The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report gave us a stark warning: Climate change is here, and it’s getting much worse. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called it a “code red for humanity.” The report states future warming and changes to the climate are guaranteed and irreversible. Essentially, it’s just about how bad we let it get.
Climate scientists agree the number one thing we have to do to fight climate change is decarbonize our economy—stop using fossil fuels entirely as soon as possible. That will help us avoid the worst possible effects of climate change. However, we’re already seeing extreme weather events across the world connected to climate change, and it will take time to get off of fossil fuels, so how do we get back to where things were before climate change started wreaking havoc? Can we go back in time?
The short answer is: Maybe, but it won’t be easy. A technology called direct air capture, which is already being used in places around the world, allows us to literally suck CO2 out of the air. The CO2 is separated from the other gases and can be turned into a liquid, a solid or be pumped into the earth so it can be stored there. It sounds like the perfect solution to our problems, but it’s more complicated than that.
Capturing carbon from the atmosphere is expensive. Prices will go down over time as the technology is developed and more widely adopted, but it’s currently not a very affordable way to combat climate change. Also, to get to where we’d want to be in terms of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, we’d have to capture a whole lot of carbon. We’re talking hundreds of gigatons. What you do with that much carbon remains a question.
Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State and author of The New Climate War, tells The News Station he believes it’s going to be a while before carbon capture technology will play any significant role in the fight against climate change. The priority now is to get off of fossil fuels.
“We could use some combination of reforestation and afforestation and artificial carbon uptake technologies to bring carbon dioxide levels back down over several decades,” Mann says.
As Mann notes, we can also capture carbon by planting trees and through other natural methods. That said, there are problems with going that route. First of all, you’d have to plant a whole lot of trees. And, if a tree dies or burns, the CO2 is released again.
“We have to be aware of the pitfalls. We’re seeing substantial releases of terrestrial carbon from the epic wildfires in North America, Australia, Siberia, Europe, etc.,” Mann says.“Climate change itself may hamper our efforts to bury carbon through natural means such as reforestation and afforestation.”
Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, tells The News Station he also believes it’s going to take time for carbon capture to become a technology that is used in a significant way.
“There is no doubt that [carbon capture] can be built at industrial scale and can be made to work,” Haszeldine says. “However, this has not yet been routinely constructed and routinely installed at industrial scale of millions of tonnes per year for each capture unit. So we can expect a learning curve and a progressive evolution of [carbon capture] as projects become constructed and become operational.”
Haszeldine says one way the carbon capture industry could grow is by governments making it more attractive to the industries emitting the most carbon. If it’s cheaper to start sucking carbon out of the atmosphere than it is to pay a carbon tax, companies will start investing in carbon capture.
“Where this value exists, which can be by payment or can be by avoidance of CO2 tax, then [carbon capture] projects have been built and operate routinely and reliably,” Haszeldine says.
Mann and Haszeldine agree that we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption as much as we can as soon as possible. That will, Haszeldine says, “greatly reduce the size of the problem.” Then we won’t have to capture an unattainable amount of carbon. If we’re going to get to preindustrial carbon levels, though, we will need to capture carbon from the atmosphere.
“It is often said that this is expensive, but compared with the damage inflicted on the climate, then none of this is expensive,” Haszeldine says.