Two devastating reports on the climate crisis were released recently – the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5 ºC special report and the Existential Climate-Related Security Risk report. The warnings are grim. As a parent, looking ahead to catastrophic climate collapse in the near future fills me with despair. If drastic actions are not taken I will live to see my children’s ruined future. Even if carbon emissions are miraculously reduced to zero over the next ten years the climate crisis will still cause devastation with the global poor paying the highest price.
Our societies need to take drastic action now but we can’t do that from a place of despair or hopelessness. We need to look beyond carbon neutrality to carbon negativity and this is where there is hope. We can reverse the climate crisis*. We have the technology and solutions – we just need to adopt them at the pace and scale this crisis merits.
*We cannot reverse other environmental issues in a mere decade like the immense loss of biodiversity or the microplastic pollution spread throughout the world. We will need to leave that work to future generations, our priority now must be to ensure that those generations have a future.
Here are some of the technologies and solutions that give me hope.
- Carbon Sequestration in Sand and Concrete: The world is currently experiencing a shortage of sand for building materials. Blue Planet ltd has developed an economically sustainable carbon capture process that generates sand/concrete building materials that are by mass 44% captured CO2. Based on global construction rates, broad adoption of this method could sequester incredible amounts of CO2 while using existing infrastructure and being economically viable. For a specific example, Singapore could continue to grow it’s landmass using this method instead of mining sand from neighboring countries while locking away CO2 to prevent rising sea levels from wiping out their progress.
- Direct Air Capture: The carbon sequestration model used by Blue Planet ltd relies on carbon being supplied from a source like a forge or power plant. Direct Air Capture offers a way to pull CO2 directly from the air to be used for industrial purposes, as jet fuel, or sequestration. Carbon Engineering, Global Thermostat, and Climeworks are three companies pioneering economically viable models of Direct Air Capture. Large scale adoption of these technologies would boost local economies while lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. They would also offer a realistic buffer while the world works to wean itself from fossil fuels.
- The Sahara Desert: There have been several ambitious plans to use the Sahara desert to address the climate crisis.
- DESERTEC: This was a mega-project to build a massive chain of solar farms in the Sahara that could generate power for Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Incredible in scale, the project had a pragmatic modular design that has allowed for adoption on a smaller scale throughout the world. Projects like this, using barren deserts for solar power, could effectively power the world.
- Geoengineering: In 2009, a group of scientists wrote a concept paper in the journal Climate Change outlining a plan to ‘green’ the Sahara. This ambitious plan would pump desalinated seawater from the coast to the desert where rapid growing trees like Eucalyptus would capture CO2 via photosynthesis while transforming the desert into forest. The estimated cost was $2 trillion annually. The downside? The plan had the risk of unleashing massive locust swarms on Africa and eventually destroying the Amazon rain forest. The plan is not being implemented but offers a framework that can be adopted in deserts around the world on a smaller scale.
- Aforestation and Reforestation: Movements like the Billion Tree Tsumani and ARF100 are creating forests where none were and restoring forests that had been lost. These efforts stabilize the local environment, create new tree based economies, and sequester massive amounts of CO2 through photosynthesis. In the United States, the National Arbor Day Foundation has been spearheading forestation efforts for nearly 150 years. Biocarbon Engineering has developed drones that can plants an incredible amount of trees using machine-learning powered analytics and biodegradable seed pods that kickstart the soil microbiome.
- Holistic Planned Grazing: This livestock management method attempts to answer the question, “if overgrazing is the cause of desertification, why is protected grassland turning to desert?” The answer they came to – as offered in the TED talk How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change – is that natural grassland has a three way symbiotic relationship with herd animals and – critically – with large predators. Humans killing off large predators have fundamentally changed herd grazing behavior and harmed the grasslands which are naturally reliant on herds grazing as if under the threat of a predator. You might have seen the video on how re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone drastically changed the environment by influencing herbivore behavior – this is a similar concept. Holistic Planned Grazing is a lifestock management methodology that attempts to mimic ‘under threat’ grazing behavior to regenerate grasslands, reversing desertification and sequestering CO2.
- Nuclear Power: At the moment my family’s carbon footprint is remarkably low for living in North America. This isn’t because we live in a high efficiency house, drive a hybrid, or have geothermal heating. It’s because we live approximately 12 miles from a nuclear power plant. Nuclear power has a bad reputation but like shark attacks or airplane crashes, it’s statistically safer than public opinion believes (or, to phrase it more accurately, like pig attacks and car crashes, fossil fuel is far more dangerous than generally acknowledged). Did you know that coal power plants emit far more radiation into the environment than nuclear? Did you know that studies have linked fossil fuel emissions to cancer and asthma? Forget vaccinations, did you know there’s a study showing a correlation between children inhaling fossil fuel fumes and autism? Did you know that – even counting Chernobyl – hydroelectric dams have been deadlier than nuclear? That’s not even taking into account hydroelectric’s devastating impact on river biodiversity or the untold impact of fossil fuel exposure on local communities – such as the 2017 Arkema chemical plant explosion. Nuclear offers known and tested technology that can be leveraged as a low carbon buffer until sustainable options can be rolled out on a large scale. It’s a safe and reasonable stepping stone from fossil fuels to renewable energy yet instead of ramping up nuclear energy government/industry has doubled down on terrible methods of fossil fuel extraction like fracking.
- Private Action: Most governments have been slow to take effective action to deal with the climate crisis. Sadly, many governments have actually defended regressive policies – like fracking and deforestation – that have accelerated the climate crisis. Private groups have begun to step into this leadership vacuum and implement aggressive programs to address the climate crisis. Here are a few notable examples.
- Soil Carbon Sequestration: Currently, land management is the second largest source of human CO2 emissions. But it doesn’t have to be that way – simple changes in agricultural practices can sequester CO2 in the soil while promoting soil health, increasing biodiversity, reducing erosion, and retaining water. The techniques are well known and documented, they’ve been rigorously proven on a small scale for decades – Agribusiness just needs to adopt them on a massive scale.
There are more technologies and solutions out there. We just need to implement them at the scale and pace this crisis demands. We can’t wait for our governments to act – they have already failed us – we have to invest in private groups that are acting now while demanding that our governments give this issue the priority it deserves.