Why We Need to Trust Technology to Fight Climate Change

By Morgen Henderson

Based on the Paris Climate Agreement, more than 6,000 cities, states, and provinces in dozens of countries must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to save life as we know it. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report foretells an inhospitable Earth unless we achieve this monumental undertaking.

Already, people around the world, particularly the poor, are being subjected to rampant suffering caused by extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. As overpopulation continues to wreak havoc on our energy demands, these problems are going to get worse without immediate action.

Globally, most political leaders are unified in the fight against increasing greenhouse gases; however, locally, politicians and citizens still bicker among partisan lines and pander favorable legislation to the 100 fossil fuel companies that produce 71 percent of man-made carbon emissions. It’s obvious our political leaders won’t be the ones to solve this global crisis. So who will?

Environmental researchers, engineers, physicists, and other scientists will save humanity if they’re provided the resources to create and refine climate-saving technologies. Many of these resources, such as funding and data, are supplied by government agencies like the EPA, USGS, and NASA. But corporate entities like Google are also jumping into the fray.

OCO-2
Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) environmental science satellite which launched on 2 July 2014. The spacecraft is being used to study carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations and distributions in the atmosphere. CO2 is the greenhouse gas that is the largest human-generated contributor to global warming. Image: NASA

Google recently launched a new sustainability initiative to estimate greenhouse-gas emissions for individual cities. In a press release, the company stated the project, dubbed the Environmental Insights Explorer, is part of an ambitious plan to provide actionable geographic information to climate-concerned local leaders.

Currently, the tool provides carbon emissions from electricity and transportation for five cities. Although Google says it intends to provide estimates of a city’s annual driving, biking, and transit ridership. Some of the data for these estimates are provided by government agencies, but other information is, generated Google’s proprietary map apps, Google Maps and Waze.

Although the tool is a ways off from providing the type of insightful data the company aspires toward, it does provide some high-level insights that make easy talking points for motivated leaders. These simple insights can go a long way toward inspiring meaningful change. An article published in The Atlantic discusses how UNEP’s Climwarn project allows Kenyan farmers to take better care of their crops through a flood warning system. The article also touches on an energy production innovation by oil conglomerate Shell, which developed a technology that transforms footsteps into energy in a Brazilian favela.

These insights and innovations create meaningful ways to combat or adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. But the scale at which they’re implemented is small and won’t solve the global crisis at hand.

The good news is that there are many globally significant technologies that are being researched and implemented by environmentally-conscious leaders. The following technologies, combined with local efforts, may provide the drastic achievement the IPCC demands.

Recycling Carbon Dioxide

The most effective way to reduce how much carbon dioxide pollutes our atmosphere is to prevent the gas from reaching it. This process is being tackled with two promising methods: recycling CO2 and carbon capture storage.

Recycling CO2 is one of the few methods that allows companies to recoup some of the investment and research costs of carbon sequestration techniques. The financial upside comes from transforming the captured CO2 into methanol and then selling that as a clean-burning fuel source.

A recent Forbes article highlights the Icelandic company Carbon Recycling International, which uses electricity and captured carbon dioxide emissions to produce a methanol fuel known as Vulcanol. The company relies on one of Iceland’s geothermal plants for electricity, which mainly functions to provide the nearby town of Grindavik with 150 MW of thermal energy for the district heating and up to 75 MW for electrical power.

The CRI factory can produce about 4,000 metric tons of methanol per year, eliminating CO2 emissions. Best of all, the renewable fuel produced can be replicated anywhere that has a cheap power supply (like geothermal or hydroelectric) and an ample carbon dioxide source, such as a manufacturing factory.

Carbon Capture Storage

Power plants and industrial facilities that use carbon capture storage can prevent more than 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from reaching the atmosphere. The IPCC report emphasizes that carbon capture can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050. The technology is also viewed as the only practical way to achieve deep decarbonization in the industrial sector.

As of 2017, nearly two dozen commercial-scale carbon capture projects are operating worldwide. The CCES report shows 22 projects are in development.

The carbon dioxide gathered by these projects can be used in natural gas processing, coal gasification, ethanol production, fertilizer production, and manufacturing building materials. Unused CO2 is safely stored in underground geologic formations.

Stratospheric Aerosol Injection

Among the more controversial solutions considered in the IPCC report is stratospheric aerosol injection. Unlike carbon capture or recycling, which prevent CO2 from clogging Earth’s atmosphere, SAI manages and offsets the warming effects of solar radiation.

The SAI process pumps gasses into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun’s heat. This forms a phenomenon similar to what naturally happens after strong volcanic eruptions.

The IPCC report says current SAI technologies have a high likelihood of successfully limiting how fast the Earth warms. However, as a Dezeen report points out, the scale and unpredictability of SAI make its implementation and governance difficult — implementing the solution in one country can trigger rain and extreme weather conditions across borders.

Another key issue the Dezeen report mentions is the “termination shock” when the SAI is discontinued. This sudden atmospheric change could cause a spike in temperatures and create new climate problems for future generations.

Forests

Although trees are not technically a technology, regrowing our diminished and devastated forests requires significant technological investment.

According to a recent Scientific American article, recent research shows forests and other natural climate solutions are essential in mitigating climate change and reaching the IPCC targets. That’s because one tree can store an average of about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in one year; the Scientific American article states that intact forests are capable of storing the equivalent of the carbon dioxide emissions of entire countries such as Peru and Colombia.

If forest development is prioritized and financed, carbon sequestration and storage capabilities from trees can achieve 37 percent of the 2050 climate target.

Climate stability affects every aspect of our lives. From having access to clean air and water to supporting a biodiverse ecosystem that provides us with food. All of humanity is at risk unless these technologies work.

About the author

Morgen lives in the Silicon Slopes of Salt Lake City. She loves learning about technology and science. In her spare time, you can find her baking or traveling the globe.

One thought on “Why We Need to Trust Technology to Fight Climate Change”

  1. I found it interesting that by implementing the use of carbon capture storage at power plants and industrial facilities, 90% of carbon dioxide emissions can be stopped from reaching the atmosphere. My daughter is writing a paper on the options we have to reduce global warming, so I have been helping her look at topics. I will send this information to her, so she can add it to her list of options.

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