Why look at removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?
There are already too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The more greenhouse gases in the air, the more the Earth’s energy budget goes out of balance. This leads to global warming.
Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is still the most important thing. Society must get to net zero global emissions as fast as possible. This requires rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s economy, year on year, in ways that are just and equitable.
However, it is increasingly likely that the world will also need to remove many billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere each year in the future. So ways of removing greenhouse gases need to be better developed, explored, and understood.
What’s the difference between reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere?
We sometimes think of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a bit like rising levels of water in a bathtub. The analogy was first used in a joint research paper by John Sterman, from MIT, and Linda Booth Sweeney from Harvard.
First, and foremost: humanity needs to ‘turn off the tap’. In other words: reduce emissions of greenhouse gases into the air is still the main event.
But: we also need to start work on ‘unplugging the drain’. In other words: we need to start exploring ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Also known as ‘carbon removal’.
How do we know there are too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?
Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. The last time CO2 levels were this high is thought to be during the Pliocene era– a geologic age in the Earth’s history that was between 5 million and 3 million years ago.
Today, human activities release dozens of billions of tonnes of CO2 every year.
The rate of release is also fast. Geologic records have to go back as far as 66 million years – the age of the dinosaurs, and a warmer world with different ecology – to find evidence of levels changing this much, and this quickly.
Is taking greenhouse gases out of the air just an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels?
No. Future removals of greenhouse gases on a large collective scale will only work to slow down and, ultimately, reverse global warming if deep cuts in emissions are also achieved today.
The total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what is causing all the problems. The higher that level rises, the worse things are. The lower that level falls, the better.
So, we need levels of CO2, and other greenhouse gases, to peak as soon as possible. We then need to start their drawdown from the atmosphere.
Each year, nations will then need to go on to remove much, much, more largely carbon-based greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than they emit. The longer we leave it, the greater the cost. The sooner we act, especially on cutting emissions in the first place, the greater the opportunity.
So what is the vision?
We have to act to reduce emissions today. We have to have a long term vision: we know how to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But how do we also remove the vast excess, sustainably, at scale?
Some industries will be able to decarbonise, like road transport, rail, and, in time, maybe even aviation.
Ecosystems are being degraded around the word. This releases carbon, formerly locked up in plants, soils, and life, into the atmosphere. What if regenerating them can draw carbon back down again, and lock it up in the soil?
What about the sectors that are inherently carbon-based; those with the carbon molecule at the core of their operation?
Can these industries revolutionise their relationship with the Earth’s carbon cycle? Can they reverse the flow of carbon: removing it from the atmosphere, and locking it up in a stable form? Can they go on to help restore balance, and reverse global warming?
Is the Virgin Earth Challenge a geo-engineering incentive?
No. It’s a greenhouse gas removal incentive.
Geo-engineering refers to a deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural processes. Climate geo-engineering can be divided into a) ways of trying to manipulate the amount of sun’s rays hitting the Earth, and b) ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
VEC is only interested in ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Even some proposals in this category were found to be beyond our scope.
We want the prize to go to an approach that can materially help avoid dangerous climate change. But at the same time, the rules do all they can to ensure that the prize will go to solutions that work in concert with the rest of nature, not against it.
We would never want to award anything that’s trying to help people and the planet by inadvertently causing harm.
See our links page for some reports that discuss this issue further [click here].
Does the Virgin Earth Challenge look at other greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide?
Yes. But it’s mainly CO2.
CO2 is the biggest source of global greenhouse gas emissions. It also has by far the biggest impact on global warming, and ocean acidification. CO2‘s atmospheric chemistry also makes the removal of it fairly straightforward. Consider trees, for example.
Sir Richard Branson and the other judges set up the prize as an incentive for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. So all greenhouse gases are taken into account.
Are there GHG-removal approaches not represented on your shortlist?
VEC has an agnostic stance when it comes to sustainable greenhouse gas removal options, however ecological, industrial or a mix of both they happen to be. If it’s a potentially scalable and sustainable way of removing greenhouse gases from the air, we could be interested.
There is a lot of work going on to sequester carbon that is not represented by the entrants.
For example: the better management of mangroves or the restoration of peat bogs are virtual no-brainers. Other approaches such as carbon negative plastics, cements and timber also have the potential to reduce a lot of emissions from those sectors, as well as removing greenhouse gases from the air and locking them up in a stable form.
There are also more controversial approaches, such as those that wish to change levels of nutrients in the ocean to grow carbon-absorbing algae. Entries received in these categories did not make it through our evaluation process.
