In the dystopian sci-fi film Snowpiercer, scientists attempting to reverse climate change inject a substance into the atmosphere. It’s intended to blunt the sun’s rays, reducing temperatures and wild weather events on Earth.
But the tech backfires and Earth freezes over. Eventually, everyone on the planet dies, except for those on the eponymous Snowpiercer, a futuristic train that circles the globe continually.
The Snowpiercer effect is what’s known as “geo-engineering” and it’s a last resort when it comes to stopping the ravages of climate change.
Fortunately, the planet hasn’t quite reached that point.
Instead, various startups have proposed or are developing technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere, analyzing the carbon remaining in the air, expanding the application of carbon credits, and turning any reclaimed carbon into useful products from plastics to sustainable aviation fuel.
Moving the needle
Can technology really move the needle on climate change?
If the goal was once limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, that ship has long since sailed.
We won’t get back to that point, Prof. Yoav Yair, dean of the School of Sustainability at Reichman University, tells ISRAEL21c.
“We’ll have to wait until the next Ice Age for the earth to cool. In the meantime, we need to flatten the curve of temperature rise. Stopping at 1.5 degrees is not in the cards. Two-and-a-half degrees could still happen, though.”
“Curbing global warming so that it doesn’t pass the 1.5-degree mark will take a monumental, global effort the likes of which has never taken place in the history of the planet,” states Dan Deviri, CEO of CarbonBlue, an Israeli startup developing a carbon removal technology for the oceans.
“We’re optimists, and we think it can be done, but we’re not delusional.”
Deviri explains that, while “scientifically speaking it should be possible to at least slow down this runaway train, it will require our entire economy and way of life to become carbon negative rather than just carbon neutral. This will make our current decarbonization efforts seem like child’s play.”
The carbon removal imperative
Most of the energy and investment concerning climate change revolves around transitioning energy production from polluting gas and coal to renewables and to technologies that generate fewer emissions — electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, ammonia-powered tractors.
“The world is trying to remove about 10 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions already out there in the atmosphere,” notes Yael Weisz Zilberman, ClimateTech Sector Lead at Start-Up Nation Central, a non-profit organization that connects global players to Israeli innovation.
“Even if we manage to clean up transportation and electricity, and transform agriculture and industrial processes, there will still be a significant amount of annual carbon emissions in the atmosphere,” Zilberman tells ISRAEL21c.
“Therefore, carbon removal is an imperative. The basic strategy is that around 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere should be removed through nature-based solutions and the other 50% by engineered solutions.”
According to Pitchbook, carbon-capture startups globally received $882 million in VC funding in the second half of 2022, although the vast majority of that funding — some $634 million — went to a single firm, Swiss-based Climeworks.
But even a well-funded company like Climeworks is staring down a daunting challenge: The total amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere every year is 50 gigatons.
“We’re not even scratching the problem with our present-day tech or present-day capacity,” says Yair.
“It’s definitely going to get worse before it gets better,” GigaBlue cofounder Ori Shaashua predicts.
“There are high concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere that need to get sequestered and that’s going to take time. Simply stopping further emissions [for example, switching en masse to electric vehicles] is not sufficient. We must actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to restore temperatures to pre-industrial levels.”
Theoretically, average temperatures could go down if we remove some of the 4,000 gigatons of emissions we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, says Yehuda Borenstein, a serial entrepreneur who has backed Israeli climate-tech startups such as Carbonade and RepAir.
Small but significant
Israel is part of that “we.”
The Start-Up Nation Central Finder database lists over 900 startups focusing on climate-tech and 70 of those are in the subsection of carbon-tech.
Twenty are in carbon capture, utilization and storage, while the other 50 offer carbon analytics services such as monitoring the effectiveness of carbon-removal efforts. Some 69% of the companies in this subsector are less than three years old.
“This is one of the youngest subsections of climate tech in Israel,” Zilberman notes. “Its growth is driven by the urgency of the global narrative that only hit the news in the last few years, accompanied by more robust regulation, increasing government and corporate decarbonization commitments, consumer demand and vibrant carbon markets.”
In the first half of 2023, carbon-tech companies in Israel raised $162 million. Investments in Israeli climate-tech grew between 2018 and the first half of 2022 by 340%. That’s 2.6 times faster than global investment growth. It’s still far below overall Israeli investment, which reached $1.47 billion in the first half of 2022.
“Climate-tech has shown relative resilience,” Zilberman notes. “In the first half of 2023, the climate sector was one of the few in Israel, together with cybersecurity, that demonstrated resilience in private funding, maintaining performance levels compared to the previous six months.”
However, says Yuri Tsitrinbaum, cofounder of Israeli climate-tech startup Bomvento, “There are definitely not enough funding mechanisms for early stage, deep-tech carbon removal technologies. Although climate-technology investments have been relatively more resilient compared to other sectors, there has been a further shift in investors’ risk appetite.
Securing financing has become more challenging compared to the conditions 18 months ago.”
Yet there’s a potential silver lining.
