We need to “shoot for the moon” to solve our greatest global challenge
While continuing to implement new business models and drive technological innovations to fight climate change will be important in bringing about the new decarbonization economy, we will need solutions that go beyond incremental steps to stay under the Paris Agreement’s 1.5c warming target. With COP28 coming up next month and the looming pressures of meeting international goals, this is the time to make bold decisions and commit to radical concepts tested with unprecedented daring actions that “shoot for the moon.”
In addition to the measures already taken to address our most pressing global challenges, we must develop “moonshot” technologies that allow us to go beyond our present limitations. Some of these new techs will reverse our current trajectory by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, thereby securing the climate for future generations. Others will reimagine business activities in ways that might feel out of reach right now, repurposing them for a net-zero future. When scaled and tested, moonshots have the potential to open up markets and create new business pathways that allow us to make up for lost time. Yet, this type of innovation requires significant investment, commitment and perseverance, as the road to commercial revenues is often hard and long.
Not only will solving the climate crisis with moonshot solutions take ambitious thinking, but companies will need to adapt operations and dream bigger. Although ambitious, this feat of raising the bar for what humans can achieve is not out of reach and has precedent. The moonshot concept derives from the Apollo 11 spaceflight project that landed the first human on the moon in 1969. Seven years prior to that date, President John F. Kennedy had declared he would go to the moon within that next decade. At the time, this idea seemed far-fetched. But with great human ingenuity and motivation, and the perseverance to see it through, the impossible was made possible.
Climate change: the greatest moonshot challenge of our time
As one of the most pressing problems of our time, climate change will indeed need moonshot solutions. Moonshot innovations refer to groundbreaking and ambitious projects that aim to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges or achieve remarkable technological advancements. These projects often involve a high level of risk and uncertainty, but equally have the potential to bring about transformative change. Moonshot innovations typically push the boundaries of what is currently thought possible and often require significant resources, collaboration, and dedication. At its core, the concept of a moonshot refers to the approach of choosing huge, seemingly insurmountable problems and proposing radical solutions that leverage disruptive technologies.
Some of these solutions are now appearing on the horizon, while others are yet to be imagined. The promise of tech innovation will provide ample opportunities for climate innovation, as the most forward-thinking companies seek to unlock long-term value for themselves in the process. An entire ecosystem of innovation will be required, with research institutes, universities, governments, financial institutions, investors, incubators and accelerators, startups, and corporates all working to invent the solutions that will help us turn the tide against climate change. Collaboration will be key, with players from across industries and practices required to come together for solutions to succeed.
Collaborations are underway, including the UK’s largest power station pioneering a moonshot project that will not only reduce carbon emissions but remove them permanently. By 2030, the Drax power station will transform to become the world’s largest carbon removal facility by scaling a technology called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) that reverses the flow of carbon dioxide. While these technologies are nascent, they must scale at unprecedented rates around the world if we are to stabilize the Earth’s climate. According to the IEA, by 2030 we will need to remove 250 million tonnes of CO2 every year through BECCS compared to the mere 1 million tonnes today, and this number must rise to 10 billion tonnes by 2050.
ClimateTech: moonshot innovations and investments
Moonshot innovations addressing climate change will require increasingly massive investments. Between 2019 and 2020, the world spent $632 billion on global warming and climate mitigation investments and initiatives. However, this is only a fraction of the estimated $90 trillion we need to spend by 2030, according to World Bank. In terms of the market for carbon capture and storage, Bank of America reports annual capex could reach $1 trillion in cumulative investments by 2040. Meeting demands for this large amount of capital means we must create radical solutions that will come in the form of radical reimaginings of what we already have and of what we could have. While creating brand new climate products and markets, several innovative tech companies are deriving value through moonshot solutions that previously seemed impossible.
The growing market for carbon capture and storage has gained the attention of businesses developing moonshot innovations to combat climate change, as the theoretical storage potential is now greater than the emissions of the burning of all fossil fuels carbon on Earth. Capitalizing on this combination of climate mitigation and carbon management, Carbfix devised a moonshot solution. Through an academic-industrial tech partnership, Carbfix is ensuring that one billion tons of CO2 be permanently stored by 2030. The Icelandic company imitates and accelerates the natural processes of carbon drawdown from the atmosphere by dissolving carbon dioxide and storing it underground. Since 2012, Carbfix has mineralized a total of 90 thousand tons of CO2 captured from the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant and raised nearly $120 million in funding.
