Silicon Valley, arguably one of the world’s most innovative regions, has come under criticism (paywall) for doing little to address the climate crisis. As the disaster deepens, things might be finally starting to change.
On Aug. 15, the San Francisco-based payments startup Stripe announced that it will be investing in negative-emissions technologies. The company, valued at $23 billion, already pays to offset all its greenhouse gas emissions. But starting this year, it will go further, investing at least $1 million annually to draw extra carbon dioxide from the air.
Negative-emissions technologies (NETs) have received a great deal of attention after the UN published an urgent report in October. The document looked at how much better off the world could be if it were able to keep global average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial times. To achieve that goal, the world doesn’t just need to cut emissions: It needs to capture some from the air and bury them underground.
Stripe’s plan to address the climate crisis is thoughtful. “Some of our initiatives include energy efficiency projects for Stripe’s offices, clean energy purchasing where possible, and advocating for the same from our partner companies,” a Stripe spokesperson said. “Our view is that negative emissions must not be allowed to substitute for emissions reductions.”
What emissions the company can’t reduce, it offsets—a total of 18,000 metric tons in 2017. So far, for example, Stripe can’t avoid the direct emissions from heating its offices with natural gas—so it buys offsets for them. It also pays to offset indirect emissions produced by groups and companies that support Stripe’s operations: fossil-fuel power plants supplying electricity to the company’s offices, data centers powered by dirty electricity that Stripe relies on, and its employees’ business travel.
That’s a good start, but scientists tell us that simply going carbon neutral is not going to be enough. Which is why Stripe has now committed to going carbon negative.
Negative-emissions technologies are still immature, so Stripe’s annual $1 million investment won’t be focused on the cheapest way to bury carbon. Instead, the startup is going to invest in ideas that may be expensive today but have the potential to scale.
Stripe identified three types of NETs: land management (deploying methods in agriculture and forestry that will store more carbon than current techniques), enhanced weathering (using minerals that turn carbon dioxide into stone), and direct air capture (using machines that filter carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground).
Each of those sets of technologies is at a different stage of development and suffers from different challenges to reaching scale. Land-management solutions work and can cost as little as $5 per metric ton, but nobody has figured out how to monitor whether the practice keeps that carbon tucked away for decades to come. Direct air capture can cost as much as $1,000 per metric ton, but we have reliable methods to monitor the emissions once buried deep underground.
Stripe also recognizes that its $1 million investment won’t be enough to independently scale up the technologies. That’s why, although it won’t reveal names, Stripe has reached out to other tech companies to bring more money to the table. Christian Anderson, head of merchant intelligence and author of Stripe’s negative-emissions strategy, said that he also hopes to reveal what projects and technologies $1 million will be spent on—adding a layer of accountability that doesn’t usually exist in corporate offset programs.
Unless Stripe were to somehow use its technology to directly cut emissions, the approach it has taken is probably one of the most comprehensive ways any company can fight the climate crisis. More should adopt it.