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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The startup accelerator Y Combinator is looking to fund entrepreneurs and non-profit researchers working on "frontier technologies" for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The big picture: Y Combinator is among the most influential organizations in the startup world and has helped launch Dropbox, Airbnb and others. Its new request for applications comes two weeks after a major UN science report concluded that carbon removal — not just a huge expansion of zero-carbon energy — will be needed to prevent the dire consequences of allowing warming beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

  • Per YC's website, "While these approaches are not our Plan A, we think it's time to get Plan B ready."

What they're doing: Among other approaches, YC is looking at four broad areas that they say deserve more attention and potential funding:

  1. The use of genetically engineered ocean phytoplankton that sequesters CO2.
  2. Electro-geochemistry, which would use renewable energy to power an electrochemical process that speeds up the earth's natural CO2 absorption in rock formations while also creating hydrogen.
  3. Cell-free enzyme systems that "could fix carbon in perpetuity."
  4. "Desert flooding" to create shallow reservoirs that could be used to grow carbon-absorbing phytoplankton while providing irrigation and freshwater nearby areas.

What's next: YC president Sam Altman tells me that ideally they would fund a "small handful" of companies next year.

  • He guesses the number will eventually be between 5 and 20 in order to have a "reasonable chance of success."
  • Under YC's model, they initially provide $150,000 to startups in return for a 7% equity stake, with additional financing possible.
  • The odds: Altman acknowledges that the chances of success are low, but while the ideas identified are very difficult, they do not seem "prevented by the laws of physics."

The four approaches identified by YC have generally not gotten as much prior attention as other CO2 removal technologies, such as direct air capture and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage.

What they're saying: Noah Deich, executive director of the group Carbon180 (formerly the Center for Carbon Removal), offers a mix of praise and caution.

  • "This is very much outside of the mainstream of what carbon removal technologies are currently being developed," says Deich, whose group has focused on direct air capture, forest restoration and planting, and other methods.
  • He adds that diversity is good when it comes to exploring CO2 removal technologies.

But, but, but: Deich tells Axios that applying the venture capital model to large-scale strategies like those that YC is exploring bring risks of "externalities"" — harms and costs that aren’t borne by investors.

  • This means engagement with a wide group of researchers, communities and other stakeholders is key, he says. "It's important to have their voices heard from the beginning."

I asked Altman about whether the venture model is appropriate here. "I don’t think any private company should make the decision about what to deploy," he answers.

  • Instead, Altman says, the effort is about seeing whether private industry and researchers can find workable solutions, which would be followed by a wider "global debate" about whether to try and implement them.
  • While there are risks, he notes that "the path of doing nothing is high risk."

Between the lines: In a blog post yesterday, Altman notes that YC has funded clean energy companies and will continue doing so, but cites the UN report to argue that emissions-cutting is not enough.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Contact tracing fizzles across America — New clues emerge on long COVID — Omicron is finally burning out — It's very difficult to get access to antiviral COVID treatments — Axios-Ipsos poll: Omicron's big numbersAnother wave of death — FDA limits use of Regeneron and Lilly antibody treatments.
  2. Vaccines: Pfizer begins clinical trial for Omicron-specific vaccine — The shifting definition of fully vaccinated.
  3. Politics: Virginia AG says public colleges can't mandate COVID vaccines —Alaska governor joins Texas lawsuit over National Guard vaccine mandate — Navy discharges 45 sailors for refusing vaccine — Spotify to remove Neil Young's music after his Joe Rogan ultimatum — White House: 60M households have ordered free COVID-19 rapid tests.
  4. World: U.K. to lift travel testing requirement for fully vaccinated — Beijing Olympic Committee lowers testing threshold ahead of Games.
  5. Variant tracker
6 hours ago - World

Biden will move U.S. troops to Eastern Europe "in the near term"

President Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews on Jan. 28. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said on Friday he plans to move U.S. troops to Eastern European and NATO countries “in the near term.”

Driving the news: “Not too many” U.S. troops, Biden added in remarks to reporters at Joint Base Andrew upon returning from a trip to Pennsylvania.