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Rethinking Carbon Dioxide (CO2): from a pollutant to a moneymaker

Three startup companies led by prominent scientists are working on new technologies to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The scientific community is skeptical, but these entrepreneurs believe removing CO2 can eventually be profitable and help cool the planet.

By Marc GuntherYale Environment 360 / February 29, 2012

A chimney stack belches smoke, and CO2, into the air from the Eggborough coal-fired power station near Selby, England. Three startup companies say they can clean up CO2 pollution in the atmosphere – and make a profit.

John Giles/PA/AP/File

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With global greenhouse gas emissions still on the rise, despite decades of talk about curbing them, maybe the time has come to think differently about the climate crisis. Yes, we need to burn less coal, oil and natural gas, but clearly fossil fuels are going to be around for awhile. So why not try to clean up the mess they make?

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That’s what a handful of prominent scientists are trying to do by developing technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the air. These scientists have launched start-up companies and attracted well-to-do investors – most notably Bill Gates – along with venture capital and, most recently, the attention of Wall Street. They say their technology does not need government support, though it would help. What it needs, above all, is a mindset that regards CO2 not simply as a pollutant but as a valuable commodity.

Nathaniel “Ned” David, the chief executive of a startup called Kilimanjaro Energy, puts it this way: “The single largest waste product made by humanity is CO2. Thirty gigatons a year. It’s immensely valuable, and today we just blow it out the tail pipe. What if there were some way to actually capture it, use it, and make money?”

Carbon dioxide removal, or CDR, is sometimes seen as a subset of geoengineering – deliberate, planetary-scale actions to cool the Earth – but it’s actually quite different. Geoengineering strategies are risky, imperfect, controversial, and difficult to govern. The most-discussed geoengineering technology, solar radiation management, alleviates a symptom of the climate problem (warmer temperatures) but does nothing to address the cause (rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2). What’s more, geoengineering as a climate response is stuck because governments have declined to provide more than token funds for research, and there’s no business model to support it.

Carbon dioxide removal, by contrast, targets the root cause of global warming. It doesn’t create global risks. It’s being financed by the private market, and it’s more akin to recycling waste than to playing God with the weather.

Despite widespread skepticism in the scientific community, three startup companies are betting that they can make money by recycling CO2, and thereby cool an overheating planet. Kilimanjaro Energy is the pioneer. The company was launched in 2004 by Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University physicist who first wrote about air capture of CO2 in a 1999 paper. It was initially financed with $8 million from Gary Comer, the founder of Land’s End, who grew concerned about climate change after he sailed a yacht through the normally ice-bound Northwest Passage with relative ease. (Comer died in 2006.) Last year, Kilimanjaro raised another $3.5 million from a venture firm called Arch Venture Partners.

Global Thermostat, a second startup, also took root at Columbia. Its founders are Peter Eisenberger, a former head of research for Exxon who started Columbia’s Earth Institute, and Graciela Chichilnisky, who holds dual PhDs in economics and math. Edgar Bronfman Jr., the former Warner Music CEO and heir to the Seagram’s fortune, has put $15 million into the venture, and a big private equity firm is in talks with the founders about taking a major stake in Global Thermostat. (Eisenberger and Chichilnisky wouldn’t identify the investor.)

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