An inspiring new book entitled Climate Restoration: The Only Future That Will Sustain The Human Race, authored by Peter Fiekowsky with Carole Douglis, tells us that the battle to restore Earth’s climate has begun.
Fiekowsky is the founder of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, an organization of which I am a member. He is physicist, engineer, and entrepreneur. His book with Douglis lays out the enormous challenge the world faces, if we are to avoid an existential climate threat. This book is important because it tells us what we can do to restore the Earth’s climate, or at least restore the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Foundation for Climate Restoration
Foundation for Climate Restoration
In a nutshell, the climate challenge we face is that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) is approximately 420 parts per million (ppm) and is increasing at the rate of about 2.5 ppm per year. There is a global goal in place of achieving net zero CO2 emissions around the year 2050. If we extrapolate the trend, we can predict that carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration will be about 460 ppm when emissions are projected to fall to net zero.
Fiekowsky and Douglis tell us that 460 ppm is more than 50% higher than levels human beings have ever experienced. We are already experiencing the negative impacts of concentration levels being 420, and it is a safe guess that things will be much worse at 460 that at 420. Preindustrial CO2 concentration was below 300, and the book is about what we can actually do in the next few decades to restore concentrations to somewhere around 300.
Climate restoration requires carbon dioxide removal (CDR), the act of removing excessive carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it safely and permanently. Notably, climate restoration also requires the removal of other greenhouse gases such as methane. Fiekowsky and Douglis’ book discusses four technologies for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These are:
1. Ocean pasture restoration which imitates natural processes, an example of “biomimicry.”
2. The manufacture of synthetic limestone that can permanently sequester carbon in the built environment.
3. Seaweed permaculture which produces ocean forests of kelp which capture very large amounts of CO2.
4. Methane oxidation, which amplifies the volume of iron chloride molecules to those that naturally form over the ocean, thereby inducing sea air to absorb methane.
For readers who like to think in terms of analogies, imagine a runaway freight train that is accelerating. At some stage there is going to be a terrible crash unless the train comes to a stop.
The runaway train is analogous to excessive greenhouse gas emissions which continue to grow. The above four technologies are analogous to parts of a braking system for the train. If the train stops accelerating but does not slow down and stop, there will still be a crash at the end. Not slowing down and stopping is analogous to achieving net zero emissions without doing carbon dioxide removal. Stopping the train is analogous to restoring the climate, and getting atmospheric carbon concentrations down, preferably to around 300 ppm, although even getting to 350 ppm would be a great accomplishment.
Momentum for carbon dioxide removal is building noticeably. Several weeks ago, the IPCC released the Working Group III portion of its Sixth Assessment report. In covering the release of the report, NPR reported on three key elements: carbon dioxide removal and sequestration, ramped up reliance on alternative energy sources, and behavioral changes by households, firms, and governments.
Corresponding coverage by the Washington Post provided some additional details, emphasizing land as a storage site for carbon, as well as the following four additional elements: making buildings more efficient, transforming urban environments to become cleaner and greener, increasing the use of electric vehicles, and investing in making the world a fairer place.
Last month, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) released an excellent report about the current state and future prospects of carbon dioxide removal technologies. The Energy Transitions Commission (or ETC) describes itself as “a global coalition of leaders from across the energy landscape committed to achieving net zero emissions by mid-century, in line with the Paris climate objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and ideally to 1.5°C.” Its members include representatives from Shell, BP, WRI, the London School of Economics , The Energy and Resources Institute, Bank of America
, and other institutions.
The ETC report is very informative, and covers the following six important areas:
1. Climate targets and implications for carbon budgets;
2. Emission reduction scenarios for closing the gap between emissions currently being projected and their associated target levels;
3. The scale required for different types of CDR, as part of a strategy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050;
4. Managing the risk profiles associated with different types of CDR;
5. Questions about who should pay for removals, and what role will be played by carbon markets;
6. The actions that need to be undertaken in the 2020s in order to ensure that future removals will occur at sufficient scale.
The ETC report offers much food for thought, which is why it was featured in an article appearing in the Wall Street Journal. One of the most insightful discussions is the character of the portfolio approach to CDR. The report identifies the following three categories of solution: natural climate solutions; hybrid/biomass solutions with carbon removal and sequestration; and engineered solutions involving direct air capture and storage (meaning CDR).
According to the ETC, by 2030 these solutions will need to be removing 3.6 Gt (meaning 3.6 million metric tons) of CO2 from the atmosphere, per year. After 2030, engineered solutions will play an especially important role; however the ETC foresees that engineered solutions will only be removing 0.1 Gt of CO2 from the atmosphere in 2030.
The book by Fiekowsky and Douglis, the Sixth Assessment report by the IPCC, and the recent report by the ETC lay out an ambitious agenda. The goal seems daunting. We should not be deterred by it being daunting. As a faculty member at Santa Clara University in the 1980s, I watched students struggle to learn how to use electronic spreadsheets. To them, electronic spreadsheets were dauting. In the 1990s, before the introduction of browsers, I watched students struggle to learn the programming language UNIX in order to navigate the Internet. At that time, the Internet seemed daunting. In the 2000s, I watched students struggle to apply machine learning algorithms. At that time, neural networks seemed daunting.
Today, spreadsheets, the Internet, and machine learning are no longer daunting, and have completely transformed human life on the planet. So, yes, climate restoration is daunting; and there is every reason to think that CDR technology will do the same for the Earth’s climate as technologies that came before.
Being daunted can induce people to become like deer caught in the headlights; and this is not the time to become paralyzed by inaction. Now is the time for action, to join the battle to restore the Earth’s climate; and that action needs to be driven by information and wisdom. Now is the time to become educated about what can be done.
A good way to become educated about climate restoration, and mark Earth Day 2022 at the same time, is to get hold of the book written by Fiekowsky and Douglis. Their book lays out the key issues and describes plausible directions in which to move. It is a book that will inspire readers to join the battle and become part of the solution to clean up a climate mess of our own doing.