal is still seen as a fossil fuel get-out-of-jail free card in many circles. Even those that support it for climate reasons are deeply concerned that it will be used to delay emission reductions. And so figuring out how to empower communities to develop carbon removal solutions in ways that don’t increase emissions, that don’t create local air pollution and water pollution, and that actively address environmental racism and other inequities in the history of carbon pollution, will be essential for making sure that the field not only delivers on climate benefits but can be something that’s good for communities around the world that develop these solutions.

Carbon180

Benjamin Schulz: You work on a lot of policies — if you could enact one specific policy in the US, what would that be, how would that look? 

Noah Deich: I’ll caveat my answer by saying the best policy is a suite of policies. Even if they overlap with each other, it’s much better, given the diversity of solutions that are out there, to have a wide range of different ways that can support carbon removal solutions.

I think that being said, maybe a keystone on an arch of different policy building blocks would be procurement. But at the end of the day, if the government were to design a program to purchase carbon removal, in the same way that we see groups like Stripe and Microsoft and these other corporate leaders buying high-quality carbon removal, I think that would do two things; one, it would drive a lot more money into the system, where governments just have much higher spending power than corporate voluntary climate initiatives do today, or are likely to ever have in the future. And it would also create a level of transparency and hopefully equity in democratic participation in the standards that we use to define what carbon removal is and how we actually do that measurement and verification.

Because in many ways, it’s right now the wild west of who gets to claim what carbon removal is and what counts, and we see tons of claims about people who are going carbon negative, and many of them actually, on the face of them, are just not what we describe as carbon negative. They might be lower carbon or even zero carbon, but certainly not pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. And so I think having that government standard is one that will have ripple effects throughout the privates.

Benjamin Schulz: Is there an amount you could envision the US government, or other governments, to spend on this in the next five years? Is that something you lobby for?

Noah Deich: It’s important to understand the starting point for some of this stuff, where in the infrastructure bill that passed at the end of last year here in the US, there was about $3.5 billion in funding for direct air capture and storage hubs over the next five years. So hundreds of millions of dollars a year going out the door. That is just for four hubs that need to be million ton per year scale or greater. When we think about what it’s going to take to really drive the cost of carbon removal solutions down the cost curb, we are thinking we need to get to roughly the billion ton per year scale.

So, again, a full three orders of magnitude greater than what the policy landscape looks like today. It’s not going to cost three orders of magnitude more to do that, but I do expect that this is going to require billions to tens of billions of dollars of investment per year sustained over a decade or two in order to really drive down costs and get the technologies to a place where they can be scaled another order of magnitude or two in the coming decades, which is what’s going to be required to actually meet climate goals.

Benjamin Schulz: And for our readers, how can they engage with Carbon180 and help you have more impact? What are the best ways for them to get involved? 

Noah Deich: I think the best ways for folks to get involved with Carbon180 is to just engage in the conversation that we are having online about where the field is today, as well as what some of the barriers are that are preventing people who are engaged in different pieces of the carbon removal ecosystem from moving faster and building better projects.

And so one of the things that enables us to succeed in making policy change happen in designing effective policy is actually hearing from folks like entrepreneurs who are developing carbon removal solutions, to understand what the bottlenecks are that the private sector is not able to overcome on its own. We want to hear from corporates who are buying carbon removal to understand what features they don’t see in the marketplace today that policy could enable. We want to see from large companies and investments to understand what are some of the barriers that effective regulation could overcome and we can see a proliferation of carbon removal solutions in a really robust way. And we want to hear from communities and civil society to understand where they are concerned and where they are excited about carbon removal, and how we can make sure that carbon removal projects only happen in the places that are very excited about them and deliver benefits to the communities where they happen, not just to the companies or technology developers investing in the projects.

Benjamin Schulz: If you go into the future, where do you see carbon removal and Carbon180 in 3 to 5 years, and are you generally hopeful, or what is your emotion towards the future? 

Noah Deich: I am generally hopeful at this point. And the reason I say that is carbon removal has, from the beginning, been a non-partisan piece of the climate puzzle. Even here in the US, where it seems like every piece of the climate puzzle is polarized along partisan lines. And that, to me, is something that really gives me hope, and in three to five years, I think we’ll be really testing that and in the next three to five years, as projects go from small demonstrations into full-scale commercial pilots, it’s going to be essential to see those projects demonstrate how they can create high-quality jobs, how they can make sure to protect the environment and provide benefits to local communities, as well as showing the novel engineering and the pathway to rapid cost reductions at further scale.

Because in three to five years, we’re going to need to have the conversation about how do we go from large scale commercial pilots into a full-scale industry in only a few decades, if we’re going to meet this climate challenge?

Benjamin Schulz: How important, how useful, and how good is current international cooperation on carbon removal, and what could work better there? 

Noah Deich: Right now, the international collaboration is just nascent. I think it reflects the field being so nascent as well. I’m really optimistic that there are now carbon removal initiatives in things like the Clean Energy Ministerial Emission Innovation. Because for carbon removal to really succeed, I think we’re going to need to see a mirroring of what has happened at the US federal level, in broader international climate diplomacy. We’re going to need technology and innovation sharing across borders in order to make sure that the innovation development is as robust as possible. We’re going to need to make sure that demand for carbon removal projects happens not just here in the US but happens globally. And we’re going to need to make sure that when projects do happen, they happen with really integrity standards, not just for life cycle carbon accounting, but for equity and environmental protection as well.

And so I think having structures designed for international collaboration across all three of those dimensions are really essential, but just very nascent right now.

You can follow Carbon180 here, and as always, by reading CleanTechnica.

Images courtesy of Carbon180.

 

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I'm investing in positive companies and am passionate about climate action and long-term human challenges. Early partner at BEAM (United People of Climate Action) and CleanTechnica (#1 cleantech-focused new & analysis website in the world), among others.

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