Reducing pollution will help stave off climate change but avoiding the worst effects means taking CO2 out of the atmosphere at large scale. AP Photo/J. David Ake
Even with the progress made in introducing alternatives to fossil fuels, gaining energy efficiencies and proposed carbon regulations around the world, avoiding catastrophic impacts on our coastal infrastructure, biodiversity, food, energy and water resources will require more. In particular, many climate researchers like myself believe government needs to advance technology that will actually suck carbon dioxide out of the air and put it away for very long periods.
There are several so-called negative emissions technologies that could remove carbon dioxide from the air, including those aimed at removing CO2 by enhancing natural forest and wetland uptake, using bio-energy in power production and scrubbing CO2 efficiently from air.
As diplomats and policymakers gather to discuss global agreements to reduce greenhouse gas, many believe that negative emissions technologies need to be part of the discussion for how nations will address climate change. But much as there is not a single solution to reducing emissions, no one technology will alone be sufficient to avert the worst effects of climate change.
Matter of scale
In a 2018 consensus study, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences concluded that negative emission technologies will be needed to reduce difficult-to-reduce emissions even if most emissions from burning fossil fuels, agricultural land use and cement production – the top sources of man-made greenhouse gases – could be eliminated. The study noted that direct emission reductions in some sectors, such as air travel, will be always remain more difficult to achieve and will require methods to remove CO2 from the air and store it away.
The scale of the problem is daunting. In the U.S. alone, which emits about a sixth of current global CO2, and with global energy needs steadily increasing, emissions to the atmosphere are expected to outpace uptake and the volume of waste gas will only grow. In its latest emissions gap report, the United Nations warned greenhouse gases will continue to rise despite most countries committing to reduce them, calling the forecast for reversing the course “bleak.”
Where should CO2 be safely put away? The most convenient sites appear to be near industrial sources, such as power plants, but they can come with a tangle of issues surrounding underground property rights, overland access, and long-term risks and liabilities near populated areas.
My research has suggested that offshore storage sites around the globe may offer several unique and important advantages. In particular, CO2 injected into cooled volcanic rocks under the ocean will react chemically with them to form solid minerals like calcium carbonate – limestone – mimicking the natural process of rock weathering.
Although this technique has not been demonstrated in large-scale experiments, my research suggests that sub-sea rocks have the potential to provide vast capacity for hundreds of years of emissions, physical safeguards that will protect the oceans and humans, and can be located at safe distances from potential interference with ongoing human activities.
But that alone is not enough. Considering the various negative emission technologies reviewed by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, it seems clear to me that all possibilities for carbon capture and storage need to be pursued in parallel. That’s because no one location, no singular technology and no country in isolation will be sufficient to solve this huge problem by itself. Different industrial, economic, legal and environmental conditions around the globe will require different solutions, and ultimately, these must all work together. In my view, pursuing a wide range of solutions does not create a competition between eliminating emissions and directly decreasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
Some researchers have voiced the concern that adoption of these technologies will discourage efforts to lower emissions. But some of these technologies, such as removing CO2 directly from the air, are currently expensive and efficiencies are still improving. So, with regulations to limit carbon emissions, polluters would face the costs of directly reducing emissions or the financial consequences of continuing to emit while relying on negative emissions technologies – both solutions would reduce CO2 waste collecting in the air.
Any concerns over costs, though, should be compared to cost of doing nothing. It is estimated that allowing emissions to continue apace may reduce GDP in some areas by as much as 1% per year, reflecting potential losses in productivity due to the effects of warming on regional resources, jobs and public health.
Both social and economic incentives will likely be needed to implement these technologies at the scale required to address climate warming, similar to past subsidies and research investments in alternative energy technologies that are now widespread.
To make negative emission technologies viable, industry needs physical and measurable proof of those which will be most effective and then the means to implement them at full scale. That means large government and private investments in research and development for these technologies.
About The Author
David Goldberg, Lamont Research Professor, Columbia University
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon
Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy
by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
by Naomi Klein
In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon
From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.