Microsoft, Stripe, Shopify, H&M (and even Coldplay) are some of the high-profile customers paying Swiss company Climeworks to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Climeworks became the first company in 2017 to sell services using the latest “direct air capture” technology.
There are still protests from some environmental advocates against this strategy to combat climate change. They’d rather see these brands stop emitting pollutants. Unfortunately, that’s not happening fast enough to halt global temperature rise. And there is a growing demand for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that builds up in our atmosphere.
“There is a growing demand for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that builds up in our atmosphere.”
Climeworks currently operates the world’s largest direct air capture facility. And we plan to scale up massively. That’s a big challenge for former Tesla board member Douglas Chan, who was recently appointed chief operating officer by Climeworks. The Verge We spoke with Chan about the company’s next steps and what the decarbonization industry needs to learn from electric vehicles.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You were at Tesla before joining Climeworks. Why did you jump into decarbonization after EV? Do you see decarbonization as a complement to what Tesla is doing?
I loved the Tesla place and the people I worked with. At Climeworks, people are very driven and just as highly motivated. The challenges ahead of us are what really excites me. It is an industry that is still in its infancy. We got the opportunity to actually build and create. If we do our job well, we will make a big impact.
All parts of the pie are there. We are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Then there’s purge. What I mean is, everyone has a role to play in this whole ecosystem that gets us to reach our climate change goals.
Since direct air capture is a very new industry, are there any similarities to early EVs or even solar panels?
It’s like a new technology in my mind. It has to expand, build and grow. All of these industries face the same challenges in gaining acceptance and expanding their industries. It’s a really fun and exciting challenge for me, right? How do you actually proceed?
What did you do at Tesla? So how does that compare to your current role at Climeworks?
You do everything at Tesla. That’s one of the funniest things about it. And it’s very similar to what we’re doing now.
There are several manufacturing departments in the automotive manufacturing process and I was in one of them. I led the rollout of one of our manufacturing facilities in each country as Tesla scaled up.
So in terms of relevance, it’s kind of like what we’re trying to do at Climeworks. We are working to build more factories and scale up our operations worldwide. And do it very quickly.
Any lessons learned from Climeworks after helping Tesla scale its operations internationally?
How we work with other cultures to scale is important. Soft but important, right? To get things done quickly, you need to be able to work with people in your country. How do you build these networks, your relationships with suppliers and suppliers, the supply chain of each location? It will be the same challenge we have at Climeworks as well.
Is there anything about carbon removal that feels really unique or different in terms of how you’re selling this new technology?
Yes, this is something I’ve been thinking about before. Why is it so much harder for Tesla to sell carbon dioxide removal as a service than it is to sell cars?
I mean, it’s intangible, right? It would be really cool if it was the same color as the sky. The better we play, the brighter the color or goes from red to green. But it is intangible. You can’t get your hands on it right away. So it’s a challenge for me. How does Climbworks solve it? The fact that we are very strong in monitoring, reporting and verification. It’s a different challenge in that respect.
For anyone unfamiliar with direct air capture Not at all, how would you describe it?
“When friends and family ask me, I explain it like this: A nice air conditioner.”
To put it very simply, it’s like air conditioning cooling your home. However, conditioners remove CO2 from the air. CO2 is sucked in and no CO2 is released. And we store CO2 permanently. When friends and family ask me, I explain it like this. It’s a nice air conditioner.
Climeworks says it wants to increase its carbon removal capacity to the gigaton scale by 2050. big leap Considering that every DAC plant in the world today can capture just 0.01 million metric tons of CO2. Climeworks’ largest plant still under construction, giant, capable of capturing 36,000 tons of CO2 per year. What will it take to scale to reach the gigaton goal? What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?
The speed at which we are trying to scale is not a pipe dream. There are parallels that can be drawn on the renewable energy scale. This is very similar to how we want to grow as an industry. One of the things I’m really focusing on this year is setting ourselves up to have a scalable formula as we move forward.
Looking at how the industry is growing, these hub concepts will become a reality. As much as I like to say, Climeworks will be a one-of-a-kind company and we will solve every single problem in the world. There are several players in the carbon dioxide removal industry. What a hub provides is essentially a network in which multiple direct air capture companies can feed a pipeline network. We have all the pipeline companies waiting in the US. They’re going to start building a carbon dioxide pipeline. It will make transportation cheaper and more efficient.
Some carbon removal companies have been open to oil and gas operations, such as: Oil company Occidental and Carbon Engineering work together to DAC facility in Texas. And some of the carbon they capture Improved Oil Recovery It creates what Occidental calls “net zero oil.” Is Climeworks something to consider?
Looking at my background, I was born a long time ago in the oil and gas sector. But we’re not doing that right now, and we’re not doing that in terms of providing direct air capture technology to improve oil recovery. It’s the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do. So that’s definitely not on our commercial roadmap or our partnership roadmap.
One thing we won’t overlook, however, is that oil and gas companies have a lot of experience in storage. They know where these reservoirs and wells are. So, we have expertise to draw on when investigating these high-quality CO2 storage locations.
What do you see as Big Tech’s role in decarbonization development?
Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify were early customers of Climeworks. What do you see as Big Tech’s role in decarbonization development?
You can answer this in two ways. I think they are definitely supporting this industry from a buyer’s point of view, as many tech companies have set strong science-based target initiatives for net zero CO2 emissions. However, there will also be many of these technology companies that will have products (not just software companies, but hardware as well) that can help feed the supply chain.
We hear from experts that carbon sequestration ultimately plays a small role compared to switching to clean energy to stem greenhouse gas emissions. But we are starting to see decarbonization becoming a kind of trendy way for various brands to deal with their emissions. How can companies scale this technology without becoming a way for companies to avoid reducing CO2 emissions in the first place?
I feel like I hear this a lot in the hallway because I am very aware… I think greenwashing is a fair question. how do i avoid it? I honestly didn’t get a good answer for you.
The challenges facing Climeworks and the industry are really exciting to me. I’m really excited to be a part of solving this problem, creating an industry, and making everything to the point where everyone can access it.