Why look to remove GHGs from the atmosphere?
As explained in this paper by McGlashan et al. from Imperial College London:
“Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a persistent atmospheric gas, and it seems increasingly likely that concentrations of CO2 and other Greenhouse Gases in the atmosphere will overshoot the 450 ppm CO2e target, widely seen as the upper limit of concentrations consistent with limiting the increase in global mean temperature from pre-industrial levels to around 2°C…
“Limiting cumulative CO2 emissions [and others GHGs] is therefore key to limiting the scale of human-induced climate change, and its impact on human wellbeing and the natural world. Hence, in the future, it may become necessary to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. By capturing CO2 from the air (directly or indirectly), historical CO2 emissions can be sequestered and the aggregate amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reduced, and if necessary, any modest overshoot can be rectified”.
Is taking greenhouse gases out of the air just an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels?
Let’s be clear. Here at the Virgin Earth Challenge no-one is advocating removing greenhouse gases as an excuse for ‘business as usual’ where we keep burning fossil fuels or promote the unsustainable development of our societies and economies.
The scientific community continue to tell us that the impacts of global warming are going to bite harder and sooner than previously thought, and that collectively we humans are still not responding to this challenge quickly enough.
We’re big fans of wind turbines, renewables in general, as well as efficiency and more sustainable forms of agriculture and forestry. However, given the urgent need to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the huge amount of work the world still has to do in order to achieve that, we think that incentivising the development of sustainable ways of removing greenhouse gases is probably a good thing to do as well.
Hence the Virgin Earth Challenge.
Is the Virgin Earth Challenge a geo-engineering incentive?
No. It’s a greenhouse gas removal incentive.
We generally agree with the view that the catch-all term ‘geo-engineering’ is too broad and not specific enough to discuss greenhouse-gas removal. We’ve certainly observed that it’s not specific enough to have useful debates with respect to each proposed GHG-removal approach.
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 GHGs from the atmosphere.
VEC is only interested in ways of removing GHGs from the atmosphere. Even some proposals in this category were found to be beyond our scope.
At the Virgin Earth Challenge we are unashamedly aiming high. We want the prize to go to an approach that can materially help avoid dangerous climate change. But at the same time, our criteria do all they can to ensure that the prize will go to solutions that work in concert with 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. In particular, this paper on why the term geo-engineering should be broken down, and what the context of approaches including GHG-removal might be as responses to dangerous climate change, is a good read.
Does the Virgin Earth Challenge look at other greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide?
Sir Richard Branson and the other five judges set up the prize as an incentive for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Despite being at the top of the greenhouse gas most wanted list, CO2 is not the only culprit.
CO2 remains the biggest fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, and still has by far the biggest impact on global warming (and ocean acidification). CO2‘s atmospheric chemistry also makes the removal of it more straightforward than some of the other greenhouse gases, whose chemical properties are different and whose concentrations are even lower.
Are there GHG-removal approaches not represented on your shortlist?
VEC has an agnostic stance when it comes to sustainable GHG-removal technologies; if it’s a potentially scalable and sustainable way of removing greenhouse gases from the air, we could be interested.
In reality however, ways of taking carbon out of the air differ very greatly from one another.
Depending on your point of view, it is sometimes useful to put technologies into broad categories, but they should all be treated on a case-by-case basis. That is as true of VEC’s finalists as it is with other approaches to carbon-removal that didn’t make our shortlist.
So, better management of mangroves or the restoration of peat bogs that look to restore and protect natural environments might be regarded almost as no-brainers regardless of their overall scale potential or commercial viability. Other approaches such as fertilising the ocean with iron filings are more direct, artificial interferences with big natural systems, and raise concerns and uncertainties over whether they actually work, what their impacts are to the ecosystems they operate within, how they could be monitored and verified, and people are (rightly) looking to research them carefully and ensure marine governance regimes take it into account.
See our links page for some reports that discuss the different areas and their contexts at greater length.
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.
The whole reason the planet is warming and the oceans are becoming more acidic is because of all the greenhouse gases society is continuing to put into the atmosphere. It might be a small amount of global cycles like the carbon cycle, but it’s more than big enough to materially increase the existing greenhouse effect, and to change the pH of the oceans.
In total, it’s estimated that society has emitted the equivalent of over half a trillion tonnes of carbon since the industrial revolution – and these emissions are continuing to go up. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, such as levels of 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. 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‘. So we think that sustainable ways of removing GHGs from the atmosphere should be given a serious looking into.
What is the right name for 'removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere'?
Depending on your organisation or school of thought you might refer to the notion of removing greenhouse gases from the air as:
- Carbon Cleanup
- Carbon Dioxide Removal (“CDR”)
- Carbon Drawdown
- Carbon Geo-engineering
- Carbon Removal
- Carbon Sequestration
- Greenhouse Gas Removal (“GHG removal”)
- Negative Abatement
- Negative Emissions Technologies (“NETs”)
At the Virgin Earth Challenge we tend to use Greenhouse Gas Removal (“GGR“).
How can I enter the competition?
We had over 10,000 applications and 2,600 formal proposals. And since 2007 we’ve painstakingly whittled that down to 11 diverse and truly inspiring finalists.
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 [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 serious work going on out there. Someone is going to win the prize. But our criteria are demanding… and so it’s hard to say exactly when…
Just to get this far is an incredible achievement and each of our finalists have a strong chance of winning. All are moving forward, working to prove they can unequivocally deliver negative-emissions at a grand scale in the real world.
This site (especially the news section) and 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 finalists so much, why don’t you invest in them?
We are 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.
My solution doesn’t remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere but it cuts emissions in the first place. Why can’t I enter?
We totally appreciate your perspective, but that isn’t the scope of the Virgin Earth Challenge.
Check out our links page for any initiatives you might be able to get involved with.
I entered the Virgin Earth Challenge competition and never heard anything back. What happened?
Despite having so many thousands of entries, we endeavoured to give every single one a bespoke reply; letting you know what happened and suggesting ways to further your efforts to help people and the planet.
Every single submission we received was looked at and thoroughly reviewed based on the evidence given. Nonetheless, there were several staff changes over the years at the Virgin Earth Challenge and it might be the case that some entries never received formal correspondence from us, notifying them that their enquiry had been unsuccessful. We’re really, really sorry if you never heard anything back from us.
I signed up to your Terms and Conditions but no longer want to be bound by them, what can I do?
The rules of the Virgin Earth Challenge [click here] are designed to protect you and us. We do not generally offer to terminate these Terms and Conditions (“Ts&Cs”).
However, we would like to further emphasise the assurances given in the Ts&Cs; explicitly, that we will keep all details of your entry confidential, that Virgin will never use your entry to further its own interests or copy your work and that you continue to own all rights in and to your 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 your organisation.
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