Searching for Scalable Negative Emissions Technology

Aside from limiting our carbon footprint, but we need to absorb the emissions.


It doesn’t matter if there are doubters about the reality of climate change. Much has been said about the frightening status of the Earth’s temperatures but some just continue to dishonor the negative emissions and facts of science. What matters most now is that we act on it before it is too late, regardless of public opinion.

This is the reason why ministers coming from different parts of the world convened in the Paris climate conference (COP21) December last year. Two weeks of strenuous negotiations were made before arriving to a climate deal that urges countries, at least to the 196 in attendance,  to control the carbon emissions to relatively safe levels of 2°C, or if possible, 1.5°C.

While this is what is happening in the macro, there are lots of laboratories in the academe and in the industry finding all sorts of solutions to contribute in curbing climate change. And among them is the University of Michigan, which is now on a roll in developing a computer model that estimates how countries can stay within their carbon budgets.

One of the main men in that Michigan lab is systems engineer Sarang Supekar. He is currently working on a research and has a rather alarming conclusion with what he has studied so far: countries may only have until 2026 to begin retiring most old coal-fired power plants and replace them with purely renewable power source – if this is not done, we will exceed the 2°C threshold.

This powerful foresight comes with a suggestion: remove the CO2 from the atmosphere, called “negative emissions” and stabilize the climate.

But Supekar, who is now working to find the solution to this, is yet to be sure if such is possible on a mass scale. He is now under the Beyond Carbon Neutral program of the University of Michigan as one of the country’s investigators of potential ways to eliminate negative emissions.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized in their Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 that negative emissions is crucial in stabilizing the climate rather than just slashing on carbon dioxide emissions.

The National Center for Atmosphere Research also agreed through a study in July, saying that halting global warming at 2°C is likely to require carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere on a large scale by the second half of this century.

But a climate change mitigation researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin named Sabine Fuss thought that we should not make the mistake to only look at the second half of the century. She said, “We’re talking about a huge infrastructure that needs to be developed in time and we need to be in a position to make use of it, too, because if we continue to emit as much (carbon dioxide) as we do currently, then negative emissions won’t help us either to achieve ambitious climate targets.”

Source: Wall Street Journal
Source: Wall Street Journal

There have been efforts towards forwarding the negative emissions technology. One of which is to grow trees for biomass electric power production, and capturing and storing the resulting emissions. Some also think of planting large forests across the globe and altering soil management to increase the amount of carbon it can store.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges now, according to Mark Barteau, director of the University of Michigan Energy Institute and co-founder of Beyond Carbon Neutral, is the overall lack of research funding and the just recent acknowledgement of the problem.

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While there are right avenues to find funding, Barteu, through the Beyond Carbon Neutral, wants to generate more interest in negative emissions so the technology can be developed sooner. They can only do this while continuing to exhaust all ideas about the technology.

Supekar actually has one in mind. His model focuses on what seems to be large “negative power plants”, which will directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere else. However, there’s a huge problem with this design: it requires a massive new electric power and carbon storage infrastructure whose cost could range into the quadrillions of dollars, especially when the world needs thousands of these negative power plants.

He said, “Removing emissions using direct air capture as a large-scale mitigation approach is likely to be more expensive by at least two to three orders of magnitude relative to preventing our emissions in the next 10 years.”

Notwithstanding that design, Beyond Carbon Neutral engineers and scientists are looking at forests to store more carbon dioxide.

John DeCicco, a climate mitigation researcher at the same university and co-founder of Beyond Carbon Neutral, said that forests can only create negative emissions if they increase the rate at which they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and keep it locked up in the ecosystem’s roots, tree trunks and soil.

This is what is being studied now on private forestlands in Northern Michigan. They are finding ways to enhance the rate at which forests absorb carbon.

Meanwhile, DiCicco urged the public to “grow more trees better and keep them parked longer,” to add to the more than 500 million acres of federal public lands that the U.S. now has.

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Engr. Amy Aguirre
Mechanical Engineer, fashion model & GineersNow TV host. Speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese fluently. Based in Melbourne and Manila. Follow me on Linkedin

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Searching for Scalable Negative Emissions Technology

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