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)
Worsening extreme weather linked to climate change is creating hardships for many, from immediate deaths and injuries to increases in asthma and heat stroke. But the psychological trauma that often accompanies such losses is barely on the map.
Depression, anxiety, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to increase after floods, storms, wildfires and heat waves, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), which represents psychologists in the United States.
“The problem with that link is it’s not like so obvious. It’s not like I stick a needle in you, you feel pain right away,” said Anthony Ng, former head of the APA’s caucus on climate change and mental health.
“Some of this is so insidious and gradual that people won’t realize it until it’s too late. That’s why it’s hard for a lot of people to appreciate it.”
The debate over how to safeguard residents of picturesque Ellicott City, a tourist draw an hour’s drive north of Washington, D.C., illustrates the challenges many towns are facing as the world becomes warmer and wetter.
The town was devastated in 2016 by a so-called 1,000-year flood — meaning a magnitude with a one-in-1,000 chance of occurring in any year. The Patapsco River, which runs through the town, rose more than 13 feet in less than two hours.
Less than two years later, a 1,000-year storm struck again, overwhelming the tributaries that converge under the old mill town’s buildings and feed into the Patapsco.
Warmer temperatures are increasing heavy downpours, and rainfall has been growing in intensity in the Northeast, according to the government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, risking power outages and the viability of roads and bridges.
As Ellicott City has become more built up, floodwater flows across paved roads and rooftops, instead of percolating down through the soil as it used to — a phenomenon known as urban runoff, which is worsening globally as cities grow.
In the wake of the 2018 floods, the county launched the Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, which involves demolishing some old buildings, making tunnels to carry water under roads and clearing waterways more regularly.
Officials are also testing a flood warning system, with emergency sirens telling people to move to higher ground. It has caused some alarm among residents, said Amy Miller, a social worker at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.
“You almost have a panic response,” said Miller, whose non-profit organization, based in Columbia, some 8 miles (13 km) south, has provided food, shelter and support to flood survivors.
“We’re basically exposing ourselves to the perceived threat of a traumatic event.”
Grassroots provides 24-hour counseling to people in Ellicott City and the surrounding rolling hills of Howard County who might be feeling suicidal.
Miller has trained farmers to watch out for each other and spot signs of danger, particularly suicide risks.
Farmers are a high risk group. They tend to live solitary lives, have access to lethal means and face financial stress when hit by poor weather and low prices — factors they cannot control, according to anti-suicide campaigners.
“When your livelihood is impacted, that causes hopelessness,” Miller said. “The hard part for farmers is they work almost 24-7, and it’s really hard for them to seek treatment.”
Stanford University predicted last year that a hotter planet could lead to a surge in suicides by 2050. Its data analysis found suicides had risen 0.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Mexico with a 1°C increase in monthly average temperatures.
The researchers also found — by analyzing the language used in more than a half billion Twitter posts — depressive language increased during hot weather, suggesting worse mental health.
Keith Ohlinger, one of the Howard County farmers trained to keep an eye out, said he was driven to the work by the suicide of a young friend who grew up on a nearby farm, planned a career in agriculture and took her own life last year at age 21.
He struggled this spring with heavy rains washing away seeds and soil and leaving hay too wet to be dried and stored for winter feeding.
“Things are changing,” he said. “The Earth is changing, patterns are changing. Things are melting.”
Ohlinger uses his position on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, which advises the government on farming, and at monthly farmers club meetings to bring up mental health, often taboo in the conservative agricultural community.
He said climate change was just one more stress for farmers already worried about commodity prices, credit, bank loans, the price of equipment and old family-run farms being squeezed out by more and more giant residential homes known as McMansions.
“I can’t fix pricing. I can’t fix what the Chinese president or Donald Trump does, but I can surely try and keep someone from killing themselves,” Ohlinger said.
Not everyone in the region is willing to make the link between mental health problems and climate change.
Global warming as a manmade phenomenon is a politically divisive topic in the United States, where President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris agreement, a global pact to fight climate change.
“You talk about global warming, but we deal with this stuff all the time,” said another Howard County farmer, Howie Feago.
“Most farmers believe it’s more of an ebb and flow. We know that the weather is going to be up and down. If you’re going to worry about global warming, you probably ought to get some other kind of job because it will drive you nuts.” (VOA)