Some Top Funders Back a Controversial Way to Fight Climate Change

photo: Kodda/shutterstock

photo: Kodda/shutterstock

The promise of trapping carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-related energy production and industrial processes, or even sucking it right out of the air, is a potent concept—one that inspires both unlikely supporters and controversy in climate action circles. 

Consider, for example, tax credit legislation for certain forms of carbon capture and storage (CCS) that passed in February with support from diametrically opposed Republicans and Democrats, while also driving a wedge between environmental groups.

This is a dicey subject, and the technology is yet unproven as an effective, or cost-effective, large-scale climate solution. That may be why climate philanthropy has mostly steered clear. The issue does, however, have a growing group of supportive foundations, which includes two of the biggest and most influential green funders in the country. 

With backing from Hewlett, MacArthur, the Energy Foundation, and others, some of which are newcomers to the issue, proponents of carbon capture and storage are following up on their legislative win with a suite of newly announced initiatives. That, combined with new research that drew a lot of media attention, suggest that carbon capture is having something of a moment, and philanthropy has at least a toe in the water.

Related: Skewed Priorities? How Philanthropy Has Shaped Debates Over Climate Change

“Most long-term climate models assume carbon capture at scale in the industry and power sectors—which means we need carbon removal in order to achieve the goal of keeping global average temperature rise below two degrees,” Matt Baker, program officer at the Hewlett Foundation, told Inside Philanthropy

Carbon capture and storage is actually a pretty broad term used to describe a range of technologies aiming to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it elsewhere. Some of them have been around for decades, used on a limited basis. As a competitive and significant way to mitigate climate change, CCS has failed to take off, and it will never be a silver bullet. But for Hewlett—the biggest climate and energy funder in the country—support is about keeping solutions on the table, and the way the philanthropic sector might help nascent technologies reach their potential. 

“We think philanthropy has a catalytic role to play in advancing carbon capture, and we have been supportive of other foundations who want to move into this area,” Baker said. 

One of the major grantees working on the issue is the North Dakota-based Great Plains Institute, which Hewlett’s backed with general support since 2013, and which MacArthur began funding in 2017. The Linden Trust for Conservation, the Energy Foundation, and the Spitzer Charitable Trust are additional funders, along with corporate sponsors. 

Great Plains Institute and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions jointly convened and staffed the Carbon Capture Coalition, which pushed for the tax credit expansion for carbon capture projects. The coalition has members from the fossil fuel industry (Shell), labor (AFL-CIO), environmental groups (Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society just joined), and other stakeholders.

In June, at a CCS conference in Wyoming, three new initiatives were announced with support from Great Plains, including a leadership council within the Carbon Capture Coalition that includes Hewlett’s Environment Program Director Jonathan Pershing, and a new coalition of state governors. 

“I think there’s, behind the scenes, a growing recognition that we’re not meeting our climate goals and we need a more robust set of strategies if we are to do so,” Great Plains Institute’s Brad Crabtree told Inside Philanthropy about CCS's support. 

So proponents are feeling the love after the win in Congress. But due to many of the same reasons it draws support, carbon capture is a tough topic at the dinner table for the environmental community. 

There’s a pretty good breakdown on the split here, but opponents argue that carbon capture doesn’t work, that it’s not cost-effective, and that it’s unclear whether large-scale carbon storage is possible without leakage or other risks. There’s also the argument that by encouraging carbon capture, we’re giving a green light for profit-driven coal, oil, and gas industries to charge ahead, when our efforts should instead be focused on stopping the extraction and burning of these fossil fuels. Several opponents of one of the expanded tax credits, for carbon capture coupled with “enhanced oil recovery,” called it a $2.8 billion annual subsidy for the oil industry. 

While some are supportive, there’s a spectrum of uneasiness with carbon capture among environmental groups, with Greenpeace firmly opposed: “[C]oal, oil and gas companies claim they can make fossil fuels climate-friendly by burying emissions underground. They are betting their future (and our climate’s) on carbon capture and storage (CCS), an unproven, risky and expensive technology.”

For those in favor, or at least open to exploring, carbon capture and storage, it’s a matter of pragmatism. We’re running out of time, they say, and it’s true that most U.N. climate models for keeping the global average temperature rise within two degrees include significant removal of carbon from the atmosphere. For supporters, removing, not just reducing CO2 emissions is something we have got to figure out. They also point out that by not opposing fossil fuel use, there’s opportunity for engaging rare bipartisan action. 

But you can see why environmental funders and NGOs would shy away from getting involved. And those that do support CCS have a fine line to walk, wary of emboldening fossil fuel extraction. MacArthur, in explaining its support for CCS, pointed out that we need to be careful about how the technology is viewed. 

“We see carbon capture as part of the solution set that needs to be explored, but must caution that carbon capture technology is not an alternative to steep emissions reductions,” said Mijo Vodopic, senior program officer for climate solutions at MacArthur. He added: 

The development and deployment of carbon capture technology in no way diminishes the need for investing and supporting other promising efforts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including renewable energy deployment, sustainable land use, and more efficient transportation, among others.