This week’s entry: Carbon dioxide removal
What it’s about: As everyone knows, factories, automobiles, industrial-scale farming, and other human activity has increased the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the highest level in millennia. As a result, we’ve seen increasing droughts and forest fires, not to mention extreme shifts in weather that have given us the likes of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and last week’s snowstorm that buried Buffalo, New York and the surrounding area. While there is a worldwide effort underway to reduce carbon emissions worldwide (and a well-funded effort to deny the problem and prevent any progress), it has not been terribly effective, although China and the U.S. (the world’s two most prolific CO2 producers), recently agreed to redouble their efforts.
While putting less CO2 into the atmosphere is essential to tackling the climate change problem, another strategy is to simply take CO2 back out of the atmosphere. Whether we have the resources or political will to enact these strategies on a large scale remains to be seen, but many such strategies exist.
Strangest fact: Nature spent a few million years developing the tree, but one scientist thinks he has nature beat. Columbia University researcher Klaus Lackner is developing an artificial tree, which he believes can draw 1,000 times more CO2 out of the atmosphere than an actual tree. Lackner’s “tree” is a CO2 scrubber, which uses an ion exchange resin—usually used for water purification—as a filter to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. Built to the size of a tree, it would remove a ton of carbon per day out of the air, to be stored in solid form.
Biggest controversy: The obvious one. While there is an absolute consensus among scientists—a group of people who never been able to form a consensus on something as simple as whether or not eggs are good for you—that climate change is real, man-made, and will have disastrous consequences if unchecked, reducing carbon emissions will by necessity impact the bottom line of industries that currently emit lots of carbon, starting with, but not limited to, oil and coal producers. Deniers try to assert that climate change doesn’t exist, but that if it does exist, it isn’t caused by human activity, but if it is caused by human activity, it isn’t going to cause any serious problems, but if it is causing problems, we can adapt when the time comes, but if the problem is so big we can’t adapt then there’s nothing we can do about it so why bother? Unlike most controversies, this is a one-sided one, as none of those things are true.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Rocks could actually fix the air. When certain calcium-based rocks are weathered down into smaller particles by the rain, they react with the rainwater in a chemical process that takes CO2 from the air and stores it in the smaller particles of rock. It’s believed that, through a process called enhanced weathering, this process can be artificially induced, taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it more or less permanently in the ground. This would be one of the cheapest methods of CO2 removal, and it’s claimed this method could potentially store thousands of years’ worth of carbon emissions—although Wikipedia notes, “citation needed.”
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Fixing the climate is going to be expensive. While the American Physical Society estimates $600 per ton as a realistic cost for carbon capture, the Global Carbon Capture And Storage Institute insists it can be done for less than €100 per ton ($120-125). As we’ve released half a trillion tons of CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, getting the climate back into balance is going to be an expensive proposition—even the cheaper estimate would be roughly equivalent to all the money in the world. Hopefully, like most technologies, this one will get cheaper over time.
Also noteworthy: While for centuries, the myth endured of pre-Columbian America as a pristine wilderness that the local population somehow left untouched, archaeologists now believe that Native Americans on both continents managed their environment. One such way was by intentionally starting forest fires. Depending on the nature of the fire, this could help trees thrive by clearing out undergrowth, or clear forest to create grazing land or farmland. The result of such fires was biochar—charcoal created when plants burn in a low-oxygen environment. Biochar acts as a powerful fertilizer, hence its desirability in creating farmland. But scientists now suspect it could be used as a method of carbon sequestration. It’s possible that the increase in wildfires caused by climate change could actually be helping to mitigate climate change.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Another method listed here is a fairly complicated chemical process involving sodium hydroxide. A pilot plant for a carbon capture facility using this method is under development, with significant funding coming from Bill Gates. Naturally, the software giant’s life and career are of some interest, and Wikipedia has an extensive page for the world’s richest man.
Further down the wormhole: Most of the CO2 removal strategies this page discusses are either new technologies, or still being developed. As such technologies exist in all fields—to close to existing to be science fiction, but not quite science fact—Wikipedia has compiled a list of emerging technologies. We’ll use that list to peer into the near future next week.