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Carbon Removal Is Getting Gamified

Which institutional purchaser of qualifying carbon credits will come out on top?

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Department of Energy wants YOU to purchase carbon removal. Well, maybe not you, personally, but your city, state, or employer. And as an incentive, it’s turning the buying process into the equivalent of an arcade game, inviting companies to try to make it to the top of a new carbon removal buyers leaderboard.

The agency soft-launched the concept on Thursday under the banner of the “Voluntary Carbon Dioxide Removal Purchase Challenge.” There’s no prize money associated with the challenge — it’s not even clear whether there will be any winners. The goal is to encourage companies to make “bigger and bolder” public commitments to purchase carbon removal. At least one company, Google, has already said it would commit $35 million this year.

As the world has delayed climate action, developing the capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere has become an imperative. Scientists now suggest it is “unavoidable” if we want to limit warming to internationally agreed-upon levels. Carbon removal offers both a way to cancel out emissions from activities like flying and growing food that could take decades to figure out how to eliminate, and an antidote for some of the legacy carbon that’s already been emitted.

But today, existing carbon removal methods and technologies are too small-scale and expensive to make a meaningful difference. Many also lack adequate techniques to measure and verify how effective they are. That’s why last year the Department of Energy announced that it would spend $35 million to purchase carbon removal from promising companies. The initial winners are expected to be announced later this year.

With that program, the DOE was following in the footsteps of companies like Stripe and Microsoft, both of which have put significant resources toward vetting carbon removal startups and making early purchases of credits to help get the industry off the ground. With this new challenge, the agency said it aims to address non-financial barriers that are preventing companies from buying carbon removal as part of their climate strategies, such as a lack of transparency and a “lack of recognition that carbon removal credit purchases are essential and valuable today.”

To join the challenge, a company or organization will be required to purchase carbon removal credits “annually” and disclose the details to the DOE. The agency will build a public inventory of carbon removal credit buyers, suppliers, projects, standards and methodologies used, and volume of carbon removal delivered.

Companies have no apparent incentive to participate other than to see their names on the list, and possibly try and get to the top. In the words of DOE, it offers a “a unique opportunity to enter the carbon removal market with a splash!” (Exclamation point added by me.)

There is already a voluntary leaderboard tracking carbon removal purchases and deliveries called CDR.FYI. But not just anyone will be able to get on the DOE’s list. To qualify, the purchases must also be “aligned with the requirements and assessment criteria of DOE’s purchases.” The agency also said it would evaluate additional carbon removal projects beyond those it has assessed for its purchase pilot, and publish a list of available credits that have garnered a government stamp of approval.

Sasha Stashwick, the policy director at Carbon180, a carbon removal advocacy nonprofit, told me this is a promising step to building a carbon removal market that doesn’t suffer from the integrity issues that have plagued the voluntary carbon offsets markets.

“I think one of the key non market barriers is, how do you even define what is a reputable ton of carbon removal? Alleviating that burden is potentially huge,” she said. “The federal government is basically saying, we’ll de-risk these projects for you. We’ll determine what is a good project, and you can buy alongside us.”

The rules are preliminary, and the agency is accepting comments on the program until May 15. It expects to launch the challenge later this year.


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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