Reversing climate change: planetary engineering and experimental technologies

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In 1964 the Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale to measure the level of a civilisation’s technological advancement. A Type I civilisation would use and control all of the natural resources of their home planet. A Type II civilisation has mastery of the power of its star and solar system, and a Type III civilisation harnesses and controls all of the resources available in the galaxy.

By this scale Earth, and humanity, is probably about a Type 0.7. We are using more and more of the resources of this planet, but leaving the natural cycles of elements and minerals unbalanced, and this is causing large, rapid shifts in the climate of our planet. What we need now is the total control of these resources and their environment, a form of climate engineering.

Currently, the opinions of most climate scientists are that we are close to the point of no return, the “tipping point” in regards to the amount of carbon in our atmosphere – but we’re not there yet, and there is time to restrict our emissions and develop technologies to reduce its presence in our atmosphere. Despite some researcher’s claiming that we have already passed this point they may be our best hope for keeping our home liveable.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)

One of the most oft-talked about technologies for reducing carbon levels in our atmosphere is BECCS – combining bio-energy (creating energy from biomass) with carbon capture and storage (capturing and then sequestering the atmospheric carbon in deep geological deposits). CCS technologies have already been guaranteed in many planned power plants, as a way to mitigate carbon emissions.

A diagram showing the processes of CO2 capture and sequestration, with application for biofuels and natural development.
A diagram showing the processes of CO2 capture and sequestration, with application for biofuels and natural development.
LeJean Hardin and Jamie Payne

For a long time carbon has been captured at the point of energy creation for a variety of other purposes – where else would the bubbles in your coke come from? However the key part here is storage – turning the carbon into a form which can then be sequestered deep beneath the earth. The economics of this technology, however, hold it back – it costs about 40% more energy to capture around 85% of the emissions. And there is the threat that storing a vast quantity of carbon in an underground fissure would eventually come back to haunt us – whether by a leak, or something more… explosive.

BECCS does have the potential for removal of CO2 from the atmosphere at a scale that, in conjunction with other conventional mitigation options, could deliver pre-industrial CO2 concentrations (Lenton and Vaughan 2009) and compares favourably in economic terms with other potential methods for air capture, such as using sodium hydroxide (Keith, Ha-Duong et al. 2006).

Carbon “scrubbing”

We know that trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of their photosynthetic processes to generate food, so why not just plant more trees?

Well this is certainly an option! Italian architect Stefano Boeri has designed and been building “vertical forests” – integrating trees into the design of high-rise apartments to reduce the net carbon footprint of these homes. We’ll be watching closely over the next few years to see how effective this is in practice.

Stefano Boeri's vision of vertical forests is coming to fruition in Milan.
Stefano Boeri’s vision of vertical forests is coming to fruition in Milan.
Forgemind ArchiMedia, Flickr

Urban algae farms are being piloted across a highway in Geneva, both as a source of biofuel and to mitigate the urban emissions.

But with the understanding of how to pull carbon out of the air from nature, why can’t we find a technical solution?

Once again… we already have! Based on the same simple chemistry that allows us to recycle human exhalations in submarines and the International Space Station, Klaus Lackner has been developing a special plastic resin – his “artificial leaves”. This plastic can pull calcium out of water in a water softener – but when impregnated with sodium carbonate it pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, which converts the sodium carbonate to bicarbonate, or as it’s better known – baking soda.

Algae running through viaducts above a highway in Geneva, Switzerland.
Algae running through viaducts above a highway in Geneva, Switzerland.
Cloud Collective

This can then be sequestered as we see with BECCS, however it doesn’t need to be tied to the site of initial emissions and could be located directly above the sequestration site – saving time, money and effort.

 

 

 

 

Thinking outside the box

Aside from those processes detailed above, there have been many, many strange and wonderful methods proposed to tackle climate change and greenhouse gases. Breeding and feeding cows to promote lower emissions, breaking up atmospheric CFC’s with giant laser arrays (while using 2% of the planets power!), replacing roads and pavements with solar and kinetic panels.

This is how humanity has traditionally dealt with what seemed like insurmountable problems – we throw all of our ideas at a wall and see what sticks (and what’s cost effective!). There may yet be a novel and ingenious method nobody has thought of which could help us mitigate the biggest threat to our existence yet – and really, we should have faith that we will. Disease, war, famine, and natural disasters have all struck us over the centuries and yet the population and knowledge has only increased.

If we can nurse our planet along for a few more centuries, we may well be ready to leave it – and give mother nature a chance to reverse climate change on her own clock.

 

References

Lenton, T. M. and Vaughan, N. E.: The radiative forcing potential of different climate geoengineering options, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 9, 5539-5561, doi:10.5194/acp-9-5539-2009, 2009.

