Visible Hands: Let’s Talk About Carbon Removal 💚
We spoke to Heidi Lim, the Chief of Staff at Opus 12, about carbon removal, climate policy, and environmental justice.
Hi friends -- happy new year! We had initially planned our first newsletter for last week. Given the insurrection at the Capitol last Wednesday, we pushed back our first newsletter to 1) focus on the news and 2) take a breath. We are excited to be back.
We spoke with Heidi Lim, the Chief of Staff at Opus 12, a Berkeley-based start-up that has developed an electrochemical technology to transform CO2 into valuable chemicals, materials, and fuels. Her career has spanned carbon removal, agriculture, product management, and enterprise software. Her 2018 article on carbon removal is one of the most widely read Medium posts on the topic. Heidi is a graduate of Harvard in environmental engineering, with a minor in environmental public policy. We’ve condensed and edited the interview for concision and clarity.
VH: Let’s start with carbon removal. Why are you excited about the work Opus 12 is doing?
HL: I’ll start a bit with the research I’ve done. We have what is sometimes called a “bathtub problem.” Right now, we're actually experiencing the climate effects from the past. There's a whole lot of CO2 that's already in the atmosphere and we need to deal with that.
In the absence of disincentivizing polluting, we need economic levers to make it attractive to draw out CO2. There's natural solutions, like reforestation or afforestation. But we also need carbon capture directly from the air or industrial sources, and we need reasons to do it. Since governments aren’t paying for carbon removal, we need a market for CO2. Currently, the biggest market for CO2 is enhanced oil recovery, which uses CO2 to push out the last droplets of oil. So today’s CO2 market helps the fossil fuel industry!
We're working towards an economic system that is based on CO2, rather than fossil fuels. Opus 12’s technology recycles CO2 to make chemical building blocks for materials and fuels that are typically made from fossil fuels. This has the added benefit of displacing fossil fuels in supply chains for things that we're using all the time.We're going to be making jet fuel from CO2 this year. And you’ll start seeing our materials actually go into products that you use. In 2020, we unveiled an automotive part we made with Mercedes Benz that was made from CO2.
VH: How does the public sector fit into this equation?
HL: It’s important for governments to support better policies for deployment of these solutions. For example, it could be farming policy for better sequestration of soil and stewardship of land. At Opus 12, we leverage government funding for R&D, especially where there are gaps in private funding.
We also need a price on carbon to make it more expensive for polluters to pollute. We shouldn't be encouraging them to not turn around. We’re seeing this in Europe -- their oil and gas companies can’t operate the same way as they have before because they’ll be charged a fee or be regulated differently.
VH: What is environmental and climate justice?
HL: The effects of our environments, such as water or air contamination, disproportionately affects poor and minority communities. Environmental justice is asking “how do we create a world where people are not disproportionately affected by their built environment?” Climate justice takes this in the context of climate change. Take extreme weather events. As we’ve seen in Hurricane Katrina or the drought in Syria, there are people all around the world who are experiencing climate change disproportionately.
This isn't just about “saving the planet.” I hate that term; the planet will be fine after we're gone. It's about human health, it's about equality, it's about national security. That's why everyone, no matter what field you're in, is connected to climate justice.
VH: How can companies support carbon removal and climate justice?
HL: Companies are actually saying they’ll invest billions of dollars in CO2 removal, which is phenomenal. Two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to see a big company like Microsoft make that kind of specifically worded goal. They’re using the language of carbon removal with negative emissions and looking at carbon holistically, instead of just thinking in carbon reduction terms.
But I think there’s a lot more to be done and a long way to go. And even if a company has climate or carbon goals, it doesn't mean that they have climate justice built into those goals.
Thanks Heidi for many of these suggestions!
As a consumer:
“There are so many problems related to carbon emissions and how we raise livestock. Even if you aren’t going fully vegan, it’s helpful to reduce consumption of meat and fish, and generally be mindful of what you put in your body,” says Heidi.
Fun fact, Heidi has been actively trying out different meatless proteins so we asked for her recs. She mentioned being consistently impressed with Gardein products (though it’s part of a larger food conglomerate) as well as Beyond Meat’s sausages. Newer companies like Memphis Meats and Prime Roots are also using new technology to create alternatives.
As a citizen:
Write to your representatives, senators, and local policymakers -- get that conversation going whether it’s on local recycling issues or pushing for a price on carbon.
Even just talking about climate change is important. “I see my friends on Twitter being like ‘it’s 75 degrees in November in New York, that’s so weird.’ Don’t gaslight yourself, you know what’s going on!
As an employee:
Heidi published a great article on how to find a job with purpose.
To start, Heidi suggested that everyone grounds themselves in why climate change matters to them. And then set out to learn more. “I was working in a software company. I'm very disillusioned, very much wanting to work on something more meaningful than what I was working on at the time so I spent a good part of a year really learning about what was the most important thing to do with climate.”
As an investor:
Interested in learning more about carbon removal as an investment opportunity? Check out this Pitchbook post about it.
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⭐ Newsletter Spotlight: Brands Mean a Lot is a once-a-week commentary on the many ways branding impacts our lives written by Jared Holst. Each week, he explores contradictions within the way politics, products, and pop-culture are branded for us, offering his take on what's really being said. Take a look at his most recent post about how GoodRx, the prescription discount company, is anything but.
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