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The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the philanthropic organization founded by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, pledged $44 million in funding for solutions to climate change today. Most of the money goes towards efforts to capture carbon dioxide building up to dangerous levels in the atmosphere and oceans.
The climate crisis can only be tackled by putting a stop to planet-heating pollution. But most models for how to prevent catastrophic climate change include some form of atmospheric carbon dioxide removal since human activity has already resulted in enough pollution to do damage to the planet.
The strategies have attracted billionaire backers like Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, as well as tech companies like Microsoft and Stripe. Carbon removal technologies have recently received millions in funding from Big Tech, even as tech companies face scrutiny for how they exacerbate the climate crisis.
Last year, CZI gave another $23 million to carbon removal technologies and $10 million to a fellowship program in Gates’ Breakthrough Energy climate initiative. Today’s announcement from CZI builds on that momentum behind carbon dioxide removal.
About half of the new funding from CZI, $21 million, will go to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Institute for Carbon Management. It’s developing an electrochemical process for cutting CO2 emissions from cement production, which accounts for 8 percent of carbon dioxide pollution globally, roughly quadruple the emissions of the aviation industry.
Separately, UCLA plans to spend some of the funding building an electrochemical flow reactor at the Port of Los Angeles to remove carbon dioxide from seawater. Oceans soak up a quarter of humans’ CO2 emissions, which is to their own detriment since it turns the water more acidic — dissolving crabs’ shells and contributing to the demise of coral reefs, among other problems.
UCLA is also using CZI funding to develop new technology to pull CO2 out of the air. The most advanced technologies for so-called direct air capture are pretty energy-intensive since very high heat is used to separate dilute amounts of CO2 from everything else in our atmosphere. As a result, direct air capture plants are often paired with geothermal energy or natural gas plants. UCLA hopes to bring energy intensity and costs down by using a modular electrochemical system. If successful, it will produce a less concentrated stream of CO2 — but that captured CO2 can still be used in industrial processes to reduce emissions, including making concrete.
Since carbon removal technologies are still in the early stages and too expensive to deploy at scale, developing new markets for captured CO2 could bring costs down and incentivize more investors to back the tech. CZI is funneling $20 million to a chemical company called Twelve that’s trying to develop products made with captured CO2, such as “building blocks” for jet fuel and auto parts — ostensibly replacing fossil fuels typically used in the manufacturing process.
To further support the nascent carbon dioxide removal sector, CZI says it will purchase $2.5 million in credits representing CO2 that was drawn down from the atmosphere. Because such credits can go for upwards of $600 per metric ton, $2.5 million doesn’t necessarily buy you a lot of CO2. But the costs are expected to go down as more companies and organizations follow suit. CZI’s carbon removal credits are tied to a range of projects that utilize direct air capture technologies and “nature-based” drawdown methods that seek to trap CO2 using soil, kelp, and trees.
While carbon removal technologies are all the rage in tech circles these days, some environmentalists are concerned about how the pipeline infrastructure for those technologies might affect communities and the environment. Corporate tree-planting as a carbon removal strategy has also faced criticism, in part because tree farms and forests can easily release CO2 back into the atmosphere if not maintained.
That’s why environmental activists continue to press Big Tech and its billionaire philanthropists to do more to curb their own pollution and take responsibility for how their platforms influence the climate crisis. For Meta, that includes clamping down on climate misinformation on Facebook. As recent reports have noted, Facebook’s climate commitments don’t include refusing ads from fossil fuel companies and lobbyists or stopping lies about climate change on its platform.