Apr 13, 2023 - Energy & Environment

First look: Stanford initiative aims to scale up greenhouse gas removal

Illustration of a college pennant with a plant logo and the words "Go Green!".

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new Stanford University initiative aims to overcome barriers to large-scale deployment of tech that can pull planet-warming gases from the atmosphere.

Driving the news: The Doerr School of Sustainability will on Thursday announce greenhouse gas removal as the first focus of a new "flagship destinations" program on the environment.

  • In this case, that means an annual goal of removing CO2 and other planet-warming gases at the gigatons scale.

The intrigue: Arun Majumdar, the school's dean, notes that academic research often begins with looking for a proof of concept and then seeing if it can scale.

  • But Stanford's multi-disciplinary approach aims to turn this paradigm on its head.
  • "Here we are saying, let's think about the scale from the beginning and work backwards," Majumdar said.
  • That means looking simultaneously at knowledge gaps, financial gaps, policy gaps and more.

Why it matters: Most scenarios for meeting Paris Agreement goals see removal becoming a complement to steep emissions cuts.

Yes, but: While investment is growing, removal is in its infancy, and the viability of massive commercial deployment is unclear.

Catch up fast: Removal refers to a wide basket of tech and methods.

  • They include direct air capture and ways of speeding CO2 uptake in oceans, rock formations and soils, to name just a few.

One wild stat: Majumdar offered a sobering way to think about annual gigaton-scale removal.

  • All the planet's roughly 8 billion people together weigh roughly a half-gigaton, he said.
  • This illuminates the need for a "new industrial base" that must be envisioned up front.

How it works: The effort starts with coming up with ideas for overcoming gaps needed to achieve scale.

  • Majumdar then envisions convening people from other universities, nonprofits, industry, policymakers and more, to vet the work.
  • The goal: a "shared hypothesis of plausible pathways" and knowledge gaps, and then publishing the findings in an academic journal or elsewhere.
  • And they would not just gather dust, either — he sees it forming the basis for real-world work and funding.

What's next: Hiring more staff and finding outside partners and funding from foundations, industry or other actors.

  • Future "flagship destinations" could address areas like climate adaptation and protecting marine ecosystems.
Go deeper