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Dr. Surabi Menon reflects on the challenges and opportunities of the carbon dioxide removal funding space, and sets out her vision as Chair of CTRF’s Scientific Advisory Council.


Tell me a bit about your background

I’m Vice President for Global Intelligence at ClimateWorks Foundation. Our work looks at mitigation solutions across industry, transport, buildings, food, agriculture, forests and of course carbon dioxide removal, and ways we can channel philanthropic resources into the most promising areas. We work closely with a number of foundations and in our tracking of funding flows, estimate that collective investment from philanthropy is close to $3 billion, all focused on climate mitigation. 

I am a cloud physicist by background, having worked at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University and then moving onto Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California before joining ClimateWorks in 2012. I’m particularly interested in the interdisciplinary aspects of climate change work in terms of technology and the economy, and the role capital markets and investments can play in solving some of these challenges. 

What drew you to CTRF?

Scientists are clear that we need to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. Because of the lack of progress in bringing down emissions in recent years, carbon removal will become more and more important – especially because the lifetime of carbon dioxide is so long. By 2050, we need to be removing around 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

As a climate scientist, I’ve done the modelling for lots of other carbon sequestration work like solar geoengineering and I know how complicated it is. We also know that there’s a need for much more funding in this space, and philanthropic resources aren’t easy to get so let’s be focussed on what impact we are seeking with the use of these resources. 

CTRF is a new funder who is thinking long term and understands the need to invest now to get the research done in a way that approaches or technologies can be scaled to help drawdown carbon from the atmosphere, which is great. It’s rare to have these kinds of funds dedicated to specific topics, so I was very excited to learn about CTRF and explore its focus on mimicking natural processes to remove carbon. That’s why I got involved.

What are the main challenges and opportunities in the Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) funding space?

Part of my role at ClimateWorks is looking at where philanthropic dollars go. We know that total philanthropic giving was more than $810 billion in 2021, but money for climate mitigation was less than 2% – it’s miniscule. This is a huge issue that needs resolving if we’re to meet the scale of the climate challenge. 

Solutions for carbon removal tend to either focus on the natural side or the technological side. Natural solutions include things like preserving rainforests, soils and other carbon sinks. The advantage of these solutions is that we know what they look like and how to get there, for example by enforcing forest protection policies. Yet they have a permanence problem. As climate change gets worse, the number of extreme weather events like forest fires increases – putting the long-term carbon sequestration of these sinks at risk. Think of the land needed to sequester 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide with trees and other natural solutions… that land will be competing for food production and human settlements – using it solely for removing carbon just isn’t feasible. We have to think of other possibilities.

The technological side of solutions focuses on using innovative technologies to scale carbon removal, such as drawing CO2 out of the air and storing it underground, or using biotechnological approaches to enhance natural carbon removal processes from land and oceans. I’m particularly interested in this last area, which is what CTRF focuses on.

Despite having huge potential, the real problem with using biotechnology to scale a process that wasn’t supposed to be scaled is that there’s just not enough money to do the research and test the full environmental impacts. If you’re increasing algae production, how can you be sure that you’re not distorting another part of the ecosystem and that cycle? We have to study the full aspects related to any scaling approach.

What are some ideas that you’re most excited by when it comes to carbon removal?

If you think of the battery space, we’ve always been ‘on the cusp of a revolution’, but progress has been so slow! Right now we’re struggling with overcoming the environmental and social impacts of transition minerals extraction. The truth is that getting these processes right takes time. I see using biotechnology for carbon removal as similar – it will take years of dedicated research to make it scalable and commercial, so we need to start now.

Algae, both micro (single-cell) and macro (multi-cell), are really intriguing. They’re absolutely tiny, but they’ve got huge potential in terms of sequestering CO2 very quickly. I’m interested in the ways in which we can use biotechnology or chemical processes to help speed up the transition, then possibly create products that can be used and have other purposes, or find ways to sequester the carbon permanently. So if we enhance algae, will they continue to help shellfish and strengthen marine ecosystems, or can they be used as some sort of construction product? As we think of how these may play out we also have to pay attention to these processes and their effects on ocean acidification. How can we mimic a natural process safely rather than inject artificial elements into it and disrupt ecosystems? 

You need a little bit of money for the initial research stage to catalyse commercial interest – then I’m sure there will be a lot of money coming in from venture capital. A good example is Climeworks – they are able to remove carbon dioxide from the air and then inject it into the ground in their site in Iceland that I had a chance to visit. Basically what they do is turn the captured carbon dioxide into rocks and store it safely, mimicking a well known natural process in the first place and using carbon free energy to power their machines – this is a promising example of where a commercial model is working in this space. 

Can you tell me about the CTRF Scientific Advisory Council and what your role is?

I’m delighted to serve as the Chair of CTRF’s Scientific Advisory Council. There are two purposes for the Scientific Advisory Council. One is to advise on the research strategy and the other side is around community building, stakeholder engagement and outreach. We have about six new members from diverse backgrounds covering plant and soil carbon sequestration, oceans and freshwater systems, and the microbial processes of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria. 

The Scientific Advisory Council will help gauge the proposals that come in from this first funding call. We’ll be thinking through questions like: 

  • Are these topics helping us meet CTRF’s objectives and what is their pipeline? 
  • What’s missing, and what should the next tranche of money do?
  • Are there other funders interested and how do we help grow the field? 

Find out more about the CTRF Scientific Advisory Council.

What would be your advice for researchers looking for funding opportunities in this space? 

My advice to researchers is to think of the stage that your research is at, where you want to grow, where philanthropic dollars are best used, how these can be supplemented with other resources like government grants, and how will these resources help you get there? In general, there’s very limited funding in this space, so building collaborations and partnerships and networks can be very valuable. You need to look at the whole cycle and position your research within that. Other than that, be curious and keep trying! 

Apply for funding opportunities here.