Microsoft, Stripe, and Shopify are officially the first companies in the world to pay to filter their carbon dioxide emissions from the air, store those emissions underground, and have that service verified by a third party. Climate technology company Climeworks announced yesterday that it had completed the service, and the third-party verification of the carbon removal is a first for the emerging industry.
In 2021, Climeworks opened the world’s largest Direct Air Capture (DAC) plant, called Orca, which essentially filters carbon dioxide from the ambient air. That captured carbon would then be permanently trapped in basaltic rock formations, preventing the greenhouse gas from lingering in our atmosphere and warming the planet.
The technology somewhat mimics what forests and trees do naturally as they absorb and store carbon dioxide, a process companies have been trying to exploit for years as a way to “offset” their carbon emissions. But forest offsets have a track record of failing to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That quality control issue makes verifying the carbon removal of new direct air capture facilities critical.
That quality control issue makes verifying the carbon removal of new direct air capture facilities critical
“We’ve all read about the carbon offsets market and its shakiness,” said Julie Gosalvez, chief marketing officer at Climeworks. “We rely on people who trust us to build it [DAC] factories, and we run them effectively and provide the service. And now we’re not saying we do, but we have third-party verification.”
Audit company DNV certified the carbon removal for Climeworks after years of effort to develop criteria. Because this is an industry first, they had to develop a method to monitor how much carbon dioxide has been taken from the atmosphere, transported and permanently stored. The methodology is now publicly available and will be used to verify future “batches” of CO2 captured and stored for customers.
Climeworks declined to say how much CO2 was in this first batch, citing confidentiality agreements it has with its customers. For example, Microsoft promised in 2020 to eventually reduce all its historic emissions. The company has contracts to remove at least 2.5 million tons of CO2 (about 18 percent of total emissions in fiscal year 2021), according to its latest environmental sustainability report. That includes forestry projects and direct air capture.
To date, there are not nearly enough direct air capture installations online to meet Microsoft’s goal. Orca alone has the capacity to catch only 4,000 tons per year; all operational DAC plants in the world together can capture 0.01 million tons of CO2 per year. Much larger installations are currently under construction.
But the lack of capacity is one reason some environmentalists are concerned that removing carbon could offer polluters a way to greenwash their operations. Companies could promise to catch their emissions later, even if their pollution continues to grow now, proponents argue. In fact, Microsoft’s emissions increased by about 2.5 million tons in fiscal year 2021 compared to the previous year, which the company says is mainly due to the growth in sales of devices and cloud services.
Technology companies were early cheerleaders for carbon removal. A separate Big Tech-backed carbon removal initiative called Frontier announced this week that it has hired more companies. Stripe, Alphabet, Meta, Shopify, and McKinsey launched Frontier last April with the goal of scaling up carbon removal and making it more affordable. Carbon removal is still prohibitively expensive for many smaller companies. A single ton of carbon removed by Climeworks costs about $600 for a company like Microsoft, Climeworks told The edge when Orca launched in 2021. (It declined to share updated numbers today.)
Earlier this week, Frontier announced a new partnership with climate platform Watershed, which measures emissions and coaches other companies on their climate goals. The partnership allows smaller companies to pool their purchasing power, making it easier for them to participate in carbon removal programs. The first new customers to jump on board through Watershed include Canva, Zendesk and aviation startup Boom Supersonic.
It’s no big surprise that technology companies have been pioneering customers for Climeworks, says Gosalvez The edge. “I think there are a number of reasons for this: the first is, of course, the affinity for finding technology as the solution to problems,” she says. “Second, the openness to new things.”