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)
Mark Sultan Gersava grew up in poverty, one of 12 children of a slash-and-burn subsistence farmer in the Philippines province of Sultan Kudarat.
Today he is the “chief executive farmer” of a company aimed at tackling that same poverty, and combating climate change at the same time.
His firm Bambuhay helps farmers shift from slash-and-burn agriculture – which accounts for about a third of deforestation in the Philippines – to growing bamboo, now in demand as an alternative material to throw-away plastic.
The company, now in its second year of operation, makes popular bamboo straws, toothbrushes, tumblers, and bamboo-based charcoal briquettes, to replace those made from wood.
So far Bambuhay has sold nearly 400,000 reuseable bamboo straws, Gersava said.
In late October, wearing a bamboo salakót, a traditional farmers hat, he told delegates to the One Young World conference of youth leaders in London what drove him to launch his company.
“In the span of one year, I experienced two super typhoons (and) the hottest measured temperature in Philippines history,” Gersava said.
“This was the first time I had faced the direct consequences of climate change,” he said.
Less Poverty, Fewer Emissions
Gersava settled on bamboo – a fast-growing plant that absorbs large amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide and can help prevent soil erosion – as a way of taking action on both climate change and poverty.
The Philippines climate, he said, is perfect for growing the giant grass and has helped poor farmers “become agri-preneurs.”
The effort has helped cut extreme poverty for thousands of farmers so far, he says.
“Bamboo is a symbol of poverty in the Philippines. If you live in a bamboo house, you’re very poor – that’s basically how it was before,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But bamboo now has gained a lot of good attention since I started the company,” he said.
Bambuhay has partnered with the Philippines government and farmers to replant 540 hectares (1,340 acres) of deforested land through the company’s Bamboo AgroForestry Program, Gersava said.
Just how versatile bamboo fibre can be was evident in the entrepreneur’s own attire at the conference, including a sleek bamboo wallet and his cone-shaped hat, a golden salakót.
Such hats are usually made from reeds, but his was produced by farmers from bamboo – a gift in gratitude for his help in pulling them out of poverty, he said.
“When I wear this hat, I feel connected to the farmers. They are the one who are left behind,” Gersava said.
“They are the most important people that we that we need to protect. … We need to value these people more.”
Last year, Gersava sold his condominium, quit his job and with no formal business training and just $2,000 in start-up funds launched Bambuhay, his social enterprise.
“It’s very hard to start a business in the Philippines,” he said.
“There’s no support from the government, you have very limited funding. … I started with only one person.”
Now Gersava employs 17 full-time staff. He says as CEO his aim is not to become rich but to ensure much of what the company earns passes to its farmers.
Still, in addition to helping farmers, he’s been able to help pay college fees for his two nieces and support his siblings and parents, he said.
He says his work is far from done. By 2030, he aims for his company to have helped establish 1 billion bamboo plants and to have lifted 100,000 farmers out of poverty, especially in extremely poor areas such as his hometown and the province of Sulu.
Growing up in an impoverished family in Sultan Kudarat, he said, has given him a deep understanding of who pays the highest price as climate change impacts, from floods and droughts to heatwaves and storms, intensify.
“The wealthy CEOs and politicians are not the ones suffering the most from the consequences of climate change. It is the rural villager,” he said.
“It is the struggling farmers who are suffering from severe water shortages and droughts that will be the worst hit by food insecurity,” he predicted.