Starting today, US businesses that process payments through the online payments platform Stripe will be able to give a portion of their revenue from each sale to projects that remove planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Stripe won’t earn anything from the new service. The move is designed to boost carbon capture technologies and comes a little more than a year after the company made a commitment to spend $1 million a year to support the emerging industry.
For now, Stripe’s customers will be able to contribute to the same four projects that Stripe decided to support earlier this year. That includes a project that traps carbon dioxide in concrete, another that pulls it from the air and then buries it in basaltic rock formations, a third that buries the carbon in the form of bio-oil, and a final project that tries to boost the ocean’s natural ability to store carbon dioxide.
All of those initiatives are in relatively early stages of development. The technologies are still expensive to deploy and might not have the capacity yet to meet the demand that could come from Stripe’s expansive list of customers, which includes heavyweights like Amazon, Salesforce, Uber, and Slack. But Stripe believes that by drumming up demand for carbon removal, it will help nascent carbon capture technologies advance more quickly.
Stripe alone isn’t able to fund the kind of technological jump necessary to get carbon removal technologies up to speed, said Nan Ransohoff, Stripe’s head of climate initiatives. “What if we could make it easy for all of Stripe’s users to make similar contributions?”
The high price tag that accompanies every ton of captured carbon is one of the biggest critiques the technologies face as potential solutions to climate change. The most expensive project Stripe supports is the one that takes carbon dioxide out of the air and sticks it into underground rock formations, which costs the company $775 per ton of carbon dioxide. The startup behind the initiative, Climeworks, built the first large commercial carbon capture plant in 2017, and it told The New York Times it hoped to bring the price of carbon closer to $100 per ton. (That’s compared to the just $8 a ton Stripe used to spend on purchasing more traditional carbon offsets, projects that invest in renewable energy or preserving and restoring forests.)
The cheapest carbon removal strategy Stripe currently pays for is also potentially its riskiest. It paid $75 per ton of carbon dioxide to support nonprofit Project Vesta’s work to bring the mineral olivine to beaches. As waves naturally break down the olivine, a chemical reaction takes place that captures CO2 from the air and ultimately stores it in limestone on the ocean floor. “Questions remain about safety and viability,” Stripe wrote when it announced that it purchased captured carbon from Project Vesta. “More lab experiments and pilot beach projects must be performed.”
Carbon capture schemes in general are still controversial, even though the United Nations panel of climate scientists has included them in potential pathways to meeting the world’s major climate goals. The technology still needs to prove itself and the price per ton of carbon dioxide will need to come way down for the sector to grow to the scale of the problem it’s addressing. Those uncertainties haven’t stopped companies like Stripe, Microsoft, and BP banking on carbon removal as a way to cancel out their greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of Stripe’s first million dollars devoted to carbon capture removal went toward pre-purchased tons of carbon dioxide — carbon that the projects plan to capture over the next few years when they have more capacity. If the projects flop, the carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and Stripe doesn’t get its money back, but it’s okay with taking that risk.
“Some of these [projects] will fail, and we are comfortable with that because we have chosen to solidify this thesis around early purchasing in order to help these new tech technologies get down the cost curve,” Ransohoff says. “That is inherently riskier than some of the other paths that we could have taken, but we believe someone needs to do it.”