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How to stop global warming: carbon capture could be the answer T

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pollutionReuters/Hazir Reka

  • The Earth is
    warming so rapidly
    that most experts agree we’ll need to
    suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to avoid the
    worst consequences of climate
    change
    .
  • A new report from the National Academies of Sciences,
    Engineering, and Medicine lays out a range of options for how to
    do that. 
  • But the authors say developing these negative-emissions
    technologies requires large-scale investment from the government
    — and the funding has to come immediately. 


Deadly hurricanes
 seem to be becoming more frequent, 12
of the 15
largest wildfires in California history
have occurred in the
last two decades, and cities like
Cape Town, South Africa are facing severe water shortages
.

This isn’t a
coincidence.

These kinds of dangerous weather events are linked to
carbon-dioxide emissions. In human history, the atmosphere
has
never had as much CO2 in it as it does today
. Burning fossil
fuels for energy, clearing forests, and demolishing wetlands all
contribute to the problem.

CO2 stops heat from leaving the planet, which is why Earth’s
average temperature is a degree Celsius higher than it used to
be. Now we’re on track to see
so much warming
over the next several decades that
apocalyptic repercussions could result.

A
recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change
 (IPCC) predicts
that just another half-degree temperature rise — which
is predicted to happen by the year 2040 — will lead to
severe drought, even more intense hurricanes, and the death of
most coral reefs.  These changes could trigger huge
migrations of people and mass extinctions of animals. 

There are two ways to deal with this problem. The first is to
make
big changes to the ways we power our lives and grow food
in
order to stop putting greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. The
second is to suck carbon dioxide back out of the air then store
it away or turn it into new products or fuels.

A comprehensive new report looks at that second approach.

The study, written by scientists from the National Academies of
Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), suggests a plan for
developing so-called “negative-emissions technologies” (a term
for ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere) and highlights
options that have essentially unlimited capacity for reducing
carbon levels in the atmosphere, but aren’t yet ready for prime
time.

Researching and developing those technologies requires
substantial investment from the US government — and the report’s
authors say that money needs to start flowing soon, or we could
soon cross dangerous climate tipping points. 

How to capture and store carbon dioxide


Pollution China
People
make their way through heavy smog on an extremely polluted day
with red alert issued, in Shengfang, China.


Damir
Sagolj/Reuters



According to the recent IPCC report and most other models of our
climate future, cutting CO2 emissions over the next few decades
won’t be enough to fully stop climate change, since the effects
are already being felt. 

“It’s not a question of ‘Maybe we’ll need negative emissions
technologies or maybe we can prevent more CO2 from going into the
air’” Erin Burns, a senior policy advisor at the think tank Third
Way, told Business Insider. “We are at a point where we need all
of those things.”

That’s why the NAS took a thorough look at potential
negative-emissions technologies. 

“Most climate mitigation efforts are intended to decrease the
rate at which people add carbon from fossil fuel reservoirs to
the atmosphere.  We focused on the reverse – technologies
that take carbon out of the air and put it back into ecosystems
and the land,” Stephen Pacala, a professor at Princeton
University and chair of the committee behind the report, said in
a statement.

The authors looked at a variety of strategies. As Kate Gordon, a
fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy,
described it, the approaches range “from literally planting trees
and agricultural practices that help keep carbon in the ground,
all the way to engineered technological solutions that actually
take carbon directly out of the atmosphere through
machines.” 

On the simpler end of the spectrum are options like re-foresting
areas that have been logged and using no-till farming practices
that keep more carbon in soil. Then there are ways to burn
biological material (which traps carbon as it grows) to create
energy and catch the CO2 they emit before it gets into the air.


cattle deforestation guatemala
Cattle
graze in a deforested area of the Peten jungle in Guatemala, near
the border with Belize, on November 23, 2007.

Reuters/Daniel LeClair

But according to the new report — funded by the US Department of
Energy, EPA, NOAA, and the US Geological Survey, along with
several foundations — those approaches require a lot more
research to be scaled up, and there’s no way those methods alone
could ever capture enough carbon to keep Earth’s temperature from
rising another degree.

“Uncertain research breakthroughs will be required before those
NETs [negative emissions technologies] can  provide even the
minority share of the solution,” the authors wrote.

A more promising option, they said, is to invest in technologies
that essentially filter out CO2 molecules from the air around us.
These technologies are still in early development stages, but
usually involve materials that naturally attract and bind with
carbon.

“It’s like draining a bathtub — like pulling the plug and letting
a little bit of the water out. It’s actually not that
sophisticated or crazy,” Gordon told Business Insider.

That carbon would then get concentrated and stored, perhaps by
injecting it into pores in deep underground rock, which is
essentially where it came from in the first place. There’s not
much limit to how much CO2 these potential technologies could
capture and store.

We need this kind of intervention immediately, according to the
authors.

“We need to be committed to it today, because we know from all
the modeling that’s happening that this is not an if question,
it’s a when question,” Gordon said.

Like any new technology, research and development takes money

To give these carbon-sucking technologies the boost they need to
become a reality soon, the researchers said the US must start
investing in research and development now.

Doing so would help improve the simpler carbon-capture solutions
that already exist, and make progress on the more advanced ones
that could eventually make the biggest impact.

The report even lists potential research projects and their
estimated costs.

“They are amounts of money that are less than we’ve spent on
plenty of other really, really important technologies,” Burns
said. 

There’s a growing interest in these technologies in the private
sector, too — a company called Climeworks is developing
ways to suck CO2 out of the air, and the accelerator Y Combinator recently
announced
it is looking to support startups focusing on
negative-emissions technologies.


Climeworks carbon-capture facility
A
facility made by Climeworks AG to capture CO2 from the air is
seen on the roof of a waste incinerating plant in Hinwil,
Switzerland.


Arnd
Wiegmann/Reuters



But Burns said government support will be key, as it was for
solar power (which started out as a NASA invention) and nuclear
energy.

Experts think it would be money well spent

Beyond helping to stabilize the climate and prevent future
disasters, the report says, investing in these technologies would
help the US economically, since there will be even greater need
for carbon capture in the future. The first countries and
companies to develop scalable, cost-effective CO2-filtering
technology will benefit as demand for that intellectual property
rises.

“This is where markets are going. This is the new set of
technologies that people are starting to pay attention to, and we
need to keep our competitive innovation position,” Gordon said,
citing American leadership in the clean-tech sector. “Otherwise
we’ll be buying it from somebody else, because someone’s going to
do it.”


Smog in Beijing.
Smog in Beijing.
Kevin
Frayer/Getty Images


Because of that, Burns said, she’s seeing more congressional
support for funding research and development of these
technologies than there is for other climate-change solutions.
There are other reasons for that bipartisan interest as well:
carbon-capture technology could help fossil-fuel companies in the
long run too, and funding research gives politicians a way to
make progress on the climate issue without levying new taxes or
asking people to immediately change the ways they live. 

“One of the nice things about carbon capture and removal and use
is that even if you don’t care about climate change, you can
really like these technologies and see the opportunity in them,”
she said.

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