Meet the former Tesla boss who wants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Meet the former Tesla boss who wants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Microsoft, Stripe, Shopify, H&M – hell, even Coldplay – are some of the big-name clients that pay Swiss company Climeworks to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Climeworks became the first company to market the service, using its new “direct air capture” technology, in 2017.

There are still protests from some environmentalists about this strategy to deal with climate change. They prefer these brands to stop polluting. Unfortunately, this is not happening fast enough to prevent global temperatures from rising. And the demand is growing for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that is building up in our atmosphere.

“There is a growing need for ways to clean up all the carbon dioxide pollution that accumulates in our atmosphere.”

Climeworks operates what is currently the largest live air capture facility in the world. And it plans to expand massively. That’s a big job for former Tesla chief Douglas Chan, whom Climeworks recently brought on board as its chief operating officer. Until spoke to Chan about what’s next for the company and what the decarbonisation industry can learn from electric vehicles.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You had a big role at Tesla before joining Climeworks – why go into decarbonisation after EVs? Do you see decarbonization as complementary to what Tesla does?

I loved Tesla as a place, the people I worked with. At Climeworks, people are highly driven and equally driven. The challenge ahead is, like, what makes me happy. It’s such a young industry that it doesn’t exist yet. We have this opportunity to really build it, create it. If we do our jobs well, which I am sure we will, we will make a big impact.

There are all parts of the pie. There is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Then there is its removal. I mean, everyone is participating in this whole ecosystem to get us to the climate change goals.

Since direct air capture is a relatively new industry, are there any similarities to the early days of EVs or even solar panels that you see?

It’s the same as any new technology in my mind. It is something that needs to be added, built and grown. All these industries face similar challenges in gaining acceptance and scaling up the industry. That, to me, is a really fun and exciting challenge, isn’t it? How can we go about doing this?

Douglas Chan, Climeworks director of operations.
Photo: Climeworks

What did you do at Tesla? And how does that compare to your role now at Climeworks?

You work on everything at Tesla. It’s one of the fun things about it. And it’s similar to what we’re doing now.

The car manufacturing process has several manufacturing divisions and I was in one of them. I led the delivery of parts of these manufacturing facilities in each country as Tesla grew.

So, in terms of relevance, it’s similar to what we’re trying to do at Climeworks. We are trying to build more factories and increase our operations worldwide as well. And do it very quickly.

After helping scale up global operations at Tesla, are there any lessons you bring to Climeworks?

How you work with different cultures at scale is important. It’s gentle but important, isn’t it? To get something done quickly, we need to work with people in those countries to get it done. How do we build these networks, these supplier and vendor relationships and the supply chain in each of these areas? This will be the same challenge we have here at Climeworks.

Is there anything unique or different about decarbonization in terms of how you market this new technology?

Yes, this is something I thought about before. Why is it so much harder to sell carbon dioxide removal as a service than it is for Tesla to sell a car?

I mean, it doesn’t look like it, right? It would be really cool if it was like, you know, a color in the sky, and the better we make it, the lighter the color, or it goes from red to green or something. But they are intangible. You can’t lay your hand on it right away. So, for me, it’s a challenge. How do we solve this as Climeworks? The fact that we are very strong in monitoring, reporting and verification. It’s a different challenge that way.

For someone who doesn’t know how to catch air directly at least, how would you explain it?

“That’s how I described it to friends and family when they asked me: high-end air conditioning.”

Quite simply, it’s how an air conditioner cools your home. But an air conditioner removes CO2 from the air. You absorb CO2 and what comes out is CO2 free. And we store CO2 permanently. That’s how I described it to friends and family when they asked me: a lovely conditioner.

Climeworks says it wants to increase its carbon removal capacity to a gigaton level by 2050. a big jump considering that all DAC plants in the world today can only capture 0.01 million tons of CO2. The largest Climeworks plant is still under construction, Mammals, can capture 36,000 tons of CO2 per year. What will it take to scale up to reach your gigaton goal? What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?

The level we seek to raise is not an impossible dream. There are parallels that can be drawn with the scale of renewable energy, which is very similar in terms of how we are trying to grow as an industry as well. One of the things I’m really focusing on this year is preparing to have a flexible formula as we move forward.

If we look at how the industry grows, this concept of hubs will emerge. As much as I want to say, hey, Climeworks is going to be one and we’re going to solve all the world’s problems – there are a lot of players in the carbon dioxide removal industry. What hubs provide is basically a network where multiple air handling companies can directly feed a network of ducts. There are all these pipeline companies setting up in America. They will start building carbon dioxide pipes. It will make transportation more accessible and more efficient.

Other carbon removal companies are open to working with oil and gas – like western oil company and Carbon Engineering, working together to build Installation of DAC in Texas. And part of the carbon they capture will be used internally improve oil recovery producing what Occidental calls “zero liquid fuel”. Is this something Climeworks would consider doing?

If you look at my background, I came from oil and gas a long time ago. But we don’t do that now, nor do we see ourselves doing that in terms of offering direct air capture technology for enhanced fuel recovery. It’s kind of the opposite of what we’re trying to do. So it’s definitely not within our kind of commercial map or even our partnership map.

But one thing we will not ignore is that oil and gas companies have a lot of storage experience. They know where these reservoirs and wells are. So, as we seek to explore these high-quality CO2 storage sites, there are insights to be gained.

What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of decarbonisation?

Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify are among Climeworks’ early customers. What role do you see Big Tech playing in the development of decarbonisation?

I can answer this in two ways – many of these technology companies have put in place strong science-based targeted initiatives for zero CO2 emissions, so I think they support the industry from a consumer perspective. But there are probably many of these technology companies as well, which will have products that can help feed the supply chain – software companies, but also hardware companies.

I hear from experts that carbon sequestration should play a minor role compared to switching to clean energy to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But we’re starting to see decarbonisation becoming a modern way for different brands to address their emissions. How can you increase this technology without allowing it to become a way for companies to avoid reducing their CO2 emissions?

Very aware, I think we hear this a lot in the hallways…. greenwashing is something that I think is a matter of justice. How do we avoid this? Honestly, I don’t have much of an answer for you.

The challenge for Climeworks, as well as the industry, is something that, to me, is very exciting. I am very happy to be a part of solving this problem, creating an industry and making everything accessible to everyone.