With climate-changing emissions still inching higher — and resulting threats from extreme weather surging — sucking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere must become an urgent priority, backers of “carbon removal” efforts say.
“The math is quite simple,” Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, told a panel discussion on the fledgling approach this week.
If the world overshoots the temperature goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, as looks increasingly likely, “carbon removal gets us back on track,” he said.
“The first imperative is to reduce emissions as quickly and deeply as possible,” Bapna said. “But there is now a second imperative… to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a large scale.”
Proposals to suck carbon out of the atmosphere range from planting many more trees, which absorb carbon dioxide to grow, to installing devices that capture carbon directly from the air.
Changing farming practices to store more carbon in soils, or producing energy by growing trees or crops, burning them and pumping underground the carbon released also could play a role, scientists say.
Interest in carbon removal technologies is growing, not least because countries from Britain to the United States have included some of them in their plans to curb climate change.
They also feature in a report, due out next month, by the world’s leading climate scientists, who say governments may have to find ways to extract vast amounts of carbon from the air if warming overshoots the lower Paris pact limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit). That overshoot is expected to happen by about 2040, according to a draft copy of the report.
“Carbon removal is really about creating options,” said Kelly Levin, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. “If you fast forward 20 or 30 years, we want to keep options open.”
The surging scale of losses to extreme weather — including the storms that smashed into the eastern United States and the Philippines this month — means more people now believe climate change needs to be curbed, said Klaus Lackner, director of the U.S.-based Center for Negative Carbon Emissions.
“I believe we are at a turning point where people are starting to see the problem needs to be solved,” said Lackner, a proponent of technology to capture carbon from the air.
Right now, the costs of carbon removal may be too high but as climate impacts worsen “eventually it will hurt, and then we will pay whatever it takes,” he predicted.
“Show me technologies that didn’t get six times cheaper in a decade when they were actually used,” he added.
Carbon removal faces many other challenges including low government spending, competition for land, and a need to move faster than finance and technology may allow, experts admitted.
For instance, capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air, while possible, also requires a lot of energy, said James Mulligan, a World Resources Institute researcher on carbon removal.
Capturing just 15 percent of U.S. annual emissions would use 7 percent of projected U.S. energy production in 2050, he said.
Avoiding the worst
Farming differently to store more carbon in soils, by comparison, could be cheaper and provide extra benefits, boosting harvests, water conservation and wildlife habitats, said Betsy Taylor, president of consulting firm Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions.
“This pathway is the most affordable, technologically ready and it is a no-regrets option,” particularly as about a third of the world’s soils are now considered degraded, she said.
Experimenting with carbon removal deserves “a newfound sense of urgency” not least because more intrusive “geoengineering” ideas, such as blocking some of the sun’s rays from reaching the planet, are “coming down the pike,” she said.
But getting millions of farmers and ranchers to alter how they work would require significant investment — and monitoring carbon reductions from soil use remains an inexact science, experts admitted.
Most carbon removal technologies would get the world only a fraction of the way to solving its climate problem, they said — and the prospect of having the technologies available might be seized as an excuse to stall action to cut emissions.
“We need to be clear-eyed about the challenges,” Mulligan said.
The key, said Levin of the World Resources Institute, is ensuring both emissions cuts and carbon removal efforts move ahead fast enough to ward off the worst anticipated impacts of climate change, from worsening hunger to extreme heatwaves.
“If you look at the science, we have to pull out all the stops on mitigation and carbon removal at a scale that is completely unprecedented,” she said. (VOA)
Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan. Climate change left its fingerprints on some of the biggest climate extremes of 2017, according to a new assessment.
The report highlights how a changing climate has real-life implications for the professionals who have to deal with the consequences. Case in point: water managers faced with record-breaking rainfall that overwhelmed a faltering dam in California.
“This is not a problem for the future. It’s a problem for today,” said Penn State University climate scientist David Titley, who was not involved with the research.
Seventeen studies from 10 countries make up the report, which the American Meteorological Society has been publishing annually since 2011.
They tease apart the factors that led to each extreme event and estimate the extent to which climate change contributed.
For example, drought parched the U.S. Northern Great Plains in the summer of 2017, drying up farms and ranches, sparking wildfires and racking up more than $2 billion in damage.
The study found that climate change did not affect the amount of rain that fell over the region.
However, higher temperatures brought on by global warming meant that soil dried out quicker. That means a drought of this severity is 1.5 times more likely than it would have been without climate change, the report said.
The report was released at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. It comes as U.N. climate negotiators are meeting in Poland.
At that meeting, U.S., Russian and Saudi negotiators aimed to downplay a dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming.
The new study’s findings confirm what the IPCC first predicted nearly 30 years ago, said study editor Martin Hoerling, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to the group’s first report, the impacts seen today are “the type of change in weather and climate that we would experience if we continued on a trajectory of increasing carbon dioxide,” Hoerling said. “We have certainly done so, and the consequences are unfolding.”
In Oroville, California, last February, the consequences of climate change provided a case study in the challenges of managing critical infrastructure in the face of a changing climate.
A series of torrential rains overfilled the lake behind the Oroville Dam. Because of a damaged spillway, overflowing water threatened to destroy the dam. Nearly 200,000 people downstream were evacuated.
The reservoir was already full when the storm that nearly broke the dam hit. One major reason, the report notes, was the unusual warmth at the end of the previous year. Storms that would normally have fallen as snow instead fell as rain.
Other California dams handled the deluge without incident, however, noted study co-author and hydrologist Julie Vano at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It was the combination of climate change-driven extreme weather and the damaged spillway that made Oroville a near-disaster.
“With aging infrastructure and more development happening in places where there’s risk exposure, we really need to think about how we manage our systems,” she said.
The science is progressing to the point where ignoring it could cause legal problems, according to attorney Lindene Patton with the Earth & Water Law Group.
Drought in the United States and East Africa. Floods in Peru and Bangladesh. Heatwaves in Europe and China. Even unusual cloudiness in Japan.
For example, she said, take the owner of a hypothetical chemical plant located near a river.
Engineers typically design safety features based on historical rainfall patterns. “If your calculations are done assuming 1970s rainfall events,” Patton said, “then your design would not be prepared for today’s climate.”
When climate science can show that rainfall patterns have changed, she added, “if you don’t use that different set of rainfall tables and a chemical release occurs, then you may find a claim is made against you.” (VOA)