Oct 02 2019

Anupa Asokan, Project Manager, Prize Operations, Ocean Initiative & Marcius Extavour, Ph.D., Executive Director, Prize Operations, Energy & Resources

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We are in the midst of a climate emergency. Stronger and more intense hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, melting ice and rising seas––these consequences are making headlines and directly impacting more and more people around the world every day. But a hidden crisis is also happening in the ocean. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate on September 25. This is the third special report issued by the IPCC and the first to focus on ocean and coastal environments. Using the latest scientific research on this topic, authors of the report laid out findings that point to dire consequences should we not take significant action before 2030.

Coral reefs face a mass extinction within the next decade, further impacting a quarter of marine life, 500 million people around the world, and leaving behind more vulnerable tropical coastlines. As the report describes, this is due to the fact that the ocean is currently absorbing 90 percent of the heat in the atmosphere. With an increasingly warm ocean, there is less oxygen and nutrients for marine inhabitants. Additionally, the report predicted more “marine heat waves,” which are a cause of mass die-offs of corals and are predicted to become 20 times more common by 2100 if we significantly reduce emissions or 50 times more common if we stay on our current course. 

We need policy change, but that alone is not enough. We must also work to remove CO2 directly from our atmosphere to clean up emissions from decades past, and restore the essential coral reef habitats that feed and protect coastal communities. As the IPCC report lays out, we must act immediately and in a meaningful way to maintain these vital ecosystems that sustain our way of life.  

XPRIZE has embraced these challenges by carefully designing two of the most ambitious incentivized prize competitions ever conceived. Now we need your help to get these prizes launched, as a catalyst and beacon for innovators around the world to rise to the occasion and take up the dual challenges of carbon removal and coral restoration. We invite you to join us on this journey, as we work to build sponsor coalitions and launch these global competitions to find sustainable solutions to our climate crisis.

We need innovation to remove carbon and mitigate disaster

To stay within the global temperature target of 2°C warmer or less, reducing emissions is not enough. We must develop and deploy a fundamentally new capability––the ability to directly remove existing excess CO2 from our atmosphere and ocean, and do so at scale. IPCC estimates that we will need to add capacity to remove 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050 to avoid warming in excess of 2°C. To put that in perspective, 10 gigatons is roughly the equivalent mass of 1500 Hoover Dams or double the total annual global oil output.

Though the carbon removal challenge is daunting, the opportunity is great. There are a broad number of tantalizing possibilities for how we might meet this goal. Imagine designer crops with deeper, thicker roots that could store carbon in the soil. Or grinding up reactive rocks and spreading them out on beaches or deploying them in vertical towers where they could bond with CO2 and pull the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. Or, ironically, we could even store CO2 underground in the same porous rocks that used to contain the oil and gas which helped contribute to the climate crisis in the first place. 

The point is, there are a lot of different suggestions for how the world can achieve the carbon removal it needs, but the sector is extremely nascent. We need more of these ideas to go from thought experiments or lab prototypes to proven, verified solutions that are attracting capital and being deployed at scale around the world. XPRIZE is working on a new prize that can dramatically catalyze and accelerate innovation and proven solutions across all these different possibilities––and unlock new possibilities we haven’t even dreamed of yet. 

We need innovation to live in a world with coral reefs

Now, even if we meet that 2°C goal, a grim consequence remains––only one percent of our coral reefs may survive. Coral reefs contribute nearly $10 trillion in services every year, supporting livelihoods, protecting coastal cities and infrastructure, and likely harboring cures to fatal diseases. However, these ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate and, similar to capturing carbon, techniques to scale restoration do not exist. Only 37 hectares (a little more than half the area of the National Mall) have been restored globally, ever. In contrast, we have global commitments to restore 20 million hectares of forest per year over the next decade.

In 1984 near Key Largo, Florida, the M/V Wellwood ran aground on Molasses Reef, an ecosystem whose value had been recognized and protected by Congress already for nearly a decade. About a football field of damaged reef became an active restoration site in an effort to repair this famed dive site and beloved ecosystem. Thirty years later, our methods to attempt to restore coral reefs remain largely the same, only now, with a multitude of additional threats and causes of damage, true restoration––returning the ecosystem to its original, pristine and resilient state––remains out of reach.

Nearly two million times the patch of coral reef from the Wellwood incident is now dead or dying around the world. Addressing all of the root causes like warming, pollution, overfishing, etc. will require action on many fronts, and at XPRIZE, we see an opportunity to inspire and give corals and the quarter of all ocean species that depend on them, a fighting chance of persisting through the next decade. Our current methods to restore coral do not match this immense rate of loss. Most restoration projects involve SCUBA divers painstakingly attaching small coral fragments onto a damaged reef, or laying down material to attract coral spawn. We need breakthrough innovation to scale restoration. We need to inspire the world to recognize the magnitude of this crisis. We need to support the communities whose existence hinges on their local reefs, and we need to drive investment to a new blue economy focused on restoring our planet’s lifeline, the ocean.

At XPRIZE, we look to this IPCC special report as a valued voice on the consequences of inaction, the need for breakthrough innovation, as well as thoughtful recommendations, and hope to partner with other individuals, organizations, and companies who share our vision for a healthy, valued and understood ocean and planet.

Anupa Asokan, Project Manager, Prize Operations, Ocean Initiative & Marcius Extavour, Ph.D., Executive Director, Prize Operations, Energy & Resources