Silicon Valley is starting to work on a “Plan B” to fight climate change

Tech for good.
Tech for good.
Image: Vlad Omer for Y Combinator
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Y Combinator is a Silicon Valley darling. The startup accelerator has invested in companies with a combined valuation of more than $100 billion. Though it began its life funding software companies, it has more recently invested in hard tech—the types of technologies that deal with difficult scientific problems, such as artificial intelligence and nuclear fusion. Its latest “request for startups” (RFS) takes it further down that path, with a focus on climate change.

The accelerator set out a call yesterday (Oct. 23) for startups that help remove carbon dioxide from the air. The website explains the challenge of fighting climate change along with primers on the main negative-emissions technologies. ”It’s the most elaborate RFS we have put out,” said Sam Altman, Y Combinator’s president.

Though Y Combinator began thinking about this RFS more than a year ago, its timing coincides with the dire UN report published earlier this month. The report warned that the world would be tens of trillions of dollars better off if it succeeded in capping global warming to a 1.5°C rise in temperatures compared to the average temperature during the pre-industrial period, rather than 2°C.

To do that, however, the UN said that we will need to deploy negative-emissions technologies at large scale, perhaps capturing 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2050, which would be about 25% of what we emit today each year. Many of these technologies already exist, but scaling them up will require nothing short of a war effort. It’s like building the equivalent of an oil and gas industry, which took 150 years to scale up, in a third of the time.

That’s the kind of high-risk, high-reward challenge that appeals to Silicon Valley’s idealism. Y Combinator has chosen four “frontier technologies” it would be “excited to fund.” They are:

  • Ocean phytoplankton: Using genetically engineered microbes that can supercharge their natural ability to absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide to grow.
  • Electro-geochemistry: Using electricity to enhance the natural rate at which certain types of minerals absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Cell-free systems: Modifying naturally existing enzymes outside living cells to capture carbon dioxide.
  • Desert flooding: Adding huge amounts of water to deserts to convert into small lakes with phytoplankton and perhaps into cultivable land.

“While these approaches are not our Plan A,” reads the RFS, referring to existing emissions-reducing technologies, “we think it’s time to get Plan B ready.”

Typically, Y Combinator acquires 7% of equity in return for an investment of $150,000 when a company joins its startup class. Altman says that there is no set limit on how many startups it will fund in this round, or how long the request for startups on carbon removal might remain open for.

The accelerator admits that these “ideas press on the limits of what’s possible.” That’s why it is “open to funding companies as well as non-profit research.” In the past it has invested in research on universal healthcare and the development of friendly artificial intelligence. It is also currently running an experiment in the Bay Area testing a universal basic income.

“It’s great to see investors open to ‘outside the box’ ideas,” said Noah Deich, director of non-profit Carbon 180, which promotes the development of carbon-removal technologies. “But I am worried about applying the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ to technologies that can disrupt ecosystems.”

Later today (Oct. 24) the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine will issue a report on what governments and corporations can do to make carbon-removal technologies a reality. The remit of the report is to look at technologies that exist, rather than those that Y Combinator classes as frontier technologies. But in a world that’s quickly running out of time to fight climate change, all ideas are welcome.