Stripe, the online payments firm, is another prime example of a tech innovator successfully inspiring investment in moonshot carbon-removal technologies. The company describes itself as “financial infrastructure for the internet.” Millions of companies of all sizes—from startups to Fortune 500s—use Stripe’s software to accept payments, send payouts, and manage their businesses online. Stripe is amplifying the sustainable trillion dollar-a-year carbon economy by creating a market for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. With this carbon-removal tech vision, the company launched the Stripe Climate initiative and catapulted itself into the moonshot realm. Stripe’s moonshot innovation is offering a solution for businesses to invest in climate mitigation efforts.
X lab, a former Google division, is considered by some to be the pioneer and visionary of moonshots today. Its mission is “to invent and launch moonshot technologies that can make the world a radically better place.” Specifically, X’s business solutions that address climate change mitigation span from the launch of the Waymo self-driving car unit to a computational agriculture project called Mineral. Astro Teller, CEO of X, says: “Moonshot Factory, X, is focused on using technology to address global problems, such as climate change, and aims to create radical innovations to maximize benefits to humanity while mitigating negative impacts.” The aim is to make a 10x impact on some of the world’s biggest problems, rather than achieving a 10% improvement. Aiming for 10x instead of 10% has become synonymous with the idea of moonshot thinking.
Impossible Foods, which produces plant-based products that seek to take the place of meat, is an innovative tech business with both rising market value and climate benefits. In 2021, Impossible Foods’ valuation shot up to a potential IPO of $10 billion, giving it moonshot status. Impossible Burgers are available at restaurants throughout the world, causing a disruption with incumbent fast-food companies to create their own meat-replacement products. One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce beef consumption, as the demand for more pasture for cattle alone drives 41% of deforestation in the tropics. Plant-based meat substitutes are estimated to make up to 7.7% of the global protein market by 2030, with a value of over $162 billion (up from $29.4 billion in 2020).
A $1 billion business model: moonshots driving climate efforts
Moonshot projects have the significant potential to benefit humanity since they rely on ambitious moonshot thinking, experimentation, and the “fail fast” philosophy. Tech companies of different sizes and from different industry sectors have adopted the moonshot approach to tackle climate change and climate-related impacts. Many moonshots are in experimentation phases, which fosters innovation and the freedom to continuously learn and improve. This model removes the fear of failure and helps teams focus on success, thus allowing new or uncertain concepts to be tested. Because of these flexible qualities, moonshot companies have extremely high growth potential. Despite the risks associated with investing in underserved markets, tech-oriented sectors in developing markets are particularly attractive to moonshot investors looking to expand their portfolios and get in on the next $1 billion moonshot business.
In August 2022, Unlock Aid, in partnership with the Day One Project, held the SDGs Moonshot Accelerator in Mexico City. Over 70 of the world’s leading change agents from more than 25 countries convened to explore new ways of solving the UN Global Goals. Participants shared ways to solve climate change and were asked, “If you had $500 million, how would you spend it?”. More moonshot-like efforts around the world addressing climate have recently emerged as well. Europe announced a €100 billion mission-driven research and innovation effort (2021–2027) via moonshots. Japan is looking to moonshots to solve long-term structural problems with a ¥100 billion fund over the next five years. Beyond X, Intellectual Ventures sponsored by Bill Gates has also been exploring how to do global good through tech.
Moonshot thinking will shape our future
To solve the world’s largest challenges, moonshot solutions are paramount and they come by way of expansive thinking. Moonshot innovations that leverage advanced technologies will be the 4IR solutions necessary to catapult us forward. Making these quantum leaps in innovation is uncharted territory, and setting such grand ambitions demands a lot of courage. Solving climate change is the ultimate moonshot challenge of our time; we need radical solutions in the form of moonshot innovations. With potential benefits ranging from the creation of technologies essential for harnessing big data, to furthering the development of the metaverse, the moonshot concept is increasingly used to describe a giant leap of innovative tech advancements with ambiguous goals. If realized, these technological moonshots could be hugely beneficial for us all and help manage the climate crisis.