Microsoft, Stripe, Shopify, H&M – heck, even Coldplay – are some of the high-profile clients paying Swiss company Climeworks to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Climeworks became the first company to sell the service, using its new “direct air capture” technology, in 2017.
There are still protests from some environmental advocates against this strategy to combat climate change. They prefer to see these brands stop emitting pollution. Unfortunately, this is not happening fast enough to prevent global temperatures from rising. And demand is growing for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution building up in our atmosphere.
“Demand is growing for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution building up in our atmosphere.”
Climeworks operates what is currently the largest direct air capture facility in the world. And it plans to expand massively. That’s an important task for former Tesla executive Douglas Chan, whom Climeworks recently brought on board as chief operating officer. The Verge spoke with Chan about what’s next for the company and what the EV carbon removal industry might have to learn.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You had an important role at Tesla before joining Climeworks – why go after decarbonisation after EVs? Do you see the carbon removal work as complementary to what Tesla is doing?
I loved Tesla as a place, the people I worked with. At Climeworks, people are super motivated, just like you, super motivated. The challenge ahead is, for example, what excites me. It is such a nascent industry that does not yet exist. We have this opportunity to really build it, to create it. If we do our job well, which I am confident we will, we will have a huge impact.
There are all parts of the pie. There is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Then comes its elimination. So, I mean, everybody plays a role in the whole ecosystem to get us to our climate change targets.
Since direct air capture is such a new industry, are there any similarities to the early days of electric vehicles or even solar panels that you see?
It’s similar to any new technology in my mind. It is something that needs to be scaled, built and grown. All these industries in some way face the same challenges to gain acceptance as well as to expand the industry. That, to me, is a really fun and exciting challenge, right? How do we actually go ahead and do that?
What did you work at Tesla? And then how does that compare to your role now at Climeworks?
You work on everything at Tesla. That’s one of the fun things about it. And very similar to what we are doing now.
The car manufacturing process has several production divisions, and I was in one of them. We sort of led the rollout of a portion of those production facilities in each of the countries as Tesla grew.
So in terms of relevance, it’s kind of similar to what we’re trying to do at Climeworks. We are trying to build more factories and expand our operations worldwide. And do it very quickly.
After helping expand operations internationally at Tesla, are there any lessons you bring with you to Climeworks?
How you work with different cultures at scale is important. Soft but important, right? To be able to do something quickly, we need to be able to work with people who are in those countries to be able to do it. How do we build those networks, those relationships with suppliers and vendors and the supply chain in each of those places? This will be the same challenge we have here at Climeworks.
Is there anything really unique or different about carbon removal in terms of how you sell this new technology?
Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about before. Why is it so much harder to sell carbon removal as a service compared to selling a Tesla car?
I mean, it’s intangible, right? It would be super cool if there was, you know, a color in the sky, and the better we get, the lighter the color gets, or it goes from red to green or something. But it is intangible. You can’t get your hands on her right away. So that, for me, is a challenge. How do we solve this as Climeworks? The fact that we are very strong in monitoring, reporting and verification. It’s a different challenge that way.
For someone not familiar with direct air capture not at all, how would you explain it?
“This is how I’ve described it to friends and family when they ask me: luxury air conditioners.”
Super simplistic, it’s like an air conditioner cooling your house. But the air conditioner removes CO2 from the air. You suck in CO2 and what comes out has no CO2. And we store CO2 permanently. That’s how I’ve described it to friends and family when they ask me: luxury air conditioners.
Climeworks says it wants to scale up its carbon removal capacity to a gigaton scale by 2050. That’s a big leap considering that all DAC plants in the world today can only capture 0.01 million metric tons of CO2. The largest Climeworks factory still under construction, I’m moving, can capture 36,000 tons of CO2 per year. What will it take to grow to meet your gigaton goal? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges going forward?
The rate at which we are looking to grow is not a dream. There are parallels that can be drawn with the scale of renewable energy, which is very similar in terms of how we’re trying to grow as an industry as well. One of the things I’m really focused on this year is getting ready to have a scalable formula as we go forward.
If we look at the way the industry is growing, this concept of hubs will happen. As much as I’d like to say, hey, Climeworks is going to be the one and only, and we’re going to solve every problem in the world – there are multiple players in the carbon dioxide removal industry. What hubs provide is essentially a network where multiple direct air capture companies can feed into a network of ducts. There are all these pipeline companies in America. They will start building carbon dioxide pipelines. It will make transportation more accessible and efficient.
Some carbon removal companies have been open to working with oil and gas, such as Occidental oil company and Carbon Engineering, working together to build DAC facilities in Texas. And some of the carbon it captures will be used improved oil recovery to generate what Occidental calls “net-zero oil”. Is this something Climeworks would ever consider doing?
If you look at my background, I came from oil and gas back in the day. But we don’t currently, and I don’t see us doing it in terms of offering direct air capture technology for enhanced oil recovery. It’s kind of the opposite of what we’re trying to do. So it’s definitely not part of our business roadmap or even our partnership roadmap.
But one thing we won’t overlook is that oil and gas companies have a lot of storage experience. They know where these tanks and wells are. So as we look to investigate these high-quality CO2 storage sites, there is experience there that can be leveraged.
What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of carbon removal?
Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify were among Climeworks’ first customers. What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of carbon removal?
I can answer that in two ways – many of these technology companies have established strong science-based initiatives for net zero CO2 emissions, so I think they definitely support this industry from a consumer perspective. But there’s probably also a lot of these technology companies that will have products that could kind of help feed into the supply chain — software companies, but also hardware.
We heard from experts that ultimately decarbonisation should play a small role compared to the clean energy transition to prevent greenhouse emissions. But we’re starting to see decarbonization becoming sort of a trendy way for different brands to manage their emissions. How do you expand this technology without letting it become a way for companies to avoid reducing CO2 emissions in the first place?
Being very aware, I think we hear that a lot in the corridors…greenwashing is something that I think is a fair question. How do we avoid this? I honestly don’t have a great answer for you there.
The challenge for Climeworks, as well as the industry, is something that, for me, is really exciting. I am very happy to be a part of solving this problem, creating an industry and bringing everything to a point where it is accessible to everyone.