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What Space Billionaires Teach Us About Climate Change

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

What Space Billionaires Teach Us About Climate Change

Countering climate change is a chance to achieve the seemingly unachievable. Private industry is already rising to the 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.

Wall Street Journal | Conservation & Biodiversity

Florida’s Coral Reef Supports Fishing, Tourism, and Beaches

“Scientists like Enochs are working overtime to engineer more climate-resistant corals. They are creating booster shots to keep them alive, deploying in vitro fertilization to make larvae grow faster, and importing coral species from around the Caribbean to breed with those in Florida.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Bloomberg | Cost of Material Goods

AI Will Cut Cost of Animated Films by 90%, Jeff Katzenberg Says

“Artificial intelligence will lower the cost of creating blockbuster animated movies drastically, according to longtime industry executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. ‘I don’t know of an industry that will be more impacted than any aspect of media, entertainment, and creation,’ Katzenberg said in a panel discussion at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum on Thursday. ‘In the good old days, you might need 500 artists and years to make a world-class animated movie. I don’t think it will take 10% of that three years from now.'”

From Bloomberg.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

Atari to Xbox

Get two Xbox Series X consoles for the time price of one Atari 2600.

The Atari 2600 was introduced in 1977 and was priced at $199. Unskilled wages at the time were $3.15 an hour, so the time price was around 63 hours. Today you can pick up an Xbox Series X for $499. With unskilled wages today being around $16.50 an hour, the time price is just over 30 hours. You can buy two Xbox Series X consoles today for the time price of one Atari 2600 in 1977.

Atari 2600 home video console system next to an Xbox series X

The Atari had a chip running at 1.19 megahertz (or 1,190,000 cycles per second) and had 128 bytes of random access memory. The maximum resolution was 160×192 with 128 colors.

Combat (video game) for the Atari system, and Gears 5 (video game) for the Xbox series x

The Xbox Series X graphics chip runs at 12 teraflops, or 12 trillion floating-point operations per second. It has 16 gigabits of memory and 1 terabyte of storage and can display billions of colors on an 8K display.

The Series X can display 1,080 times more pixels in millions of more colors 10 million times faster with 125 million times more memory. In the past 46 years, computer creativity has grown exponentially abundant—just as Gordon Moore and George Gilder predicted.

A version of this article was published at Gale Winds on 10/24/2023.

Bloomberg | Science & Technology

Video Game Uses AI to Replace Deceased Voice Actor

“The voice of the late Miłogost Reczek, a popular Polish voice actor who died in 2021, was reproduced by an AI algorithm for the Polish-language release of Phantom Liberty, the new expansion to CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077. In a statement to Bloomberg, the company said it received permission from Reczek’s family to do this and that it had considered replacing him in the expansion and rerecording his lines in the original game but decided against it.”

From Bloomberg.