Keith, D.W., M. Ha-Duong, et al. 2006. Climate strategy with CO2 capture from the air. Climate Change, 74(1-3): 17-45

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Vernon Brechin

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is an unrealistic pipe dream that was part of the COP21 agreement. It is a multifaceted technology that has not been tried out and it is assumed it could be deployed on a massive scale within 35-years and sustained for many decades after that. The target date of 2050 is unrealistic since Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD) effects are happening so rapidly that the collapse of industrial civilization is likely to take place long before that target date is reached. The underground storage efforts began about two decades ago and have not shown the promise that was expected. Finally, numerous studies have shown that many plants, grown under natural conditions do not fare well under conditions of increasing drought, increasing CO2 concentration above certain levels and increasing temperatures. Links to articles, on this last issue follow.

Trees don’t suck up carbon dioxide as hoped
Forests do not get a growth spurt from greenhouse gas
http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050822/full/news050822-7.html

Trees absorbing less CO2 as world warms, study finds
· Shorter winters weaken forest ‘carbon sinks’
· Data analysis reverses scientists’ expectations
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/jan/03/climatechange.carbonemissions

Satellite observations show global plant growth is not keeping up with CO2 emissions
December 7, 2015
Provided by: University of Minnesota
http://phys.org/news/2015-12-satellite-global-growth-co2-emissions.html

Scientists just discovered a surprising new factor that could make global warming worse
By Chelsea Harvey
December 9, 2015
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/12/09/the-surprising-factor-affecting-carbon-storage-in-the-worlds-forests/

The hidden factor that could undermine U.S. plans to cut carbon emissions
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/11/16/the-hidden-factor-that-could-complicate-u-s-plans-to-cut-carbon-emissions/

Scientists say climate change could cause a ‘massive’ tree die-off in the U.S. Southwest
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/12/21/scientists-say-climate-change-could-cause-a-massive-tree-die-off-in-the-southwest/

Increasingly severe disturbances weaken world’s temperate forests
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150829123817.htm

Big Trees First to Die in Severe Droughts
Large trees like sequoias and redwoods suffer most when its dry
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/big-trees-first-to-die-in-severe-droughts/

Amazon rainforest losing ability to regulate climate, scientist warns
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/31/amazon-rainforest-deforestation-weather-droughts-report

The slow collapse of the world’s forests on The Science Show
http://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/pgQm6yo3q7?play=true

Drought Could Kill Off Many of the World’s Trees
http://news.yahoo.com/drought-could-kill-off-many-worlds-trees-144139591.html

NASA satellites reveal something startling about the future of food on Earth
http://beta.finance.yahoo.com/news/nasa-satellites-reveal-something-startling-171000679.html?ltr=1
(Above 95° F photosynthesis rate drops rapidly)

Tens of Millions of Trees in Danger from California Drought
http://carnegiescience.edu/node/1968

Trees don’t suck up carbon dioxide as hoped
Forests do not get a growth spurt from greenhouse gas
http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050822/full/news050822-7.html

Trees absorbing less CO2 as world warms, study finds
· Shorter winters weaken forest ‘carbon sinks’
· Data analysis reverses scientists’ expectations
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/jan/03/climatechange.carbonemissions

Satellite observations show global plant growth is not keeping up with CO2 emissions
December 7, 2015
Provided by: University of Minnesota
http://phys.org/news/2015-12-satellite-global-growth-co2-emissions.html

Scientists just discovered a surprising new factor that could make global warming worse
By Chelsea Harvey
December 9, 2015
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/12/09/the-surprising-factor-affecting-carbon-storage-in-the-worlds-forests/

The hidden factor that could undermine U.S. plans to cut carbon emissions
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/11/16/the-hidden-factor-that-could-complicate-u-s-plans-to-cut-carbon-emissions/

Scientists say climate change could cause a ‘massive’ tree die-off in the U.S. Southwest
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/12/21/scientists-say-climate-change-could-cause-a-massive-tree-die-off-in-the-southwest/

Increasingly severe disturbances weaken world’s temperate forests
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150829123817.htm

Big Trees First to Die in Severe Droughts
Large trees like sequoias and redwoods suffer most when its dry
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/big-trees-first-to-die-in-severe-droughts/

Amazon rainforest losing ability to regulate climate, scientist warns
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/31/amazon-rainforest-deforestation-weather-droughts-report

The slow collapse of the world’s forests on The Science Show
http://radio.abc.net.au/programitem/pgQm6yo3q7?play=true

Drought Could Kill Off Many of the World’s Trees
http://news.yahoo.com/drought-could-kill-off-many-worlds-trees-144139591.html

NASA satellites reveal something startling about the future of food on Earth
http://beta.finance.yahoo.com/news/nasa-satellites-reveal-something-startling-171000679.html?ltr=1
(Above 95° F photosynthesis rate drops rapidly)

Tens of Millions of Trees in Danger from California Drought
http://carnegiescience.edu/node/1968

It would be wise to also consider past technologies that were once considered quite hopeful but which turned out to be great embarrassments. One example was the U.S. program called Project Plowshare that had it’s equivalent in the Soviet Russia. The program involved employing nuclear explosives for various civil engineering projects.

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