More broadly, the academic, civil society and policy community is working hard to ensure appropriate governance regimes. There is a lot more to be done, however – because, ultimately, nature cannot be fooled.
See our links page for some reports that discuss the different challenges and opportunities around Greenhouse Gas Removal at greater length [click here].
Is there a risk of taking too many greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere?
Not any time soon, and the risks of having too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are much bigger and much more urgent.
In total, it’s estimated that society has already emitted the equivalent of over half a trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. These emissions are continuing to go up.
In other words, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, such as levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), are continuing to rise.
There is some debate over what a ‘target’ level of greenhouse gases should be, with 350 parts per million getting some of the strongest support. Current levels are well over 400 parts per million; and, when all greenhouse gases are factored in, the equivalent concentration is nearer 500 parts per million.
But whichever way you look at it, deep cuts in emissions are required now, and there’s a long way to go to bridge the global ‘emissions gap‘. [click here]
So we think that sustainable ways of removing GHGs from the atmosphere should be given a serious looking into. All whilst the world continues to move forward, first and foremost, on deep emissions reductions.
What is the right name for 'removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere'?
Depending on the organisation or school of thought, the notion of removing greenhouse gases from the air may be referred to as:
- Carbon Cleanup
- Carbon Dioxide Removal (“CDR”)
- Carbon Drawdown
- Carbon Removal
- Carbon Sequestration
- Greenhouse Gas Removal (“GHG removal”)
- Negative Abatement
- Negative Emissions Technologies (“NETs”)
At the Virgin Earth Challenge we tend to use Carbon Removal, and Greenhouse Gas Removal (“GGR“).
Are you still accepting new entries?
We had over 10,000 applications and 2,600 formal proposals. We whittled them down to 11 diverse and inspiring finalists, announced in 2011. [click here]
The deadline for our public call for submissions has passed and there aren’t any plans to re-open it.
We will continue to monitor developments in the space and look at new breakthroughs if we become aware of them. Rather than publicly opening the competition again, we may personally invite new work to enter the Virgin Earth Challenge. Of course, any new entry will have to pass the same strict, rigorous analysis as our current finalists.
If you are aware of a novel approach/organisation not currently on our shortlist, please do get in touch with us. [click here]
Unfortunately, due to the high volumes of enquiries we receive, we are unable to reply to all of them.
How far off a winner are we?
There is some excellent work going on out there and a lot of progress has been made.
Just to get this far is an incredible achievement. When we identified the finalists, we believed they had a strong chance of winning as they moved forward. All of them have continued to work to prove they can unequivocally deliver scalable, sustainable greenhouse gas removal in the real world.
This site (especially the news section) will keep you informed of how they’re all doing, as well as sharing news from the broader GHG-removal sector.
If you like the leading entrants so much, why don’t you invest in them?
The Virgin Earth Challenge is an innovation competition, not an investment fund. In fact, the rules of VEC prohibit an entrant from having any involvement with Virgin or one of the Judges, as there could be a conflict of interest.
Our solution doesn’t remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere but it cuts emissions in the first place. Why couldn’t we enter?
We totally appreciate your perspective, but that isn’t the scope of the Virgin Earth Challenge.
Check out our links page for other initiatives you might be able to get involved with. [click here]
We signed up to your Terms and Conditions but no longer want to be bound by them, what can we do?
The rules of the Virgin Earth Challenge are designed to protect the entrants and us.
However, we would like to further emphasise the assurances given in the Terms and Conditions. In particular, that we will keep details of each entry confidential, and that Virgin will never use an entry to further its own interests, or copy your work. The applicant continues to own whatever rights they have to the designs, and participation in VEC does not grant to Virgin any rights in, or to the designs and/or IP submitted or otherwise held by an organisation that has entered.
We entered the Virgin Earth Challenge competition back when you were accepting entries from the public, and we never heard anything back. What happened?
We received thousands of entries, and we endeavoured to give every single one a bespoke reply. We let each Entry know what happened and suggested ways to further their efforts to help people and the planet.
Every single submission we received was looked at and thoroughly reviewed based on the evidence given. If you didn’t hear from us, then you can get in touch here [click here].
How can we get involved?
We’re all connected by the carbon cycle. Some, at all latitudes and longitudes, will have the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the carbon cycle, and start removing more greenhouse gases than they emit sooner than others.
Check out our links page for more initiatives and resources [click here].
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