Summary: This article explores how private capital can tackle climate change by innovating in the energy sector, drawing parallels with the billionaire space race. It showcases some examples of companies developing carbon-neutral fuels and capturing carbon dioxide from the air. It argues that market-aligned action can deliver the moonshots we need to address the environmental challenge.

When Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a group of civilians into orbit on September 14, it marked the third time in four months that billionaires sent people to space largely with their own capital. Given its duration (almost three days) and its altitude (higher than the International Space Station), the recent SpaceX venture verges on “giant leap” status. Yet as when Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin carried their visionaries to the Kármán Line, the SpaceX trip around the globe has elicited as much criticism as it has admiration.

The barbs hurled at these companies often have to do with the money being sloshed around in the name of tourism. One seat on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle was auctioned off for $28 million. Bezos has invested around $10 billion in the company so far, with more on the way. Musk and Branson have run up similar tabs with their own companies. Many believe that these investments would be more impactful if directed at more material issues, like mitigating climate change. In the eyes of critics, these men have abandoned the Earth to play in the stars.

Rather than detract from their successes, maybe we should learn from their example. These space billionaires have shown that private capital can do what was once thought impossible only a century ago—send a human being into space. 

Climate change is another chance to achieve the seemingly unachievable, and private industry is already rising to the challenge.

Private dollars, public benefit

As in the billionaire space race, private entities are making great strides on energy and climate. From Silicon Valley to the Appalachian Basin, companies are engaged in a multitude of ventures that reduce atmospheric carbon while pursuing profit.

Prometheus Fuels is one such example. Prometheus removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and converts it into gasoline and jet fuel. In effect, Prometheus reverses the combustion process, generating fuels from ambient gases, water, and electricity. This results in net-zero carbon emission fuel. Boosted in 2019 by a stint in the famed Y Combinator, the Santa Cruz-based company says that once it scales, it will be able to deliver gasoline at a price of just $3 per gallon. With the national average price at $3.19 in late September, that’s a prospect that motorists and environmentalists alike will find appealing.

In aviation, Prometheus already has a deal with the supersonic airplane startup Boom. Boom, for its part, has an agreement with United Airlines for between 15 and 50 of the jets Boom plans to roll off the assembly line beginning in 2025. Should these partnerships succeed, carbon-neutral, supersonic aviation could be just over the horizon.

CNX Resources is a traditional energy outfit that is deploying advanced tech to combat emissions. Based in Western Pennsylvania, CNX is among the great success stories of the shale revolution that turned the economic tide for its region and, arguably, the entire U.S. last decade. What sets CNX apart from other natural gas companies is its recognition of the economic and environmental win-win availed by capturing methane leaks at aging or abandoned coal mining sites.

According to the company’s 2020 corporate responsibility report, it abated more than 300,000 metric tons of methane emissions by deploying proprietary technologies at coal seams and coal mines, or the equivalent of 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, last year. That is the same benefit as removing nearly 1.7 million cars from U.S. roads. Those 7.7 million tonnes of CO2e would have added directly to global greenhouse gas concentrations without providing any human benefit. Instead, CNX has turned them into affordable fuel for electricity and heating. As a result, the company has the rare distinction in its arena of claiming carbon-negative status on its Scope 1 and Scope 2 activities.

Edge is another company turning waste into profit, unlocking latent gas potential with new technology it calls the Cryobox. The Cryobox is a boxcar-sized device that connects to a wellhead, captures escaping gas, and liquefies it on the spot for transport in LNG form. 

According to Bloomberg, “Edge’s Cryobox can produce as much as 15 metric tons (10,000 gallons) a day of LNG. The rig can be moved between wells and can be up and running within an hour of arriving on site.” The technology economizes a resource that is otherwise written-off as waste in the oil and gas industry and released through a process called flaring. Global flaring emits around 275 million tonnes of CO2e annually. Like Prometheus and CNX, Edge has identified an opportunity to provide both economic and environmental value.

While it would be easy to celebrate these firms as feel-good stories, it’s important to remember that they contribute to reductions in global greenhouse gas concentrations by responding to market incentives and the allure of profit. Taking an entrepreneurial view of resource production, they convert otherwise worthless waste molecules into useful energy. In so doing, they decimate the tiresome charge that capitalism is the nemesis of environmental progress. In reality, the market disciplines companies to reduce their resource appetites and spurs creative firms like Prometheus, CNX, and Edge to provide novel solutions.

Give the people what they want

Social incentives, too, are driving private climate action.

A sterling example here is the climate project launched by the online payment processing company Stripe. The Stripe Climate Program gives its users the option to direct a fraction of their revenues to carbon removal programs. With a staff dedicated to identifying and investing those funds into worthwhile projects, Stripe makes it easy for businesses that use its platform to contribute to carbon mitigation efforts. Stripe Climate is now a visible player in the carbon removal sector, serving as an industry accelerator.

Among the enterprises Stripe Climate is funding are Climeworks and Project Vesta. Climeworks began operations in September at the world’s largest direct air capture plant in Iceland. The plant will pull CO2 from the air and deposit it deep underground, removing the equivalent of 870 cars’ emissions annually. That’s an admittedly small sum, but it demonstrates the technical viability of the process.

Project Vesta seeks to fast-track a naturally occurring sequestration process, using what it calls coastal carbon capture. The approach consists of mining olivine, spreading it along shorelines, then letting nature take its course, crushing the CO2-absorbing mineral via wave energy and washing it into the ocean.

While Prometheus, CNX, and Edge are responding to direct profit incentives, Stripe Climate is responding to the market of public opinion. Their project relies on people’s desire to commit their scarce resources to endeavors they find valuable, even if that value does not accrue to them in a monetary or excludable way. Naysayers will ridicule the as-of-yet minuscule carbon-removal totals Stripe’s partners have secured; they likely once scoffed at the idea of an online bookseller flying himself to space, too.

While federal and state governments have the capacity to achieve grand objectives, history has shown that government spending can be ineffective and wasteful. Private capital has often proven to be nimbler, responding rapidly to incentives both pecuniary and social. The billionaires’ space race is a case in point. Since NASA’s reforms in the mid-2000s that created the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, SpaceX has become the most important entity in space exploration, and Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have now joined it at the final frontier.

When discussing climate change, we often overlook the impact that private, market-aligned action can have and tend to believe government actions provide our best or even only path forward. In the end, however, it may be private capital that delivers the moonshots we’re all hoping for.