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Finding cost effective, scalable solutions for carbon removal is one of the biggest problems facing the global community. According to the IPCC, we need to remove around 10 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year by 2050 to meet the goals of the Paris agreement, with this number expected to double by the end of the century. So far, no solutions have been developed or deployed anywhere near the scale needed to meet this challenge.

At CTRF, we think biotechnology has huge potential to supercharge carbon removal, but much more research is needed to understand the scale and impact possible. Last week, we were delighted to be joined by a panel of leading biotechnologists and carbon removal experts to discuss the potential of biotechnology to accelerate natural carbon removal pathways. You can watch the panel discussion back in full above or on Youtube – here is a summary of the conversation.

Treat the challenges as opportunities

Sarah Sclarsic, Founding Partner at Voyager Venture Capital, kicked off the discussion by suggesting that the biggest challenge in scaling biotechnology for carbon removal is also the biggest opportunity: “We haven’t yet tried very much, meaning that there’s probably lots of low hanging fruit, but also that there’s lots of groundwork we haven’t done yet.” We can use lots of the tools developed by the pharmaceutical industry (e.g. tools in protein design and enzyme engineering), look at where nature has stored that carbon (i.e. rocks, soils and minerals) and bring them together to come up with potential bio sequestration pathways.”

Colin Averill, Forest Microbiologist at ETH Zurich, emphasised the need to think about the whole carbon removal ecosystem as a dynamic process – understanding the different co-dependencies in natural ecosystems and learning from them, rather than treating them as closed: “The Amazon rainforest has been sequestering carbon for a million years, but none of those trees are one million years old… Nothing stays removed forever and that’s a feature of the carbon cycle.” Colin also suggested biodiversity as a promising research area to create more stable, resilient ecosystems – recognising that the largely monocultural systems we’ve built are incredibly productive, but also fragile.

Jerry Blackford, Head of Science, Marine Systems Modelling at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, raised the challenge of scaling carbon sequestration in oceans, which already absorb around 25% of excess industrial CO2. The harmful effects of ocean acidification – a direct impact of oceanic carbon absorption – underlines the need to adopt a whole systems approach to scale up these processes without causing harm: “Get the carbon in the system, through the system and stored in the system.”

Ross Koningstein, Director Emeritus at Google Research, spoke about how Google tackles the issue of carbon removal in two parts: what they can do right now using existing tools; and what needs to be done to solve the problem at scale. Ross highlighted how technology for carbon removal is developing rapidly and opening up new avenues for research, such as multidimensional robotic experiments and sending carbon down the water column. Ross emphasised that any potential technology must be scalable, line up with existing expertise and tools, and above all excite people.

Creative solutions need longer-term, dependable funding

Sarah explained that when you create a marketplace very quickly – as we’re seeing now with the acceleration of carbon markets – money tends to go towards solutions that already exist. Because of the lack of solutions for gigatonne-scale carbon removal, these markets tend to rely on carbon offsets, which need to be underpinned by strong and trusted monitoring and verification processes. However, at the moment these are not nearly as robust as they need to be.

At the same time, philanthropic funding for climate mitigation is still very limited. Surabi Menon, VP, Global Intelligence, Climateworks Foundation and Chair of CTRF’s Advisory Council, referenced a Climateworks report showing that total philanthropic giving in 2021 was around $810 billion, but less than 2% of that went towards climate mitigation. Most of this money goes to natural carbon removal solutions such as reforestation, restoring peatlands and soil carbon sequestration – the amount going to speculative technologies is a tiny fraction of the total.

There was a recognition of the need to adopt a long term mindset and funding approach, as it takes time for creative solutions to go to scale. Unfortunately securing long term funding can be a challenge for academics. Jerry reminded us that ideas can fail and succeed, suggesting that making decisions based on technology readiness could help funders foster innovative research and researchers to secure dependable, long term financing. Surabi spoke to the imperative for the private sector to move away from solely financing carbon removal solutions that exist now and shift towards financing better quality, more effective and innovative longer term solutions. As it stands, innovators have to attract the “risk-tolerant, patient capital”, which tends to be government or philanthropic funds that fill the gap of private sector finance.

CTRF’s founder, Stig Arff, agreed – reaffirming his belief in the power of the private sector to scale climate action, how it has the potential to become an agile breeding ground for ideas, but needs to be supported by large scale public money. This public-private partnership is a “winning combination.” Ross described how, by funding “bootstrap research”, CTRF is moving into an interesting, untapped area where a properly arranged research programme can deliver results that are much more tailored to the intended consequences donors want.

Looking ahead for CTRF

To tackle the scale of the climate challenge we will need all the solutions we can get our hands on. The task before us is formidable, but we need to get to the bottom of where the possibilities lie. That starts with research.

A huge thank you to our expert panellists for joining us for the discussion, which created momentum we are ready to build on. We’re very excited to have just launched our first call for research proposals and welcome our new Head of Strategic Partnerships, Tanya Rahman. If you’d like to hear more about what we’re up to in 2023, follow us on our socials and keep an eye out for our new website, launching very soon.

#biotechnology #carbonremoval #carbonsequestration #carboncapture #greentech