Has the Carbontech Revolution Begun?


Last time investors started pouring billions of dollars into young, climate-oriented technologies, things didn’t go that well. The few big hits from the early 2000s – Tesla, for example – were offset by a plethora of green investments that were either uncompetitive in price or failed to reach technological maturity. But all of the green investors I’ve spoken to seem to have concluded that there are enough differences between the world of today and the early 2000s, not just in technology, but also in the urgency and politics to to propose different results this time. Two decades ago, climate change had not caused the floods, fires and heat waves that give us terrifying prospects of the future today. Steady growth in renewable energy technologies like wind and solar had not yet shown that they could compete with fossil fuels. And a number of new climate-friendly regulations in states like California hadn’t expanded the market for low-carbon products. According to the International Energy Agency, global investment in low-carbon energy is around $ 600 billion annually. And the money comes not only from venture capital firms like Breakthrough Energy Ventures, but also from private investors in family foundations and companies like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock, whose CEO Larry Fink has become an evangelist for the green economy. “The climate change,” Fink recently announced, “offers a historic investment opportunity.”

How Carbontech will fit into a green economy of the future seems harder to predict. Companies like Microsoft and Stripe, a payment technology company, have already decided to pour millions into carbon recovery companies and other carbon-eliminating efforts. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Officer, told me that he believes a recycle market is not only necessary but also makes sense, especially because we view carbon as a waste product. One man’s trash can always be someone else’s treasure, he notes. “Carbon is the building block of life. I mean, if we can’t do anything meaningful with it, well, you’ll be ashamed of us. ”

In order to make such a transformation possible, however, a lot has to happen – essentially an entire CO2 “value chain” has to be created in order to supply carbon tech companies with clean energy and raw materials and also to create markets for their goods. At the same time, a rigorous CO2 accounting system and external audits would have to gain a foothold in order to show the environmental impact of these products. As scary as it all sounds, assuming the world continues to consume carbon products, their use could offer something new and traditional: an alternative “path” for CO2 emissions that gives us better chances of a liveable climate. Burying most of these emissions deep underground would undoubtedly be necessary and would bring us tremendous environmental benefits. Embedding them in products could meanwhile also lead to broad economic benefits.

In the long run, too, Carbontech could prove to be good business for some companies. Interface sees its negative carbon tile as a way to serve a range of increasingly motivated government agencies and corporations. Amazon, Apple, and FedEx are now committed to being carbon neutral at some point, and others (like Microsoft) are committed to being carbon negative. As companies continue to define what sustainability means, Meezan told me, “They are faced with the realization that what they are doing about the climate is not appropriate.” And when that moment comes, she prophesied, they will have to wonder : What comes after the net zero carbon content?

Interface is already available, which is advantageous both as a provider and as a role model. “Who really cares if this tiny carpet company makes something like this tile?” Meezan told me rhetorically. “We do,” she replied, referring to the 3,800 employees who work in her company. And because the product was the first step towards a bigger goal – the entire company should be carbon negative by 2040 – she saw it as a way to show others that the carbon problem is not impossible to solve. “If a company like ours is able to become carbon negative,” she added, “then you can be optimistic about what that means for Starbucks or The Gap or other companies.” Environment achieved, she told me – furniture companies, building materials manufacturers and the like, all of which must meet standards for greener buildings. She didn’t get the impression that this would change the world immediately. But what would happen, she wondered, if everyone in the post-pandemic economy started thinking negatively too?

Christopher Payne is a photographer specializing in architecture and American industry. He has documented numerous industrial processes for the magazine, including one of America’s last pencil factories, the Martin Guitars factory, and the Times’ own print shop. Jon Gertner is the author of “The Ice at World’s End”. He frequently writes about science and technology for the magazine.