Carbon offsets are no longer thought to be enough to curb climate change. Meet Christina Beckmann of Tomorrow’s Air, the world's first collective of passionate travellers who clean up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through direct air capture
For Christina Beckmann, co-founder of Tomorrow’s Air and vice president of Global Strategy at the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a sustainable future means fresh air for everyone. While standing on Deception Island (62.93° S, 60.57°W) during the peak of Antarctic summer, she says it felt unseasonably warm—there wasn’t much snow, it was balmy and she had a feeling that something just wasn’t right.
“I was really affected by that day—by the sound of the zodiac going through the brash ice, like this is what a melting world sounds like and feels like,” says Beckman. “I had this visceral sense of this is what is happening to the world.”
The silence of Antarctica can be deafening, yet the sound of glaciers calving and ice changing is an inescapable reminder of our warming planet and oceans that few get to experience.
Beckmann came away from the 2041 ClimateForce Antarctic Expedition hosted by Robert Swan (the first person to walk to both Poles whose goal is to inspire a global climate force) with a sense of urgency—like we have to do something now, we can’t just sit around.
“I’m the kind of person who jumps to action—there’s a lot to be said for people who slowly think out a strategy and execute it—but I came out of my Antarctic expedition thinking, ‘Do something, get some people together, and start moving because the longer we sit around talking and evaluating, the worse this gets.’”
The result of this sense of urgency instilled in Beckman and others on the expedition? Tomorrow’s Air—a way for global travellers, travel companies and destinations to take tangible action for climate change through joining forces with direct air capture carbon removal technology.
Travel notoriously has a carbon problem. Carbon emissions caused by travel on planes, trains, and automobiles have long been ‘balanced out’ by travellers buying into tree planting or purchasing offsets. Those are great solutions, but according to experts, including Beckmann, alone they are simply not enough to reverse the effects of climate change.
Backed by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, Tomorrow’s Air has partnered with Swiss company Climeworks to filter carbon dioxide out of the air and inject it underground in basalt rock where it mineralizes over time and is permanently stored.
We chatted with Beckmann on what exactly direct air capture is, and how travellers, and everyone, can be a part of the solution...
E911: So, what exactly is direct air capture (DAC) and how is the CO2 stored?
Christina: Direct air capture carbon removal with permanent storage is a mechanical process at every step which is highly measurable and highly verifiable—a very welcome addition to existing carbon offsetting approaches. Pure CO2 is pulled from the air, then mixed and dissolved into the water above ground [creating carbonated water] and then injected into rock formations underground where it fills the fissures inside the porous basaltic rock. It then interacts with the minerals in the basalt and becomes solid through natural reactions over two years.
E911: How do you know it doesn’t heat up and go back into the environment with geothermal and seismic activity or natural processes?
Christina: It doesn’t work that way. Once it’s underground, it turns into rock, even if you had a volcano erupt, it wouldn’t spew forth carbon dioxide in the form that it was, which is helpful and comforting to know. This is not well-known, but it is an established technology—they’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and there’s a lot of scientific background to this.
Note: It’s not just trees that store carbon—so do rocks. It’s nature’s way of permanently storing carbon. They’ve simply found a way to speed up the process using science and innovation—See Carbfix for more details on how they turn CO2 into stone.
E911: Why does Tomorrow’s Air focus specifically on direct air capture carbon removal?
Christina: In October 2018, the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C came out and said very clearly that without carbon removal, there’s no scenario in which we’ll reach the goals of The Paris Agreement—and no scenario in which negative emissions technologies do not play a role. According to the report, nature-based solutions simply don’t get us there, we need the support of the technology—that hit me hard because all we’re ever talking about is the nature-based solutions.
E911: How does Tomorrow’s Air work with Climeworks?
Christina: We’re actively aggregating a collective—we take the voice of one and give it the power of many. A lot of people feel that individually the few kilograms of carbon they remove might not have a big impact, but as part of a collective, you can have a greater impact.
Carbon offsetting is great and there are many reputable projects. What we’re proposing is not in contrast or competition with those things—our climate peril is such that we need all of the options. Carbon removal through DAC with permanent storage [such as our partner Climeworks] is not really on anyone’s radar, but it is needed. This kind of technology accelerates the pace at which we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and it provides reliable permanent storage. Practically speaking, Tomorrow’s Air are resellers of Climeworks technology.
