X-Prize for carbon removal?

Last year, Richard Branson offered $25 million to the person who comes up with the best way of removing one billion tonnes of carbon per year from the atmosphere.
I say, let’s be a bit more ambitious and offer $10 billion to the person who actually removes about 300 billion tons before 2013. In other words, whoever restores CO2 to preindustrial levels before Kyoto ends, wins.

I estimate that this proposal is anywhere between a thousand and a billion times more efficient than meeting the Kyoto target in 2012. By efficient I mean it is both cheaper and and will achieve more. It will completely and cheaply solve the climate problem once and for all and save our governments a lot of time and effort so they can focus on other things (like censoring the Internet).
As a bonus, it sets a standard for solving big problems before the next election, in stead of just pretending and leaving the real work to future politicians or (more likely) pure luck.
The best part is that it will only require a single organization that is willing to put in about $20 million up front.
For comparison, Kyoto aims to save about 10 billion* tons over the next four years , and it is extremely unlikely to succeed unless countries introduce very drastic and expensive measures right about now. And remember, reducing emissions is not the same thing as lowering CO2 levels; it’s slowing down a bit, not reversing direction.
If I haven’t lost you already, let me explain my thinking…
* = I could be off by a long shot here, I can’t find the number so I had to derive it in a pretty rough way.
How do you set a reward of $10 billion for only $20 million?
The X-Prize foundation, who recently awarded a $10 million prize to Virgin for their commercial space flight vehicle, have a little trick for this. They use the fact that nobody believes something is possible to their advantage. Watch this TED talk by Peter Diamandis for a brief explanation.
They didn’t actually have $10 million; they had only raised about $200,000(?). So Peter went to an insurance company and said, Wanna bet? And the insurance company, being experts at this sort of statistics said, ‘well, we think your chance of success is about 1 in 50, so if you give us $200,000 up front, we’ll pay you your $10 million if you succeed.”. The rest is history.
Now something as preposterous as removing one billion tonnes of carbon per year from the atmosphere, 300 times more ambitious than even Richard Branson can imagine, that’s gotta be impossible, right? Wanna bet? How about 1:500? All we need here is a someone with $20 million to spare, and an overconfident (and solvent) insurance company and we can actually offer a $10 billion award.
The best part is: the more ambitious the goal, the less money you need to put in!
Of course, the exact numbers are just a wild guess and it will take some research by professionals get them right. But I would argue that this is something worth looking into.
How much carbon do we want to get rid of and when?
This is a tricky question. There are several things at play here.
I think the best thing to strive for is to stabilize temperature, not to reduce it back to preindustrial levels. The latter would just put our planet through a double shock; sometimes it’s best not to pull the knife out yet. But if you don’t want to reduce temperature, why reduce CO2 levels?
As I explained in my last post, just stopping CO2 emissions is not going stop temperature rise, because temperature lags behind CO2 quite a bit.
That’s why we have to have lower CO2 levels so that they act as a brake on temperature rise. The question then is: how low? We could of course simply remove all CO2 from the atmosphere, but that would probably suffocate all plants, so that’s not a good idea. Whatever we do, we should probably never reduce CO2 beyond preindustrial levels.
Something that hasn’t been done as far as I know, is calculating what CO2 reduction would instantly halt temperature rise. Is this even possible, or is there a minimum period of time required? How much?
Also, this proposal does not ask for stopping CO2 emissions, it’s just a big cleanup while emissions continue. It means that from 2013, whatever technology is used for this solution, will be used in a scaled down version to compensate ongoing CO2 output. In that case, we could keep CO2 levels constant after 2012, and probably quite cheaply. That in turn gives us plenty of time to switch to renewable energy.
Another thing that we need to consider is, What if we later regret our choice of CO2 level? It is obvious that whatever technology we use to reduce CO2 levels, should have a kill switch: a way to turn it off instantly at any time. But any CO2 taken away before we press that button, is probably just gone. How do we get it back at present levels if somehow we decide to do so? Burning up the entire planet’s coal supply or cutting down all trees doesn’t sound very attractive. We need to think this through.
But uhh, isn’t it dangerous?
Yes, extremely. So is doing nothing according to some. It’s safe to say that our tampering with the planet has already passed the point of no return. Besides, as I argued in my previous post: just because something is natural, does not mean it’s good for us.
Is it legal?
Now this is the really interesting part. Part of the plan is that it’s up to the participants to figure out whether it’s legal and to deal with any goverment red tape. But doesn’t that make it more difficult? Yes, which is good as I have explained above.
But wait a minute, doesn’t this give an unprecedented amount of power to any company with $20 million to spare? Yes it does, but are you surprised by this? If the world financial crisis has taught us anything, it is that governments have completely lost their grip on global events. And do you really think there is a law that prohibits a company from tampering with global CO2 levels? And if so, do you think there is a UN agreement about that sort of stuff, so that it can’t be done in another country? And even if there was, it will probably be 2013 by the time they have finally agreed on their first common statement of concern.
Hopefully the very existence of this prize will encourage the world’s leaders to pick up the pace a bit and actually start governing the planet in stead of just their own countries.
I still think this is ridiculous
Well, yes and no. We need to get our act together, stop feeling good about our useless gestures and start solving all the worlds problems.
This will require some out of the box thinking and public brainstorming. It requires us to improve our intuition on this scale. We need to get used to thinking globally in stead of locally. Once we get better at that, the good ideas will roll out much easier.
I would rather see lots of bad ideas that at least strive to solve 90% of the problem, than good ideas that only solve 1% of it. We’ll get there!


  1. Very nice idea Sjors.
    I am starting to think that one of the best ways of doing this is to use the chlorophyl process embodies in massive scale algal farms. Hell, the Gippsland lakes are well on their way to becoming a prototype implementation.
    Short of the approach undertaken in the film “spaceballs” the algal approach has a number of merits.
    The question then becomes, what to do with all the algae once grown? It is being tipped for conversion into biofuels, which is a great monetisation, however the gunk would need sequestering to achieve the results associated with the outcome.
    There should also be a focus on Methane as well, as this has over 60 times the power of C02 as a greenhouse gas.

  2. > The question then becomes,
    > what to do with all the algae once grown?
    Exactly, and that is a pretty big problem indeed. That’s why I demand that any solution should have a kill switch. The algae thing might get a bit out of hand and suffocate all other plant life on the planet. Also, you would have just given the world another invasive species to worry about.
    The nasty issue here is that for a solution to be really effective, it should probably be ‘viral’, it should thrive on CO2. Whether it’s an organism that loves CO2 or a technology that makes removing CO2 profitable, it should spread like wildfire. But that would make it very hard to stop.
    What is to stop this new and successful company from just continuing their CO2 removal until someone bombs them?
    > There should also be a focus on Methane as
    > well, as this has over 60 times the power of
    > C02 as a greenhouse gas.
    I agree, but the most important achievement will not so much be the removal of carbon, it will be showing mankind that this sort of massive thing can be done quickly and cheaply.
    Once that message is across, we’ll worry about getting the details right.
    Would methane make a good ‘backup’ greenhouse gas? Something we could use to actually push temperatures up a bit if things get bad?

  3. @scott I’ve already submitted another idea to 10^100th.
    Also, the more I think about this plan, the more I think we should be really careful and perhaps wait for some scientists to get a better understanding of these sort of shock therapies.

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