Groundbreaking New Report on Geoengineering Tackles Carbon Dioxide Removal Experiments

, senior climate scientist | February 10, 2015, 4:23 pm EDT
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The scientific body established by a law signed by President Lincoln released two groundbreaking reports today on geoengineering. The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) emphasized in each report that reducing heat-trapping emissions and adapting to a changing climate are the two main options for reducing the risks of climate change.

The NAS committee, chaired by Marcia McNutt, recommended avoiding the terms “geoengineering” or “climate engineering,” which imply an engineering precision that is not warranted. Plus “geological engineering” has a different meaning in the context of mining. The committee preferred to define the term “climate intervention” as “purposeful actions intended to produce a targeted change in some aspect of the climate.”

Carbon overload

The core problem is overloading the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

The first report assesses ways to strike at the core of the problem by intentional carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. These have the potential to reduce the risks of most consequences that stem from overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, including ocean acidification. The second report, assesses ways of reflecting sunlight to cool Earth. (To learn more about this report check out the blog by my colleague Peter Frumhoff.)

Climate intervention raises questions of governance

Both reports also point out that intentional experiments such as these raise profound issues regarding governance that are at present not well developed in most countries or international organizations.

Appropriately, given the role of the NAS to advise the federal government on matters of science or of a technical nature, the reports recognize that other disciplines need to weigh in on improving governance before deployment should be considered in many cases. For example, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Oxford Principles in the UK represent early explorations of governance.

One of the issues raised is that those who may experience the consequences of intentional experiments would ideally be brought into the review of proposals, and prior approval would be sought before conducting experiments in the field. Another idea is to have an independent team of experts study potential consequences of any experiment proposed.

Carbon removal and sequestration more costly than reducing emissions

Among the key findings from the report on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration is that the costs of many current proposals are likely to exceed that of reducing heat-trapping emissions through wide deployment of renewable energy sources and significant reductions in fossil fuel combustion.

For example, current cost estimates for scrubbing the parts per million carbon dioxide concentrations from the atmosphere are exceedingly high. Though less costly then direct air capture, costs are still high for capturing carbon dioxide directly at a concentrated point source such as a bioenergy source. As far as the reliable sequestration portion of the entire enterprise, saline aquifers seem the most promising of the geologic reservoirs examined in the United States.

Reducing emissions is most economical and least risky choice

Most proposals for carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration are far costlier than widespread deployment of renewable energy sources and other ways to reduce fossil fuel combustion.

The report noted that some carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration projects have already been explored with unequal results. For example, reforestation can sequester carbon for at least the lifetime of the trees. Far riskier is intentional acceleration of carbon dioxide removal by enhancing the biological uptake in the ocean through iron fertilization. According to the report, “deploying ocean iron fertilization at climatically relevant levels poses risks that outweigh potential benefits.”

Decades to achieve – not a quick fix

Most proposals would likely take a decade or longer to achieve modest climate effects. What if the funding stopped for a carbon dioxide removal experiment? The report assesses this as well. The committee determined that any sudden stoppage of a carbon dioxide removal and sequestration experiment is considered a low-risk action. Given the time delay of most proposals, this gives time to conduct thorough research into potential consequences (e.g. earthquakes associated with injecting carbon deep into geologic reservoirs).  Most of the carbon removal and sequestration research experiments examined were considered in the report to be relatively regional with regard to governance aspects.

The bottom line is that this report is a call for further research into safe ways for carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. In particular, ramping up research into land use and reforestation approaches seem the least risky of those covered in the report. The National Science Foundation and U.S. federal agencies could spur innovation with investments in transparent research programs on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration.



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  • Diana Moss

    As if oceans aren’t already polluted enough!

  • Kevin Schmidt

    Fossil fuel industry and MSM smearing of the NAS begins in three… two…. one…
    Congressional Republicans calling for the defunding of the NAS begins in three… two… one…

  • Bruce

    WTF? First, we must STOP “DIGGING” (quit adding more CO2 to the atmosphere); then suck it up and return to the ground)! Otherwise, this Is simpletonly Terminally JEJUNE.

  • The committee was right to separate the two broad types of climate intervention — removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere versus blocking incoming sunlight — because these are wildly different in how much we know about them, the state of technology, and the mix of risks and benefits they offer. I also think they largely got it right in their judgments and recommendations on each type, although I wish they had done a bit more to clarify the serious governance problems these technologies pose. And they correctly — like every prior report on climate engineering — said AS LOUDLY AS THEY COULD that the first, essential priorities for dealing with climate change are cutting emissions and adapting to the climate changes we can’t avoid. They recommend researching climate intervention not *instead of* doing these things, but *in addition to them*, in the hope of reducing further the very serious climate-change risks we’re stuck with, no matter how hard we work to cut emissions.