“With funds not being as available as they might have once been, we are forced to be lean, effective and efficient, alongside the rest of the climate-tech community. This has created a very competitive — but friendly — entrepreneurial community and has really forced all of us to bring our ‘A’ game to everything we do,” Deviri says.
Don’t work against nature
But that doesn’t mean a Snowpiercer geo-engineering move is wise.
The effects of technological and industrial strides of the 20th century have taught us to “respect the intricacies of natural systems, striving to work in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it,” says Eli Cohen, CEO of Ayala Water & Ecology.
A case in point: In the 1950s, Israel drained the Hula Valley swamp — not so much to control malaria, as legend has it, because malaria was already under control in Israel by then, but to create farmlands.
Forty years later, ecologists understood that the ecological health of the area needed those wetlands right where they’d always been, and part of the lake was reflooded.
Plants to the rescue?
Nature does have its limits, though.
Plants suck up carbon through the process of photosynthesis, “breathing” in CO2 and “exhaling” the oxygen humans need to survive. So, why not simply plant more to ameliorate climate change?
That’s the idea behind bio-energy carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS).
In 1978, the Chinese government launched a BECSS-type project to plant a “great green wall” of billions of trees. The trial failed.
The problem: Plants are generally limited by available fertile land and are prone to pathogens, fires and droughts. And if left alone, plants are eaten by other organisms that release the carbon back into the atmosphere in a matter of months. When a tree rots or dies and must be cut down, this expels carbon, too.
“Planting trees is the obvious natural carbon-removal solution,” explains Zilberman, “but to work at scale, we require considerable amounts of land, and one must ask how much carbon can be absorbed by a tree, and for how long before the emissions go back into the atmosphere due to decay, deforestation or fires.”
Israeli climate-tech startups including CarbonBlue, GigaBlue and Rewind focus on using plants to sequester carbon in a location less prone to disaster: the ocean.
Rewind CEO Ram Amar estimates that, if scaled up, Rewind’s methodology — which proposes to use the Black Sea as a massive carbon sink — could remove a billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year.
If carbon removal is the real gamechanger in climate-tech, are carbon offsets still necessary? Or are they only greenwashing away the bigger problems we face?
“Carbon offsets are not just necessary but a critical part of the overall solution,” CarbonBlue’s Deviri tells ISRAEL21c.
“Even if we were to cut all possible emissions down to zero today, we would still be left with a yearly carbon deficit of five to 16 billion tons if we want to stay under 1.5 degrees of global warming. Carbon offsetting is the only means we have to deal with that deficit.”
“Carbon offset credits play a valuable role in carbon reduction efforts. While they’re not a standalone solution, they complement broader strategies for reducing emissions. Carbon offset projects help with the types of emissions that are challenging to eliminate entirely.”
Ayala CEO Cohen tells ISRAEL21c, however, that “In a world driven by profit, where investors’ only real factor in decision-making is the bottom line, there is a real danger of greenwashing. Measures must be taken to ensure carbon credits are not used to cover up harmful activity and that their use isn’t causing a delay in transitioning to clean technologies and practices.”
Small but significant
Ayala’s Cohen emphasizes that restoring and rebalancing the world’s degraded ecosystems requires a fundamental change in behavior, namely reducing conscious consumption.
Leaders have to be committed to helping people change their consumption habits, and unfortunately Israel is not among countries that has modeled that successfully.
Reichman University’s Yoav Yair points out that at the 2015 Paris Accords, Israel committed to 30% renewable energy by 2030 but is now at less than 11%.
“We write elegant reports, but the fact is that none of our governments have shown much interest in alleviating climate risks to this country. We’re oblivious to what’s going on and dropped the ball.”
In addition, “We could have been the beta site for all kinds of solutions, especially so in climate-tech,” Yair tells ISRAEL21c. “We just didn’t do it.”
CarbonBlue’s Deviri adds that “local carbon legislation, regulation and taxation is negligible. Israel, as a country, is years behind, say, the US and the European Union, both in terms of policy as well as governmental support.”
But Israel is strong in terms of climate tech, Deviri says, “although we are far from where we could and ought to be.”
Tsitrinbaum notes: “If Israel were to emerge as a leader in this field, it would not only benefit the nation in terms of environmental impact but also enhance the influence and reach of the Israeli climate-tech industry on a global scale.”
This could be similar to what happened when Israel invested in desalination technology in the early 1990s, a decision that has made Israel the envy of the world in the face of widespread water scarcity.
What does Israel have going for it that could tip the scales?
“A strong culture of innovation and a heritage of out-of-the-box thinking and production of disruptive technologies, coupled with exceptionally strong academic institutions,” Deviri says.
“The carbon-removal scene is still in very early stages worldwide, and Israel has similar chances of becoming a major player in this space as other leading tech countries,” adds Zilberman.
Borenstein is optimistic.
“We’re leaving this problem to our kids to solve but I am confident they can do it. The generation that now controls the economic systems does not appreciate the damage we’re making. It’s a leadership problem. The new generation will understand.”