john smith williams/shutterstock
john smith williams/shutterstock

Last month, shortly after overtaking Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, Elon Musk took a page out of the Amazon founder’s playbook and made a philanthropic pledge on social media.

On Monday, the full details came out: The Tesla and SpaceX CEO and his Musk Foundation are putting $100 million toward a carbon capture technology competition that will be run by XPrize, a nonprofit that holds a variety of scientific competitions with cash prizes.

We’ll get to the details in a moment, but first let’s take a step back. Given the standard that’s been set over the past year by what we’re calling the new “apex donor” class, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed. MacKenzie Scott managed to give away nearly $6 billion in about six months. Bezos committed $10 billion and gave out nearly $800 million, including $100 million each to five of the world’s largest environmental groups. Even Jack Dorsey—whose $5 billion fortune puts him at 161st on the Bloomberg Billionaires Indexpledged $1 billion for COVID-19 relief.

Hard to believe we’d be underwhelmed by a $100 million pledge, but here we are. To be fair, these are all historic levels of giving, and philanthropists set their own schedules. Musk has signed the Giving Pledge, but a couple years ago he tweeted that he will not begin his philanthropy in earnest for about two decades, “when Tesla is in steady state.” Until then, he wrote, the budget is around $100 million over every few years.

That would make this gift the biggest charitable act we’ll see from Musk for some time. But now that Tesla’s meteoric rise has given him a $200 billion-plus fortune and the title of the wealthiest person on the planet—a development my colleagues covered in detail last month—we’ll see if public scrutiny makes him reconsider that stance. He clearly feels the urgency.

“We want to make a truly meaningful impact. Carbon negativity, not neutrality,” Musk said in a statement about the prize. “This is not a theoretical competition; we want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence.”

This gift reinforces that Musk’s philanthropic inclinations are exactly what you would expect from someone with a track record of innovation across electric vehicles, solar power, and space travel: a preference for scalable, market-oriented technological solutions. And for the same reason, it seems likely that his philanthropy, at least for the foreseeable future, will take a back seat to his efforts to continue to drive technological advances through his companies.

How does the prize work?

The aim of the competition is for teams to develop working methods that can remove gigatons of carbon from the earth’s biosphere. How big is a gigaton? Imagine a block of ice the size of Central Park—and nearly as tall as the Empire State building. In terms of weight, it’s equivalent to 10,000 fully loaded U.S. aircraft carriers. Mind-boggling, right?

The contest is open to any type of solution, from direct air-capture to ocean methods to nature-based measures. Though there may be less interest in the latter. When Musk initially posted to announce a prize for the “best carbon capture technology,” one wag posted in reply: “A tree?” Musk actually answered—and gave as much insight into his thinking as anything else he’s released. “They are part of the solution, but require lots of fresh water and land. We may need something that’s ultra-large-scale industrial in 10 to 20 years. For now, by far the top priority is accelerating the transition to a sustainable energy economy.”

Ultimately, the main criteria, rather than strategy, is cost per ton. Other core requirements include that each model must be able to remove at least one ton of carbon daily and have a long-term storage plan, at least 100 years.

There’s a long runway for the start of this four-year contest. Official guidelines for the competition will be announced on Earth Day, April 22, 2021 and then an 18-month application period will follow. Then the competition’s judges will select 15 top teams to receive $1 million each. Over the same period, 25 student teams will be selected for $200,000 prizes.

Open to anyone on the planet, the first place winner will receive $50 million, second place $20 million, and third place $10 million. While it’s the largest purse in XPrize history, it’s just one of several recent moves to advance carbon capture technology. For example, Microsoft pledged last year to put $1 billion toward capturing all the carbon dioxide the company has ever emitted since its founding in 1975. Stripe announced in October that it would allow users to devote a portion of their revenue toward carbon removal technology projects.

Carbon capture technology (not including natural solutions like afforestation and reforestation) remains largely expensive and unproven, even as studies say some amount of carbon dioxide removal is essential for keeping global temperatures below catastrophic levels. All of the IPCC’s pathways for staying within 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming with no overshoot rely on some carbon dioxide removal, although how much and what methods vary.

Carbon capture is a touchy area within climate circles, as many agree that it needs to happen in some form, albeit in concert with massive, rapid reductions in emissions. But it can be over-emphasized as a technological “fix” for climate change, often by industry or others resistant to abandoning fossil fuels or transforming the economy. Silicon Valley and tech corporations seem to be enthralled by the concept lately.

Another concern here is, as with any such contest in pursuit of technological solutions for massive societal problems, there’s the question of what happens next. Even if Musk’s contest identifies brilliant minds and promising new solutions, significant policy and economic roadblocks will remain. Does Musk have a plan for effectively supporting the rollout of any technologies his contest unearths? And would his money be better spent supporting teams that are further along to scale up their existing work?

Musk, Bezos and what’s next 

It’s hard not to compare Musk and Bezos. They’re vying for the title of richest of them all. They both made their fortunes in era-shaping technology companies. They both asked for philanthropic advice on social media—and both announced their plans there as well. They even both run space exploration companies—and have gotten in public spats as a result.

Thus it’s hard not to compare the context under which this gift was made. Like Bezos, Musk reigns over a company that has come under scrutiny and criticism for anti-union labor practices and harsh working conditions. But while Amazon’s free shipping and one-click purchases are criticized by some as a leading edge of unsustainable consumerism, Tesla is helping lead the transformation of the automotive industry away from fossil fuels. In other words, Musk may—for now—command slightly more goodwill in the eyes of the public, at least among the climate-concerned.

But only so much. The competition announcement came the same day that Tesla announced it had bought $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin, which has come under increasing scrutiny recently for its carbon footprint. The cryptocurrency relies on so-called data “miners” to solve complex math puzzles to allow transactions to go through and create new coins. The energy required to do so each year is now as much the annual energy consumption of the Netherlands, according to some analyses.

In the bigger picture, the duo’s wealth—which along with other billionaires has risen $1.1 trillion amid the the pandemic even as 73 million have lost jobs—is a staggering reminder of the inequality in American society. For many climate advocates, that level of wealth accumulation is synonymous with the disastrous extractive economy at the root of climate change.

All of which is to say, it’s hard to tell at this point how committed Musk really is to responding to the climate crisis, outside of a laser focus on developing new technology. But to see Musk leverage only a miniscule fraction of his fortune amid a critical decade for the future of humanity, during which models say we must halve emissions to avoid catastrophic consequences, does not convey, to borrow his phrase, that “time is of the essence.”