    I’ll write a separate comment on Peter’s blog post about the albedo modification report. On the carbon report, my biggest concern — oddly, since I mostly write that we have to pursue these things — is that the committee’s summary language and accompanying presentation materials are a mite too favorable. Their summary language states that CO2 removal (in contrast with albedo modification) addresses the root cause of climate change. But this is only true if the places we put the carbon are reliably stable for the required millennial time scale — which can likely be achieved, but is not demonstrated yet. (Note: the full text of the report has all these qualifications — it’s just a slight tilt in the summary material I’m quibbling with.)

    Also, they note that CO2 removal will probably end up competing on cost with conventional emission cutting, but I wish they’d been more forceful on how much better and cheaper the opportunities for emission cutting look, relative to most/all identified removal options. There are good reasons to develop carbon capture — including flexibility of location, timing, and scale of the removal, plus crucially, the unique possibility (if deployed at huge scale, in conjunction with strict emissions cuts) of driving net human emissions negative and thereby reversing the damage we’ve done. But subject to the limits of how much mitigation can be achieved how fast, mitigation mostly dominates carbon capture. They have a table (3.3) that kind of says this, but I wish they’d said it straight out. Finally, I find something a little unseemly about going easy on large emission sources, then mounting what would probably be a huge, publicly funded, public-works project to suck the carbon back out: Kind of like letting me dump as much garbage as I want for free, then having the city clean it up at public expense. We probably will need/want to do this, but mitigation — a lot of it, fast, — comes first.

    • Brenda Ekwurzel

      thank you for your comment regarding the governance and relative cost issues. I
      agree that more information about costs would be most welcome going
      forward. It may not always clear that the
      reports make the point that many proposals evaluated could only be successful
      if there were significant emissions reductions.
      Therefore the least expensive option is aggressive emissions reductions.

  • The last time we were in Colorado snowboarding we filmed the most unbelievable amount of chemtrails I’ve ever witnessed in my life. With this kind of report, its safe to say we are not conspiracy theorists when we witness such an assault on our skies and ultimately ourselves. There is a side of me that believes that when a big storm builds up they spray to increase its intensity because jobs and businesses depend on snow. This is unethical on so many levels as the chemicals used are incredibly harmful especially to children. Clearly we need to change our ways yet scientists are still using the “quickfix” method at the risk of our health with no oversight. Most people don’t make the connection and have no idea why they may be sick so you take pharmaceuticals everyday. It’s a never ending cycle of greed and deception.

    • Brenda Ekwurzel

      The NAS Committee would agree with your valid concern about intentional
      injection of anything into the atmosphere in order to influence the
      Climate. Near the very end of the question and answer period of the “Climate Intervention” dual report release, the Committee Chair summed this up most directly. Marcia McNutt held up the first report (covered in this blog) and said essentially that reforestation and land use are ways of carbon dioxide removal that are worth exploring. The Committee Chair then held up the second report (covered in Peter Frumhoff’s blog on reflecting sunlight to cool Earth and shook her head in a “no” motion. Then expressed something akin to gosh I hope we don’t do this. By publishing two separate reports it was the NAS committee’s way of making clear that distinction.

    • Kevin Schmidt

      Where is the scientific proof that chemtrails exist? Urban legends and conspiracy websites do not count.
      What you actually filmed were contrails in an atmosphere that was high in humidity.

      • Joshua

        After consulting with this video of the Shasta County board meeting about climate intervention you may have a different perspective. This not me saying that you are “wrong” in regards to mass die-offs occurring fossil fuel pollution, but shouldn’t we try to avoid most (if not all) pollution?

      • Kevin Schmidt

        I am not going to watch another unscientific video about chemtrails.
        Even if they did actually exist, they would be a drop in the bucket compared to fossil fuel pollution. You pose a false equivalency.

  • Richard Solomon

    CO2 removal and sequestration are another example of the extent to which people are invested in sustaining their current lifestyles with the practically unmitigated use of fossil fuels. Why develop alternative, renewable sources of fuel and change one’s life when one can ‘just’ use technology to avoid having to change?!? Denial of a problem and resistance to change are powerful mechanisms!

    • You raise an important context. The NAS committee and the reports make the strong point that the best options are reducing emissions of carbon that lead to CO2 in the atmosphere and adapting to climate change. This includes methane which converts to CO2 after 12 years in the atmosphere. Reducing emissions is the safest, least risky and most economical way forward. The NAS reports released yesterday emphasizes once more that fundamental understanding.

    • Brenda Ekwurzel

      You raise an important context. The NAS committee and the reports make the
      strong point that the best options are reducing emissions of carbon that lead
      to CO2 in the atmosphere and adapting to climate change. This includes methane which converts to CO2 after12 years in the atmosphere. Reducing
      emissions is the safest, least risky and most economical way forward. The NAS
      reports released yesterday emphasizes once more that fundamental understanding.

    • Pixie5

      Like kids starting smoking because they figure by the time they get cancer there will be a cure for it…