E911: Who is Tomorrow’s Air trying to reach, and how?
Christina: At Tomorrow’s Air, we are supporting DAC carbon removal technology with inspiration and education to reach a global community of travellers. We’re taking this technical thing and making it fun and accessible with things like the Airbnb tour of the Climbworks plant in Switzerland. We’re not dumbing it down—we’re making it accessible. The way we solve this problem is to get everybody on board.
We’re used to focusing on our politicians and their climate change policies to get people like Elon Musk to invest (by the way, he’s going to put $100 million towards a carbon capture technology, which is shining a huge spotlight on DAC carbon removal). But these expensive technologies leave the regular person out and left asking, "What can I do?"
E911: Why focus on travellers?
Christina: Travel is an engine for good—it is an economic argument for conservation and helps preserve wildlife. But while I was in Antarctica, I started thinking: what if all the millions of travellers and travel companies came together and started fighting for climate? I thought we could take a proactive stance on climate. Instead of being reactive, let’s offset, which is the only conversation I had been part of before my trip to Antarctica.
When Robert Swan came to speak at the 2018 Adventure Travel Trade World Summit in Argentina, Rob talked about partnering with Climbworks to remove the emissions associated with his expedition called the South Pole Energy Challenge.
I realized the adventure travel community was the perfect place to incubate this idea because we have this philosophical mindset around there being no mountain too high. The adventure travel community is the moonshot dreamer community. We have exactly the right DNA to say let’s do this—that’s how it came to be, a coalescing of factors.
E911: How much carbon does the average person need to remove per year to become neutral?
Christina: The average person emits 16 tons of carbon in a year (according to Nature.org who has a carbon footprint calculator). That’s a huge amount, and as a traveller, I assume my footprint is far greater than that.
What I would like to encourage though, is to put the calculator aside and think about the enormity of the need to scale up carbon removal and DAC to remove trillions of tons of excess CO2, because the slower we go with our emissions reductions, the more technology we’re going to need. People get a little bogged down in calculating their emissions, doing offsetting, and trying to balance their ledger in the most affordable way possible, and that is not going to include, most likely, carbon removal, because it’s very expensive. We need to chip in on carbon removal not as a way to make ourselves neutral—we can do that with tree planting—but as your vote for the future.
It has been found by big offsetting companies that when people calculate their emissions and receive a report about that at the end of the year and they see that the enormity of it, they feel bad about themselves, and actually, what they experienced is that people did not renew or keep offsetting with them because they felt bad about how far off their goal they were falling.
I think we have to flip the script on all this—it should be more like climate action is fun and you’re doing great, and here’s a way you can contribute and do great, rather than this is what you’re not doing. It’s a delicate line to walk because we do need to adapt and there are lifestyle changes and adaptations that have to happen there’s no question about that, but constantly telling people how much of an impact they aren’t making isn’t good either.
That’s where Tomorrow’s Air comes in—you don’t see a calculator on our website because we're trying to focus on the incremental contributions we can all make that chip away at this big problem of legacy emissions and stored carbon emissions.
E911: Obviously, DAC is a very expensive technology—how does it work in developing countries that might not have the resources to build these big plants?
Christina: The carbon we remove anywhere benefits us everywhere— we all share the same air. If we remove carbon in Iceland it’s benefitting the people in India. We may end up having these plants all over the place, but developing countries will benefit from this no matter where it happens. Fun fact? A molecule of carbon dioxide released in NYC will be over Iceland in four days, carbon is that well mixed in our atmosphere.
E911: For you, what does a sustainable future look like?
Christina: Fresh air for everyone. There’s this really important element of social justice within climate change and the sustainable future, the reality is poor coastal communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. We already see climate refugees. I would like to see everyone with an equal opportunity to live in a climate stable world.
There are so many things I want to preserve for myself and have my son enjoy, and his children’s children enjoy. All these incredible experiences in the outdoors, like that deep sharp breath you take at the end of a big hike or that time you spend in an indigenous village and being part of that community for some time. Those are the experiences that I’ve had because I live in a climate stable world and if we don’t act now, that’s going to go away.
Want to see first-hand how direct air capture works? You can join in on an Airbnb Experience tour of the Climeworks plant in Hinwil, Switzerland and get an up-close and personal look at the technology that pulls the CO2 from the air. Or learn more on the Tomorrow’s Air ‘Carbon Removal 101’ section.