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Green Is The New Black

Elon Musk funds a $100m carbon capture prize. So what?

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elon musk carbon capture prize

Elon Musk, the South African billionaire who’s known for Tesla and SpaceX (i.e. electric vehicles and colonising Mars), is funding non-profit group Xprize’s carbon-removal contest. This means that the man is contributing $100 million of his fortune towards climate solutions. But before we sing his praises, let’s take a closer look at what the prize entails, understand his motives, and put it all in context.


If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because this isn’t the first time we’re talking about billionaire (environmental) philanthropy. In fact, almost exactly a year ago, we talked about why Jeff Bezos launched the $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund. (And here’s a fun fact: just today, Bezos reclaimed his title of the richest man on earth, beating out Musk, who’s been holding that title for just about six weeks.) And just three weeks ago, we talked about Bill Gates’ new book about climate solutions. But today, we’re talking about Elon Musk, and we (try to) answer all your burning questions about the man who literally has fans calling him God.


About that $100m carbon capture prize…

The carbon capture prize is a competition administered by the non-profit group Xprize Foundation. They’ve held competitions of this nature before. This time, Elon Musk himself is backing the prize, with a donation from the Musk Foundation. In a statement, Musk said: “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. This is not a theoretical competition… Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence.”

By “negativity” and not “neutrality”, he’s referring to the differences between types of existing carbon capture technologies. Conventionally, carbon capture technologies remove carbon dioxide from the exhaust of power plants or factories, then bury the gas deep underground. This captures 0.1% of global emissions today (and most is used by oil producers and heavy industry at only some of their facilities). This is carbon neutrality because we’re not actually drawing down the amount of carbon that’s in the atmosphere.

Scientists, however, are in agreement that we need to actually remove carbon from the air if we want to meet our goals of keeping global temperature increase to within 1.5°C. Removing carbon from the air would be, as Musk points out, carbon negativity. And not only would this be good for the planet, but this would also be good for stimulating a green economy. In fact, a study published in 2020 suggested that the carbon removal industry could actually rival the size of modern fossil-fuel production.

The problem is, there’s not been enough investment for it to scale as a climate solution. The tides, however, are turning, as investors are increasingly demanding cleaner portfolios, according to consumer demand. But the tides are not turning fast enough. This is—presumably at least one of the reasons—why Musk is putting money on it. Anyway, to win, the teams entering the competition have to show that their method of carbon removal is cheap enough and also can be scaled up to remove as much as 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. Which is good, right?


Is carbon dioxide removal a good climate solution?

Some people would say that Musk putting money down for this drives people who would otherwise not care about climate change to do at least something about the climate. That can’t be disputed. But could he spend the $100 million better elsewhere? For that, we turn to what the scientists say. Popular Science interviewed four sustainability experts, and here’s a summary of what they said.

A professor of climate change engineering at Cornell University said that when she thinks of “big issues of sustainability, [she] think[s] of the eradication of poverty, biodiversity, as well as all the pollution problems”. But that at the same time, carbon dioxide removal has to be part of the recipe. Mostly because “there are things that simply won’t be able to operate without fossil fuels for a while—think air travel.” And these are “great ideas that need people to look at them and figure out what to do next and scale them up.”

A professor of ocean and climate physics at Columbia agreed that carbon capture and sequestration efforts need financial capital. Right now, he says, the technology “looks kind of like solar technology—we’ve got the tools in our hands, and now it’s a matter of figuring out how to scale that tech up so it can be cost-effective.” That being said, he added that there are some issues—like industrial processes not having fossil fuel alternatives—that don’t even have the technologies, to begin with. And therefore that money should go to that too. 

And of course, there’s the argument that there are already carbon capture technologies existing that need protecting. That’s trees, soils, and forests. An interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan said that it’s not, as some people might assume, about planting more trees. Rather it’s about keeping these ecosystems healthy (think: wildfires which make trees become carbon emitters rather than carbon capturers).

And finally, there are also solutions that aren’t climate fixes, but rather system fixes. A professor of environmental science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell says that “carbon capture tech is kind of like using a spoon to get water out of a bucket. When there’s not that much water, it might be a fine technique, but right now we aren’t only dealing with a bucket but a massive flood.” We’re better off with solutions that involve policy—which are “wonkier, less shiny” solutions, but nonetheless necessary ones that get to root causes. 

Not to mention, there are also a ton of climate groups and organisations already doing work on the ground. (Climate justice, anybody?) We could use more money for groups like that too.


Not a perfect solution, but…

The natural, expected conclusion to all of this is that all climate solutions need money directed towards them. And that carbon capture is not a silver bullet. Project Drawdown, a science-based climate solutions research non-profit organisation, concluded that while carbon capture is a solution that needs to be considered, these geoengineering fixes are “coming attractions”, and issues of cost, scale and the energy required “all remain in the balance.”

And this list of issues is non-exhaustive—there is much fine-tuning to do. A recently released (free and online) resource about carbon capture, called the CDR Primer, which reflects over two years of work and collaboration among dozens of authors, all experts in different areas of carbon dioxide removal, had this to say. “For gigatonne-scale CDR deployment to result in equitable outcomes, it must be centered on social justice and pursued through participatory decision-making involving a wide range of stakeholders. The land, energy, and resource trade-offs involved in large-scale CDR are extremely complex, and they will challenge decision-makers to balance social, economic, environmental, and technological considerations.”

