A recent headline on NPR caught my eye: Carbon Emissions Could Plummet. The Atmosphere Will Lag Behind. At first, my eye caught the words “emissions” and “plummet” in the same sentence and I got cautiously hopeful, then I saw the second clause and went back to my usual state of climate anxiety. Thanks to a lot of effort on the part of a lot of individuals, governments, and businesses, it no longer seems impossible to reduce emissions on a global scale. The problem is – that won’t be enough anymore. There is already too much carbon in the atmosphere.
According to this super informative article in the Economist, “to hold global temperatures below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the latest science shows we will need to reach net zero emissions globally by 2050 and net negative emissions after that”. How do we achieve negative emissions? The article lists seven strategies: Afforestation and Reforestation, Peatland Rewetting, Agricultural Soil Management, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, Mass Timber, Carbon Mineralization, and Direct Air Capture.
The first three strategies are low cost, accessible, and scalable. Basically, people just need to invest some time, money, and energy in them. Here in New Hampshire we can’t rewet peatlands directly, but we can certainly plant trees and we can support organic farmers who practice sustainable agriculture. We can keep New Hampshire forested and rural by supporting land trusts and farms and by dissuading development.
Bioenergy (“converting biomass to energy then capturing and storing the carbon it contains”) and mass timber (“substituting mass timber for concrete and steel”) are both in the early stages of deployment and need more testing and research. There is concern that some of the consequences (harvesting lots of trees, for example) will outweigh the benefits. Often our solutions turn into more problems. For example, when our society was trying to fix the hole in the ozone layer, we ended up exacerbating climate change. It’s important not to rush into solutions without researching them first.
Direct Air Capture (offers the possibility of chemically scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere) and Carbon Mineralization (occurs when carbon dioxide in the air reacts with certain minerals to permanently store captured carbon) are still in the research and development stage. If you happen to have a lot of money, I’d suggest investing in these solutions now. The Economist again: “based on an estimated potential deployment of 0.5-5bn tons of CO2 captured each year by 2050,3 the DAC market could exceed US$500bn per year”.
We have a long way to go, but, according to the NPR article, “economists already see signs that the economy is beginning to shift to the next generation of cleaner, cheaper energy. The price of wind and solar energy has plummeted, and energy-efficient vehicles are increasingly popular”. If we can keep on this path, plus invest in and support these carbon sequestration technologies, we have a chance to avoid a climate catastrophe. Same article: “If countries transform their economies to cut heat-trapping emissions sharply, today’s kindergartners could inherit a safer world when they reach middle age”. That’s our goal. Let’s do this!