Elon Musk will give away $100 million in XPrize Carbon Removal contest

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Elon Musk. Credit: Getty Images via CBS News.

There’s a total of $100 million up for grabs from Tesla CEO Elon Musk for anyone who can combat global warming by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Musk and his XPrize Carbon Removal contest are looking for workable solutions for reducing the planet’s CO2 emissions at scale in a “durable and sustainable way.” The contest started on Earth Day and will last four years, ending on Earth Day 2025, or April 22, 2025. Everyone from high school students to startups, as well as universities, companies, individuals or community-based organizations, are welcome to apply.

“We’re looking for pragmatic solutions,” Musk said during a live talk on Periscope this week. “It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it’s gotta be something that — fundamentally — if we scaled it up, would it work? That’s it.”

The $100 million will be distributed among several contestants. More specifically:

  • $50 million will go to the first-place winner, to be determined in 4 years.
  • $30 million will be split among up to three runners up.
  • Up to 15 “Milestone Prizes” of $1 million each will be awarded to teams that have developed the most promising projects based on submissions received by the end of the first year of the competition.
  • $5 million will go to student-run contest teams in the fall of 2021.

Those who submit entries must have a fully operational system for removing CO2 at a minimum rate of a kilotonne per year, according to contest rules. The system must also prove able to maintain captured carbon for 100 years and present a pathway to scale at gigatonne levels of CO2 removal per year, the rules state.

Musk said he hopes the winning teams will help solve climate change, an issue that contest organizers are calling “the biggest threat facing humanity.”

The rate of global CO2 emissions has continued to climb despite climate scientists’ warnings for decades that higher carbon emissions from increased use of fossil fuels is a mass contributor to global warming. Globally, a total of roughly 27 billion tons of carbon was released in 2000, a figure that grew to 40 billion tons in 2019, according to the Global Carbon Project. Emissions fell 7% to 37 billion tons in 2020 as people remained indoors during the coronavirus pandemic, the project said.

“My concern with the CO2 is not where we are today, but really if carbon generation keeps accelerating,” Musk said on the Periscope talk. “If we keep going and we’re complacent, then there’s some risk of non-linear climate change.”

Climate scientists say capturing carbon, either before it enters the atmosphere or retrieving it once it does, is an impactful way to reverse the effects of climate change. Using recycled carbon has two benefits, they said: It removes the need to extract oil or gas from the ground, and it effectively captures pollutants that would otherwise seep into the air and contribute to global warming.

Capturing carbon before it ascends into the air can be done in various ways. Swiss startup Climeworks, for example, is extracting the carbon directly from the air.

Aside from Musk, rising carbon emissions has also caught the attention of some of the world’s richest people, including Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, who have invested in a Canadian startup that captures and stores carbon inside concrete.

While some companies are working to capture carbon emissions, Gates said everyone on the planet can and should play a role in lowering emissions.

“I switched to an electric car,” Gates told 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper. “I use solar panels. I’m paying a company that — actually, at a very high price — can pull a bit of carbon out of the air and stick it underground. So I’m offsetting my personal emissions.”

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