What’s the best way to solve our climate change conundrum? By restoring habitats that soak up carbon naturally or a high-tech human-engineered solution to removing excess CO2?
The answer – we need them all.
However, right now, natural solutions to climate change – such as planting mangroves and revitalizing wetlands – are being overlooked, despite their proven effectiveness in both climate adaptation and mitigation (that's helping communities adapt to the effects of climate crisis by protecting land and ecosystems, while also reducing the amount of CO2).
As Yale 360 recently reported, very little of the funding pledged COP26 will find its way towards nature based solutions. Most nature-climate activities “are currently not funded,” says Ebony Holland, climate researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. Yet these approaches are currently often more cost effective and offer up have fewer challenges than engineered approaches (such as requiring energy for construction or function).
How can we help reset the balance? Our VP of Climate, Marcuis Extavour, walks us through how both nature-based solutions and technology are equally important tools in the fight to mitigate climate change.
Does XPRIZE Carbon Removal allow both nature-based and tech approaches to enter the prize competition?
Yes, absolutely. When we were designing the prize, we felt it was a little premature to say that only nature-based solutions are valuable, or else that only inorganic or tech solutions are valuable. So we designed a competition that would focus on what matters in carbon removal, which is: does this method work? Can it be net negative? Does the sequestration work? How long can it be sustained? Is it durable? And can it scale? So with those metrics in mind, the competition is open to any solution.
What are some examples of nature-based solutions in carbon removal, versus engineered solutions?
The way we tried to divide up the solution space in this prize was to think about four broad categories, each of which could include what we call nature-based or else engineered solutions. Air, ocean, rocks, and land were the four solution categories (more on that here).
Examples of organic solutions can be found in the land category where we see most of the photosynthetic solutions – things like biochar based on pyrolysis or other techniques, crop management, agroforestry, reforestation and afforestation, plus soil management – or within the ocean category, with marine-based nature solutions like kelp and macroalgae cultivation or even phytoplankton cultivation. These are just some of the ideas we saw proposed.
On the inorganic side or the non-nature oriented side, we see solutions based on using natural minerals or mine tailings, engineered direct air capture devices, engineered seawater CO2 removal techniques, but also biological seawater CO2 removal techniques. So really a broad suite of ideas and solutions. And what we're most interested in is not just the concept, but the question “can it be demonstrated and can it be scaled?”
How can we galvanize investment in natural approaches to carbon reduction or removal?
I think one of the primary ways we can do this is to think carefully about our language. I have a hypothesis that the phrase “carbon removal” does not resonate with typical forestry ecology or agricultural communities, whether we're talking about industrial agriculture, or whether we're talking about traditional family oriented rural agriculture on small family plots. Carbon removal is a fairly new concept and an emerging field – and I think the extent to which we can benefit from solutions that are based on natural ecology depends on how we can outreach to that community, frankly. And when I say that community, of course, that's not one community – this is many different types of communities in many different parts of the world. So I don't just mean choice of words, but I also mean actual language and spoken tongue.
The other thing I'd love to say on the topic, too, is that many people have said to me, the carbon removal benefit of a lot of these natural solutions is probably not the top benefit. So I think we need to avoid the trap of only distilling an ecological restoration approach down to its carbon removal benefit. For instance, tree planting. There are many, many reasons we need to reforest. One is carbon removal, but there’s also habitat preservation, soil health, cleaning the air, and cooling the surface of the earth. These are all direct benefits to us as people but also benefits to the ecosystems that we depend on. So I want to avoid the trap of boiling ecological solutions down just to the carbon benefits.
What are some of the opportunities for investors regarding nature-based approaches to climate mitigation?
I'm the type of person that thinks that carbon removal, climate restoration, climate action, and the energy transition we're embarking on now are all moral imperatives, but they are also business opportunities. To be blunt, there's money to be made and there's value to be generated for people, for communities and for nations. We often think about these kinds of interventions as paying for our sins or paying to clean up. But I think if we shift our thinking and think of them as opportunities, when the data shows that that can be true, then this can, frankly, unlock a new way of coming at the problem and bring in other people that don't traditionally think about these topics.
An example in the carbon removal world is the Voluntary Carbon credit market – where investors can offset their emissions by purchasing carbon credits. Now, let me acknowledge that there are a lot of problems with carbon credits. And even the whole idea of carbon credits has been questioned, whether it can actually get us to solutions. But let's just imagine for a second the version of a carbon market that is non-exploitive, heavily verified and actually works. I think we can achieve that and we have already achieved that in some ways today. That is a tremendous business opportunity. It means that organizations, groups, individuals that are doing climate restoration, or carbon removal efforts can actually generate income and revenue from businesses. And this is very important, not because we are encouraging everybody to try to build a pile of gold but because revenue can sustain the practice, whether it's a nonprofit or for-profit practice. This can be the lifeblood of your operation, whether it's a family farm or a technology business.
The idea of natural capital is one of my favorite ideas. We don't really value our natural environment in our current capitalist economic model. Many economists have discussed this at length. But I think the tide is starting to turn there and I'm interested in approaches to actually generating returns for Indigenous communities for rural people living in areas that are close to the land and close to nature for farmers, whether they're large or small. For people working on climate solutions, generating income streams can be really important and beneficial – and that gives us a good reason to think about climate restoration and carbon removal climate solutions as business and investing opportunities.