Widgets Magazine

Professors challenge conventional wisdom of climate change

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions may no longer be enough to halt global warming, according to a new report produced by researchers at the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) on the importance and capabilities of various carbon-negative technologies.

The report, which was co-authored by Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth Science Christopher Field Ph.D. ’81 and energy assessment analyst Jennifer Milne, summarized ideas presented at the GCEP’s June 2012 workshop. The workshop had focused on carbon-negative technologies– those that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere– rather than the more common carbon-neutral approach.

“We have a significant problem with climate change,” Field said. “These carbon-negative technologies are important to understand and we ought to know what we can do– all options and all limitations.”

At the workshop, scientists from universities around the country presented new technologies for extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reinserting it into the earth and the sea, accentuating a natural process.

“The purpose of the workshop was just choose one particular set of approaches and discuss the limitations, [and ask] could this work, under which circumstances,” Milne said.

Scientists also discussed strategies for storing carbon for longer periods of time, such as through biochar, wetland carbon storage and ocean sequestration.

Dominic Wolf, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, spoke about the potential of biochar, a carbon-rich substance created by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. According to Wolf, biochar could be used to store excess carbon and enhance degraded soil by improving the soil’s fertility and tilth.

Larry Baxter, a professor at Brigham Young University, presented another carbon capture strategy called cryogenic carbon capture. In this process, flue gas– the gas typically emitted by industrial power plants– is captured, dried, chilled and then expanded until it precipitates carbon dioxide.

The GCEP is currently in the process of reviewing the proposals solicited from the workshop, in hopes of granting $6 million to fund new carbon-negative technologies. According to Field, this review process will likely continue until fall 2013.

“The funding isn’t so much a prize, but a license to work a lot of late nights and weekends.” Field said.

While Milne and Field expressed optimism about some of the technologies presented at the workshop, they acknowledged an ongoing broader debate regarding carbon capture technologies’ economic and practical efficiency. Current carbon-negative technologies are too expensive to implement on a wide scale, and some research suggest that the process required to capture and store carbon may release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it collects.

Given those challenges, Field warned against assuming that carbon-negative technologies will solve the issue of global warming.

“Negative emission technologies might work and if it they do they will be part of a wide portfolio of solutions,” Field said. “It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Not a silver bullet.”

  • Icarus62

    Most of the energy consumed by global civilisation in the last 250 years has come from burning fossil fuels – i.e. the chemical reactions which release energy and produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. My concern is that turning that carbon dioxide back into elemental carbon will consume an equally large amount of energy – where’s it going to come from? Clearly it would be pointless to burn more fossil fuels to power the process. Biochar would certainly work in theory but it would require burning vast amounts of biomass and it would be much too slow. It seems to me that we need a miracle.

  • ajram

    Very good point. At the moment there is quite a bit of research that shows the technologies available today are inefficient. With the technologies we have today, too much carbon dioxide is put into atmosphere than is taken out. However, down the road ideally these technologies will either consume less energy to capture and store carbon or they may even produce energy as they capture and store carbon. Technologies of that capacity are far down the road. They will not help us today, but they can possibly help significantly in the future. Research for these technologies are what GCEP is planning to fund and if the technology works it will be nothing short of a miracle. In much the same way Jonas Salk’s cure for polio or Neil Armstrong’s small footstep were considered so.

    As Dr. Field says, this is no get out of jail free card. We still need to consume less. That includes turning off your computer when it is not in use, turning the television screen off, spending less time in the shower, eating less. That’s not impossible. But people, especially in this country, need to understand the magnitude of their actions. Our habits will be passed down generation to generation and if we want to make an impact we ought to change our habits now, before we burrow ourselves deeper, and even if it is uncomfortable.