So… we could go on and on about carbon capture and whether or not we need it, what kind of carbon capture we need, how we should do it, and how much should go to it. But that’s not all this entire Elon Musk carbon capture prize news story should get us to talk about.


The b-word

Yes, we’re going there. At the heart of all of it is this: Elon Musk is a billionaire. Some people will say, “at least Elon Musk is doing something good with his wealth!” And will back this up with copious amounts of evidence about how revolutionary Tesla is. So let’s talk about this tension.


First: about Tesla…

A recent favourite of ours is a climate-centred podcast called How to Save a Planet, hosted by the brilliant scientist and policy nerd Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and journalist Alex Blumberg. One of their episodes talked about electric cars, and it was revealed that these two climate activists do in fact, own Teslas. They spoke to an expert, Nikolas Hill, about whether or not electric cars are good for the planet. The answer? That “electric vehicles—be they fully electric vehicles, battery-electric, plug-in hybrids or fuel cell electric vehicles—are unquestionably better for our climate than conventional cars. There should be absolutely no doubt of that looking from a full life cycle analysis.” 

And so the work that Tesla is doing to refine, mainstream and innovate electric vehicles is certainly important. A YouTube video essay packed with research about Tesla also concurs. But the video essay goes a little further and says this at the very end: “To me, it’s better to invest time and money in groups organizing for climate action and legislation […] or local groups in your area working for environmental justice. Electric cars do have a role to play in the climate movement, but they must be paired with so many other actions in order to create viable lasting environmental change.”

Which is exactly the point. Tesla, electric vehicles and Elon Musk are concepts that cannot be removed from our contemporary socio-political context…


Elon Musk is a billionaire.

And he is that way because of a flawed, unjust system that helped him get there and that he perpetuates. A system in which he played the game and won. As this essay exposes, Tesla has an “appalling health and safety record”. Ambulances have been called to Tesla’s California factory over 100 times since 2014 for workers being overworked. Tesla employees have come out to talk about the company’s low pay and poor conditions. And it’s no secret that Musk is “viciously anti-union”—attempts to unionise have been dealt with “harshly”. This isn’t surprising, because that’s how you succeed in this capitalistic system.

And no, he’s not a self-made man. Again, as the essay details, Musk is most certainly not. His father was a wealthy South African businessman. While he was a computer enthusiast who was in “the right place, at the right time, with the right connections”. Yes, he’s probably more brilliant than many (‘a true genius’ according to some). But there is a common belief you have to be somewhat of a psychopath to get there. According to this essay on Vanity Fair, stories of Musk exhibiting tendencies of pathological sociopathy (similar to many other tech titans) have been shared by those who have worked with him or are close to him. 

Which would be fine, if he wasn’t so powerful, and if he didn’t abuse that power sometimes. “At times on social media”, the essay details, “Musk seems sane and collected, sharing tidbits about science and climate change.” But at other times, he’s “tweeting things that seem to coddle the alt-right, men’s rights activists, and random conspiracy theorists. As his attacks against the conventional wisdom around coronavirus wore on earlier in the year, Musk ignored those who tried to point out how his understanding of COVID-19 was blatantly incorrect and how deadly the disease really is.” Musk fans write it off as eccentricities, but it’s not just harmless eccentricities if he’s so rich and influential that his tweets can literally affect the stock market. His words, and his actions, have power to shape the world. 


Putting it into context…

So how can we put it into context? The answer is nuance. We accept that Tesla is doing good for the climate. But also see how he holds up a system that is in dire need of upheaval. Towards a world that is more just (e.g. a world in which billionaires don’t exist, because wealth at such a level should not be hoarded). We acknowledge the good things that Musk does for the climate, but also hold him accountable for his actions, and the implications of these actions.

What might that look like? This essay in Jacobin could be a good start. Author Paris Marx acknowledges that Musk has helped to popularise electric vehicles, but also highlights that “most average consumers still do not have access to those cars” and in a truly just climate future, we need less car ownership and more public transport, which Musk has disparaged. The future also needs us to live closer together (connected by public transport), but Tesla’s solar technology and home batteries, “rather, will enable what Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos have recently called grid defection: ‘resource-intensive solar separatism for the rich and the geographically lucky’ who hide in their ‘affluent enclaves’.” 

On a related note, consider his fascination with space travel and the colonisation of Mars (the conscious use of the word “colonise”, by the way, should already be a red flag). Yes, space travel is, we suppose, in some ways, human progress and innovation at its finest. But how will these be affordable and accessible? As Marx writes: “Any space colony will enable the social division of Elysium, where the rich have moved into orbit on an idyllic habitat but continue to make all the decisions that govern the poor and destitute residents of a postapocalyptic Earth.”

Putting Musk in context is seeing his visions not just for what they are but also for what they could imply. And what does his vision (à la electric vehicles and space travel) imply? According to some viewpoints, a “world that will preserve his privilege at the expense of everyone else”. 


Hanging in the balance

Perhaps this isn’t a fair conclusion. But it certainly is one of the possibilities. Either way, the point is not to take a shit at Elon Musk. That’s not productive, and it’s too late for that. Rather, it’s to sit with it all. To sit with the good that he’s done. But also, the system he upholds. The power that he has to shape our collective futures. The need for him to do much more in this current world. And the idea that maybe, just maybe he should not have such a big stake in the future one we are building?


Featured image: James Duncan Davidson

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.