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Decrement carbon: Stripe's negative emissions commitment

Christian Anderson on August 15, 2019

As part of Stripe’s environmental program, we fully offset our greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing verified carbon offsets. Starting this year, we’re going a step further. In addition to our offset program, we are committing to pay, at any available price, for the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its sequestration in secure, long-term storage. We’re announcing this commitment to solicit technology partners and to urge other companies to follow suit.

The need to remove CO2

Urgent global action is needed to halt greenhouse gas emissions, and it looks increasingly likely that in addition to emissions reduction, humanity will need to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In its most recent summary report, the IPCC notes that most scenarios that stay below 2°C of temperature increase involve “substantial net negative emissions by 2100, on average around 2 gigatons of CO2 per year.”

Early adopters and technology learning curves

Carbon capture and sequestration technologies are nascent today. While a growing set of startups (including Carbon Engineering, Climeworks, and Global Thermostat) are actively working in the space, there’s no clear market price for permanent CO2 removal. If there was scalable, verifiable negative emissions technology available in the vicinity of $100 per tonne of CO2 (tCO2) captured, it could be a trillion dollar industry by the end of the century and complement emissions reduction in halting anthropogenic climate change.

Researchers and entrepreneurs are working today to create this new industry, and continued progress will require funding for experimental prototypes with initially high cost per tCO2. This provides an opportunity for Stripe and like-minded early adopters to shift the trajectory of the industry. Experience with manufacturing learning and experience curves has shown repeatedly that deployment and scale beget improvement. This phenomenon has been seen across TVs, phones, semiconductors, DNA sequencing, and clean energy technology. The cost of solar panels was about $30 per watt in 1980, $10 per watt in 2000, and less than $1 per watt in 2019.

Negative emissions technology is likely a long-term part of the world’s climate solution, and early adopters can help by buying in early. If a broad coalition of buyers commits substantial investment, we’re optimistic that the price curve will start to move.

Current efforts

In surveying the technology landscape (good surveys are here and here), we see many promising routes towards scalable negative emissions. Technological effort is needed because the earth’s natural CO2 sinks, reduced by human land use change, are overwhelmed by the ~35 billion tCO2 emitted by humans each year as shown in this video of the carbon cycle over time. With this in mind, Stripe has identified at least three categories of ongoing projects that we would anticipate funding:

First, improving natural carbon sinks is a goal of current land management projects, such as forestation initiatives, soil management reform, and agricultural techniques. These initiatives are already beneficial today, but there remain open problems on scalably verifying how much CO2 is stored each year and how long it will remain stored. There is an opening for scientists or entrepreneurs to increase the duration of the storage by, e.g., hacking plant roots to store more CO2 for extended periods of time.

A second set of exciting projects is enhanced weathering (aka CO2 mineralization). CO2 in a gas or liquid reacts to form carbonate minerals when it encounters silicate minerals (e.g. olivine) and rocks rich in Ca and Mg. This carbon is then sequestered for centuries+ in the mineral. Such weathering processes operate extremely slowly as natural carbon sinks, and many research initiatives are investigating how to accelerate these processes. Interesting ideas include crushing rock with natural forces and forcing CO2-rich fluids through natural rock formations.

A third family of exciting projects is direct-air capture, such as the prototypes deployed by Carbon Engineering, Climeworks, Global Thermostat, and others. A direct air capture plant is an industrial installation that uses energy (ideally from clean sources) to force air into contact with a CO2-sorbent such as hydroxide solutions or amine-functionalized solids. The CO2 is then separated back out from the sorbent and transported to long-term storage sites. While more research on safe storage is needed, current estimates are that the earth can accommodate tens of trillions of tonnes of CO2 in secure long-term storage, which is many times the amount emitted by human activities to date.

The approaches mentioned here likely just scratch the surface of what’s possible. Humanity will need these and more techniques to reach mega-project scale to meet our collective need for negative emissions in the coming decades.

The commitment

This leads to Stripe’s Negative Emissions Commitment. We will seek to purchase negative CO2 emissions at any price per tCO2, starting immediately. We expect that the best price will initially be very high: almost certainly more than $100 per tCO2, as compared to the $8 per tCO2 we pay for offsets. We don’t expect to be able to sequester all of our carbon emissions, both because the relevant technologies are not yet operating at sufficient scale, and because it would be financially infeasible for Stripe. And so we commit to spending at least twice as much on sequestration as we do on offsets, with a floor of at least $1M per year.

We will work with experts to select winning carbon capture solutions based on cost-effectiveness, and we may choose to buy from more expensive providers whose approach we think is particularly promising. Eligible solutions are ones that sequester greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in secure, long-term (century+) storage. We’re reaching out to entrepreneurs and researchers who believe that they can create negative emissions. We know that the market is early-stage and are open to funding projects that have a strong plan for delivering negative emissions in the coming decade, even if they are not yet ready.

Our call to action

  1. For teams currently commercializing negative emissions technology, please reach out to Stripe so that we can work together. We will choose our initial solution to purchase in 2019Q3.
  2. For other companies: Please reach out to Stripe to join our commitment and participate in joint-buying together.

We can be reached at environment@stripe.com. Thank you!

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