The buzz around carbon removal is drawing jobseekers in droves

Workers say the growing urgency of the climate crisis and pursuit of a meaningful career path are big pulls.
By Maria Gallucci

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Climeworks' first "direct-air capture" plant in Switzerland can capture up to 900 metric tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere per year. (Climeworks)

When Heidi Lim decided in 2017 to leave her job at a Silicon Valley software company and work in climatetech, she didn’t search for openings at a solar-panel installer or electric-vehicle maker. Instead, Lim wanted to join a fledgling field in need of more bright minds, where she felt she could have a greater impact than in a mature industry or at a trillion-dollar firm like Tesla.

She wanted to work on carbon dioxide removal.

The broadly defined category includes initiatives to suck CO2 directly from the sky, capture the gas from industrial facilities, recycle it into concrete and tires, lock it away in underground caverns and store it in forests or soil. Many of the technological solutions are early-stage and largely unproven. Previous U.S. efforts to capture carbon from coal-fired power plants ultimately led to hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted taxpayer money.

Yet climate scientists say that — in addition to replacing fossil fuels and making deep emissions cuts — the world must also remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Lim recalled how, five years ago, wildfire smoke enshrouded her office in downtown San Francisco, a stark reminder of how warmer, drier conditions are raising the risk of blazes in California. Her mind replayed the unsettling numbers: The world pumps nearly 40 gigatons of carbon into the sky every year, and that carbon sticks around for centuries. The carbon cycle is like an overflowing bathtub with a running faucet and an impossibly slow-moving drain.

It became clearer to me that this is a massive challenge and that there aren’t enough people working on it,” she told Canary Media. I couldn’t feel fulfilled with what I was doing anymore.”

Lim quit her position at the software company in 2018 and soon landed at Twelve, a startup based in nearby Berkeley. Twelve takes waste CO2” captured from the air or industrial plants, then converts it into feedstocks for chemicals, transportation fuels and other materials. As director of product ecosystem, Lim helps develop partnerships to demonstrate and commercialize downstream uses for Twelve’s electrochemical technology. In August, for instance, the startup made its first batch of jet fuel with backing from the U.S. Air Force.

Twelve is one of more than 300 companies worldwide that are working in various ways to capture, use and store carbon, according to the Circular Carbon Network, a nonprofit industry initiative.

Together, those firms have raised more than $2.2 billion in recent years from governments, philanthropies and private investors to test ideas, pilot equipment and, in some cases, deploy technologies at commercial scale. The most prominent example is Climeworks’ Orca plant in Iceland, which began operating in September. This direct air capture” facility uses enormous fans and filters to draw up to 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year; the gas is then reacted with basaltic rock and stored permanently below ground.

Climeworks' Orca plant in Iceland became the world's largest "direct-air capture" and storage facility when it went online in September 2021. (Climeworks)

Carbon removal’s dynamism” draws job seekers

Investment in carbon removal pales in comparison to the money spent to build new wind and solar power plants worldwide — an amount analysts expected to total $371 billion in 2021. But funding for the emerging industry is still creating jobs and spurring new types of roles at startups, research institutes and larger corporations looking to join the action.

Both Apple and Facebook hired carbon-removal specialists last year to help guide the tech giants’ investments, as part of their broader sustainability programs. Stripe, the online payment processor, is seeking a head of science” to help determine which carbon-removal approaches the company should fund. Firms including Climeworks, concrete-maker CarbonCure, bio-oil” producer Charm Industrial and carbon-to-vodka maker Air Company are hiring engineers, operations managers and finance directors. Twelve has nearly four dozen positions listed online, including roles for chemists and electrolyzer experts. Consultant Na’im Merchant shared even more job openings in a recent Twitter thread.

Lim said she regularly hears from people seeking advice on carbon-removal careers; many contact her after reading her popular Medium essay on chasing a job with purpose.” She also connects with people on TikTok, where she posts about carbon removal and climate justice.

In particular, I want to help people who have historically not been part of cleantech or been able to have seats at this important table, which is womxn and people of color,” she said of her outreach. I want people to feel like, yes, [climate change] is something that’s real and can be scary, but let’s work on it together.”

Most recently, Lim joined an online panel called How to Find a Job in Carbon Removal,” during which she and other panelists fielded questions from 100 participants.

Cara Maesano, a research scientist in Paris, said she left academia and joined The Climate Map, a nonprofit focused on carbon-removal techniques, because she wanted to work on solutions, not just study the consequences of climate change. Another speaker, Omar Sadoon, left his role as a registered nurse to earn a master’s degree in climate studies. Now he’s the business development lead at Planetary Hydrogen, a Canadian startup working to reduce ocean acidification and make hydrogen in the process.

There’s a dynamism, this energy that you’re at the epicenter of something really cool and interesting,” said Jason Grillo, the Seattle-based event director for AirMiners, which organized the January 13 panel discussion. People are motivated by this notion that…they want to work on things that provide a tangible benefit to the climate.”

AirMiners hosts a chat group on the messaging app Slack with some 1,300 entrepreneurs, scientists and other people interested in carbon removal. The organization also runs a six-week launchpad” program to help early-stage startups prepare to enter the Xprize Carbon Removal competition, which aims to develop solutions for permanently removing carbon dioxide.

In a sign the space is about to get even buzzier, Elon Musk’s private foundation is funding the latest Xprize. The $100 million, five-year competition opens for registration in February.

As the industry grows, so do calls for transparency and honesty” in projects

The world will likely need to remove about 10 gigatons of CO2 every year by 2050 to achieve net-zero emissions — even with massive investments in renewable energy and other emissions-reduction methods, according to a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. That’s akin to roughly one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

Ensuring that current and future carbon-removal projects deliver those needed reductions will be no small feat.

In the case of certain methods, such as removing CO2 from oceans or sequestering it in soil, scientists are still assessing just how effective these approaches really are at permanently locking away carbon. Cars and jets that burn fuels made from waste CO2 ultimately produce greenhouse gas emissions, meaning producers will need to continuously recapture equal amounts of carbon to break even from a climate perspective.

Trees planted for carbon offsets and sequestration in Sand Martin Wood in Faugh near Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K. (Ashley Cooper/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

Many companies in this sector aren’t yet publicly releasing detailed, standardized data about how their solutions will remove and store carbon. In a 2021 report, the nonprofit CarbonPlan found that today’s private markets are not supplying the level of disclosure required to fully vet these efforts.”

CarbonPlan runs a database of some 220 carbon-removal proposals, including technology-driven solutions like direct air capture and nature-based methods involving forests, farms and microbes. Companies submitted those proposals in response to requests from Microsoft and Stripe, which are both investing heavily in breakthrough initiatives. Microsoft says it’s spending $1 billion to accelerate development of carbon-removal technologies to help it become carbon-negative” by 2030. Stripe has so far committed to pay $15 million to directly remove and securely store carbon.

Freya Chay, a program associate at CarbonPlan, said her team has updated the database four times since it launched two years ago.

It’s interesting to watch people mobilize around this sector. There’s a lot of creativity,” she said. As it builds momentum, transparency and honesty and a clear-eyed reference to the science become increasingly important.”

Lim said that, for her, the amount of carbon dioxide removed isn’t the only metric of success for a better future. What grounds me in this work is that the people who will suffer the most [from climate change] are the people who don’t have as many resources,” she said.

I believe that climate justice has to be part of the work,” she added. We need to think more about that in the broader cleantech space, but particularly now as carbon removal is young.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.