A lot can (climate) change in a week

Feb 13 2021

Powerful collaboration, positive conversation, and inspiring acts: what the US rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and Elon Musk's support of the largest incentive prize in history mean for the climate

Right now, we’re at a crucial moment in the fight against climate change. We’ve hit the highest amount of CO2 in the oceans and atmosphere on record, and the highest recorded temperatures on earth, too. We’re not just facing a grand challenge, but an existential threat to humanity. Incremental change counts, but it’s not enough; we need change that’s exponential, not just curbing global warming but actively reversing it. The good news is, if the past few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that this kind of change is actually happening. 


On January 20, 2021, his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed several important orders that will have a momentous impact on the environment. One of these was an executive order for the US to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Forged in 2015, the Agreement or “Paris Accord” is an international pact to fight climate change, and includes hundreds of countries from around the world each setting their own goals to curb emissions and slow global warming. The aim is to not exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, ideally, to limit global warming to 1.5C. 


The Paris Agreement is a joint effort, a means to share accountability, and also a way for richer nations to help out poorer nations. A united push to protect the planet, and with it, the future of humanity. Collective approaches like this are vital and can only work if governments and tech work collaboratively. 


Enter the other big, exciting climate news. On January 21, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made an announcement on Twitter. In under 140 characters, he shared some news that will alter the course of history. “Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology,” he wrote, followed by another Tweet: “Details next week.” 


On February 8th 2021, we proudly unveiled those details, introducing our newest XPRIZE and largest incentive prize IN HUMAN HISTORY. The revolutionary XPRIZE Carbon Removal will incentivize teams from all over the world to create groundbreaking solutions for carbon removal. That means physically taking existing emissions out of the air or the oceans, and sequestering them permanently. XPRIZE Carbon Removal will accelerate the innovation of this groundbreaking field of technology and allow it to operate at a scale we’ve never seen. It’s the single largest prize competition to ever run, and we’re beyond excited about it. 


For XPRIZE Carbon Removal to have maximum impact, governments and tech will need to work together – alongside fostering innovation, we need to advocate for carbon removal policies at all levels of government, both domestically and internationally. The lack of emissions regulation around CO2 means that there’s not enough incentive for companies or governments to capture and sequester CO2. While we want to incentivize the development and deployment of this technology with XPRIZE Carbon Removal, namely by making it more affordable, this tech will only scale with public as well as private backing. 


This should be in governments’ interests. For example, in restoring us towards the Earth’s natural carbon balance, carbon removal technology, in addition to mitigation, could be precisely how America and other countries meet their Paris Agreement Goals, even surpassing them. Globally, we’re producing around 40 gigatons of CO2 a year – to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees C goal, we need to remove between 5 and 9 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050. 


“Cross-sector collaboration is truly at the centre of shaping the global climate agenda,” summarized the World Economic Forum after their annual meeting in January 2020, declaring that, when it comes to a greener future, policy and technology need to operate in tandem. “Partnerships between governments, the private sector, multilateral institutions, and civil society will be essential to ensure we meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Paris Climate Agreement targets. When partnerships happen on a global scale, progress ripples outward, with greater impact for everyone.” 


The “ripples” of Musk and Biden’s commitments to fighting climate change are already being felt in the conversations they’ve sparked. Biden’s decision put climate change back at the top of news agendas. Musk’s Tweet prompted many people to ask for the first time: What is carbon removal? Why is it important? (For an answer to that one, check out the video below, or read our XPRIZE Blog on the three key types of carbon removal tech changing the world). 


We’ve seen this ripple effect across grassroots climate activism in the past, too. We saw this when Extinction Rebellion formed in 2018, and protests for climate sprung up across the world, making front pages in the process. And when Greta Thunberg skipped school for a day in favor of protest and millions of kids around the world followed suit, forcing governments to pay attention. 


Keeping climate change at the top of the headlines is critical to expanding dialogue, and it also inspires the leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists of the future. It inspires engineers and scientists to direct their efforts towards developing radical technology like carbon removal. It can inspire the rest of us to do better when it comes to the environment, and most importantly, to work with others to get there.  


If we don’t act now, experts warn that the earth could heat up to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 and that we can expect many more droughts, forest fires, and hurricanes than we already experience. But Biden and Musk remind us that a lot can change in a week. Our agenda can change: climate change has shot up the list of America’s priorities, back to the top, right where it belongs. Our actions can change: we can each be reminded to play our role and start investing our time and money into green tech. And our attitudes can change: in 2021, let’s feel hopeful about the future of our planet and the global fight against climate change. 


It’s only February, but so far we have every reason to be.