There is wide consensus that to address the climate challenge we must reduce CO2 emissions fast and furiously to zero. Yet, achieving zero emissions even by tomorrow would still leave us with the very significant task of drawing down the accumulated CO2 placed in the atmosphere since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
These emissions total 418 parts per million (ppm) today, up from pre-industrial levels of 270 ppm. Many scientists agree that getting back down to 350 ppm gets us to a “safe zone,” if we get there fast. Indeed, the last time the Earth’s atmosphere saw our current level of CO2 build-up (418 ppm) for any duration, sea levels were 230 feet higher than they are today. There goes cities like Miami, Boston, New York City, London, Mumbai, Sydney, Beijing, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston, to name a few.
So, in addition to reducing current emissions sources, we must actually reverse the current buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere through so-called “negative emissions.”
This CO2 removal can be achieved by two basic means: One is engineered carbon dioxide removal (eCDR), such as carbon capture machines’ the second are natural climate solutions (NCS) that use “machines” that have been capturing carbon already for 3.5 billion years — namely, plants.
Natural climate solutions (NCS) consist of protection, restoration and improved land management activities that both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon storage in forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural lands. These solutions run the gamut from peatland restoration to tree planting, but they are all ready to implement now.
One type of engineered carbon dioxide removal (eCDR) being taken seriously is known as direct air capture (DAC), where the captured CO2 becomes stored in underground caverns or incorporated into products of everyday use, e.g. cement, tennis shoes and jet fuel. Some methods of DAC are in early stages of demonstration. Chief hurdles are their high cost and high energy consumption.
A report recently published by Epic Institute and The Nature Conservancy shows there are three reasons for optimism:
1) We envision a scenario where growth in global markets for climate solutions, compelled by the drive to capture $100 trillion in market value, can help put us on the right path, as long as we provide the right incentives and innovations. Taken together, solar, wind, electric mobility, heat pumps, low-carbon steel and cement, hydrogen-powered aircraft, as well as a host of other cutting edge climate solutions are projected to grow at speed and scale around the globe. But taken alone, the speed of their market growth is not enough.
2) Somewhat miraculously, the near-term shortfall from relying on the speed of climate solution markets is precisely filled by activating the carbon-absorbing power of natural climate solutions (NCS), thereby dramatically reducing dependence on expensive eCDR in the form of DAC.
3) NCS are much cheaper. The global cost of achieving the needed level of negative emissions is five times lower from NCS than the cost of DAC, specifically $300 billion per year globally to 2030 versus $1.4 trillion per year to 2030, needed to achieve the 2030 climate mitigation goals set forth by climate scientists.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful irony if the investment made to remove the emissions buildup from the industrial revolution was used to restore the natural systems we have steadily eroded over the course of that revolution? And would it not be wise to take the course of restoring and working with nature, prior to building yet more machines that require massive amounts of our precious new clean energy as well as the extraction, shipping and processing of yet more natural resources? And wouldn’t it be nice to get cleaner water and air, richer soils and biodiversity, as well as a healthier planet as free fringe benefits along the way?
To address our climate predicament, bold decisions must be made to quickly mobilize and deploy natural climate solutions alongside deep decarbonization measures. We recommend monitoring the progress toward those mitigation pathways closely, using data to make clear whether and where these efforts are falling short. This strategy would enable course corrections along the way. After all, what is progress if not acknowledging our wounds and working together to heal them? With our nature-based allies we can provide a livable planet for all.
Thomas Dinwoodie is CEO of Epic Institute as well as founder and former CEO and CTO of Sunpower Systems. He is also a trustee and former chair at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).
Peter Woods Ellis is a forest ecologist, botanist and geospatial scientist.