Local Zenia Tata heads XPrize Team for CO2 Removal

Local making a global difference looking for crazy ideas

[ By Dawne Belloise ]

There’s a direct link between climate change and pandemics like COVID-19, Mt. Crested Butte local Zenia Tata states. She explains some of the reasons, such as the melting of the polar caps, that is not only releasing a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also releasing bacteria and viruses. In the deforestation of land, which contributes to global warming, animals have nowhere to go and are coming into closer proximity with humans as their territory shrinks, allowing viruses to make the jump from animal to human.

With world hunger and poverty rampant, people are eating animals they shouldn’t, also allowing viruses to make the leap from animal to human. Research claims there’ll be more pandemics because of climate change. This is where Tata’s Carbon Dioxide Removal XPrize project comes in.

The XPrize Foundation is a global “Future-positive movement of over one million people and rising. A trusted, proven platform for impact that leverages the power of competition to catalyze innovation and accelerate a more hopeful future by incentivizing radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity,” according to their website xprize.org. According to the Foundation, the world needs crazy ideas that can come from anyone, anywhere on the planet, who have embraced the spirit of competition and winning competitors have won millions of dollars in XPrizes and helped shape a better future for all.

As chief impact officer at XPrize, Tata and her team’s role is to see the possible future and act on possible innovative solutions submitted by competitors for the XPrize. She calls it future foresight.

“We’re futurists,” she explains. “We design very futuristic prizes with technology. As futurists, what we do is look about 30 years out to the future and ask, by the year 2050, what will the state of our planet be? What will the state of our domain be? So, it could be about housing, health, or it could be our food systems, and we try to understand, what are those breakthroughs required to shift the trajectory of the future to a better, more thriving place – better for people, better for planet and better for industry and government. We call that designing a preferred future state. We do that in a meticulous way. This is a deep process based on research. There are methodologies and tools and we harness the expertise of the foremost minds and experts in the world to come up with these futures.”

Finding different ways to do things…
Based on that work, the group identifies what those breakthroughs might be. “A breakthrough is a disruption – it could be technology, policies – it could be anything that offers a divergence, a different way of doing things. From that moment on, things are different, so we identify those breakthroughs and then some of those breakthroughs become big innovation competitions. Then my team and I put the technical guidelines and parameters around these competitions.”

Tata and her team outline to the applicants how to design an innovation that changes the trajectory of water, food or housing or in this particular XPrize, CO2 removal.

“We know that by the year 2050, we’re going to need to remove 10-12 gigatons of excess CO2 on an annual basis from our atmosphere. This will help us reset Earth’s carbon cycle and balance it out again to healthy levels,” she says.

Since the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of fossil fuels, humans have been pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that acts like a warming blanket over the earth.

Tata explains, “For all the people who say it’s a natural cycle, yes, the earth has gone through super chill and warm cycles, but in three million years, we have not had so much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The reason we have this is because humans caused climate change.”

To reverse the cycle and halt climate change, Tata cites the logic of having mitigation strategies in place which allow for policies. “And also allow for funding for people to have more electrified vehicles, for example, and more renewable and efficient energy in their homes,” she says.

More than mitigation needed…
“Last year, before COVID hit, the CB town council was talking about mitigation strategies. All those mitigation strategies are just as important today as they were a year ago, but mitigation isn’t enough anymore because we have passed the tipping point,” Tata says.

Based on the International Policy Climate Change (IPCC) definitive document published in late 2019 by scientists around the world, if we do not start removing CO2 from our atmosphere at a gigaton scale, by 2030 we’re going to be in dire straights, she says.

“Climate change, or global warming, is the biggest existential threat to all of humanity and to every species on this planet. We’re living in extreme symbiosis, interconnectedness with our natural world, so this XPrize that we designed is to get a jump start now on what we need to be doing in 2030 and create a whole new industry.” There are currently private participants working on solutions but Tata points out they’re on a very small scale, “A lot of the participants are very academic, just theorizing on how we can do this better, but now it’s time to actually do it.”

However, when COVID hit, this XPrize project was set back an entire year. “All the talk about funding our carbon removal XPrize was stopped. Then in January 2021, we picked up talks again with Elon Musk, who has been on our board and in our patron circle. He’s done an XPrize with us before. We approached him and he pretty much said yes on the spot. He donated $100 million for multiple prizes to find the best, cutting edge innovations for this technology.”

The Xprize team of experts and judges will rigorously test every approach presented for CO2 removal to ensure its real world application. Tata notes there are several ways in which competitors can seek to remove carbon, “There’s ocean carbon dioxide removal, which talks about maintaining the balance of acidification in the ocean and actually removing excess carbon from the ocean. You can do this in natural systems like growing more mangroves or replanting coastal wetlands, or you can do mechanized systems. Another promising approach is mineralization, rocks, because the most amount of carbon trapped on earth is in the form of rocks, so, is there a way to trap carbon back into rock?”

There are engineered systems, or mechanized systems – big machines, that can remove CO2 directly out of the atmosphere in a process called direct air capture. But Tata states that the most prolific and natural way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere is planting trees. “Since industrialization of the past hundred years, we have removed one trillion trees on our planet. If we could plant a trillion trees, that would sequester a lot of carbon, but those trees have to remain standing, they have to be hardwoods and all over the planet, not just in one country.”

Human ingenuity needed…
Another method is a biological-based process like regenerative agriculture, which, Tata says, is the most promising of them all. “The nutrition quality of our soils is so depleted that some will tell you there’s only about 70 harvests left. Regenerative agriculture has found a way to sequester carbon into our soils to regenerate its nutrient value, which then gets translated into the nutrient value of the food we eat.” These are the lungs of our world, she says. “We have depleted them so now we need mechanized intervention. We need human ingenuity to change the equation to solve a big natural problem that we have caused. So that’s what this XPrize is about.”

Competitors will mostly be scientists, academics, engineers, and companies, big industrial or agricultural systems, or natural industries like forestry systems. “Or it can be people who want to do something and who then put something together, from garage innovators to the best and brightest minds on the planet. To win an XPrize, you don’t just have to have a good idea, you have to have a demonstrated impact, so you have to build it and demonstrate that your solution works over time in the real world. We do our research and we form teams, then we sit down and design what we call ‘moonshots for humanity,’ meaning, something that is super audacious, bold, imaginative, aspirational, inspirational, but also scientifically and engineering-wise achievable by the laws of physics,” some of which, she says, take years to develop.

She notes that this XPrize is a four-year project with its competition goal being to demonstrate a variety of approaches that can capture at least one ton of CO2 daily and can scale up to capture at a gigaton level. “We understand that we won’t be sucking gigatons of CO2 in only four years but within 10 years we will be. We’re seeding the ground for those first demonstrations and paving the way for a whole new market and a whole new industry of the near future. We’ll be releasing the guidelines for the prizes on Earth Day, April 22, 2021.”

For more info about the XPrize Foundation, its mission and projects and to sign up for updates and newsletters visit xprize.org.

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