By Huck Fairman
As a recent Sierra Club magazine article reminded us, CO2 is an essential ingredient in our atmosphere and biosphere. It flows into plants and the oceans, into rocks and the soil through decomposition. Most of the planet’s CO2 is stored in rocks.
But lately we have been changing the balance. By burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests, plowing up soils, we have changed these flows and our climates. And we are finding that excess carbon in the atmosphere has harmful effects.
What then to do?
It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to reduce our production of carbon emissions, and we need to remove, on a vast scale, much of that carbon. But our removal has not kept pace with emissions.
Turning to renewable energies is a promising development, but there remains significant portions of our economies that will still rely on CO2, namely manufacturing, construction, aviation, shipping and agriculture. The latter will probably have to provide food for as many as 10 billion people by mid-century.
What will be needed, therefore, is “carbon-removal technologies” to reduce greenhouse gases that are trapping heat. These will need to reduce current and future emissions along with those that have accumulated over time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not set a fixed level for removals because that will depend on the choices we make for the different sectors of the economies. Furthermore, while biological carbon-removal – putting carbon into forests and soils – sounds better than building “industrial infrastructure” such as pipelines and injection wells, those biological carbon sinks will eventually fill up. In addition, they are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as wildfires and drought.
Beyond those challenges, there is the risk that carbon removal could distract from changing away from fossil fuels. Vested interests could point to emissions reduction and removal as arguments for maintaining the production of fossil fuels. Widespread popular support, therefore, is needed to maintain momentum in moving away from fossil fuels. Community leadership needs to remind people that removal and turning away from fossil fuels will not only be beneficial, but essential.
Residents need to see that keeping the public interest in mind will help direct policies and help develop beneficial technologies. As CO2 is a public problem, strategies for dealing with it also need to be public in guidance and implementation.