The Amazon is burning and so is Siberia, so it's no wonder teenagers who deeply read the news can conclude that their future will be misery and mass death. But no more doom and gloom! The deeper truth is that we can give the future generations a healthy and safe climate.
Emissions reductions alone cannot avert climate ruin, so it's good news that C02 removal is feasible and affordable. Our goal must be to bring CO2 back to proven safe levels below 300 ppm. Today it is more than 110 ppm higher than that, which corresponds to historical 410 ppm levels when camels roamed the Arctic among the palm trees. Many people think that we must merely stop putting CO2 into the air and we will be okay. But actually there are three essential tasks.
First, the most obvious step: yes, we should stop adding CO2 to our skies -- it's called emissions reduction, or ER. Second, less obvious but absolutely mandatory: we need to remove the killer extra 110 ppm (trillion ton) overdose of CO2 humans have already put into our skies and ER cannot do that -- it's called negative emissions, or NE. Third, we need to deal with how much the Arctic has already melted, a matter so pernicious that it can make all our efforts at ER and NE utterly futile.
ER is certainly in the news, with stories on cheap solar and wind power, carbon taxes, and the Paris Accord. These stories almost always state that the solution to the problem is only ER. But recently the need for NE has been finally creeping into the news coverage, a crucial and welcome development since ER alone cannot stop climate ruin. But the NE methods getting reported typically cost trillions of dollars, or resemble contraptions which seem hopelessly impractical, or don't scale up enough to solve the problem. Consequently, the general public is left feeling hopeless and depressed, up the proverbial creek without a working paddle.
But fear not! After five years of research and interviewing experts, I have learned that we do have several viable and very affordable NE paddles, and therefore a feasible path to climate restoration. This article will outline two such methods of NE, plus one promising new plan to save the Arctic.
There is a huge worldwide demand for concrete, which is mostly limestone, and limestone is 44 percent CO2 by weight.
When natural limestone is used to create concrete, that process does not remove any CO2 from the atmosphere. However, when synthetic limestone is created, that 44 percent CO2 is obtained by a process that we desperately need -- the CO2 is pulled out of the sky (NE), or from stack gas from industrial plants (ER).
A California company called Blue Planet is already starting to do it, making concrete for construction at the San Francisco International Airport. They propose creating plants that per year can each create 2 million tons of synthetic limestone, which removes and sequesters almost 1 million tons of CO2. Blue Planet already has initial agreements and discussions with the big cement and concrete companies.
Can we create enough synthetic limestone plants to actually pull out enough CO2 to avoid climate ruin? In order to remove 1 trillion tons of killer CO2 in 20 years, we would need 50,000 plants worldwide. That sounds like a lot, but it is actually roughly how many natural limestone plants exist today, so it is possible. Let's go for as much CO2 removal as we can get.
The cost of switching to synthetic limestone is not a barrier, partly because using natural limestone requires paying very high transportation costs to move it from the limestone quarry to the plant, while the synthetic version is made with local supplies, saving a lot of money. Builders may want to be able to say they're using "carbon negative concrete," and local and state governments could mandate it.
Would taxpayers be asked to subsidize this? No, because the synthetic limestone can be sold on the open market, about half for making concrete, and half for roadbeds and other uses. The combined markets are so big that it can scale up and succeed.
The chemistry is similar to how shellfish make their shells from calcium and CO2 dissolved in seawater. An ammonia fluid (alkaline) absorbs CO2 (acidic) from air or power plant exhaust, creating carbonates. Then calcium oxide (lime - CaO) is added to that fluid, and that calcium carbonate (CaCO3) is solidified into the synthetic limestone. The calcium oxide can come from a number of sources: demolished concrete, "fly ash" from coal plants, steel slag from steel plants, "red mud" from aluminum plants, remaining waste from waste to energy plants, or basalt and other common rock deposits.
So, the next person who tells you that we have no chance to avoid climate ruin, cheer their blues with the good news about synthetic limestone.
The Earth is the Blue Planet -- the Ocean Planet. The photosynthesis that can happen in the oceans has the capacity to repurpose as much of that killer 1 trillion tons of CO2 as synthetic limestone.
You have no doubt heard about the importance of the Amazon forest as the "lungs of the planet" that "breathe in" CO2 and "exhale" oxygen via photosynthesis. But few people know that within our oceans are many Amazon-forest-equivalent "ocean pastures" that, taken together, possess many times the "lung" capacity of the Amazon.
In fact, 70 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by the oceans pastures' marine plants. That's big-time lung power. But also, 90 percent of the photosynthesis on Earth happens in these ocean pastures, and that is the CO2 removal and repurposing power that we desperately need.
Unfortunately, we have been losing one Amazon-equivalent ocean pasture every five years, causing a 40 percent drop in climate-saving photosynthesis since 1950.
Fortunately, this is a problem that we can readily fix because the main problem is not pollution, overfishing, or plastic garbage, but rather that ocean chlorophyll is suffering from the depletion of tiny trace amounts of iron. Chlorophyll, the key player in ocean photosynthesis, needs only one atom of iron per "antenna" to regain its robust role.
For centuries, these crucial iron atoms were supplied by winds carrying dust to the oceans from the Earth's dry land surfaces. But since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been adding extra CO2 into the skies, causing those dry land masses to get just a bit more moist, and therefore the needed amount of iron dust has no longer been blowing in the wind. Luckily, we can easily put back that tiny amount. Then the chlorophyll will again fully power an enormous amount of photosynthesis that will naturally pull out and repurpose a big percentage of that 1 trillion tons of climate-wrecking CO2.
As a bonus, ocean acidification will be greatly reduced because, rather than forming acidic molecules, that CO2 will be repurposed into generating life forms such as plankton. Plankton! The base of the ocean food chain.
Not only is the upfront cost of this small, in the low billions, this cost is recovered by the income that can be made by harvesting the enormous amounts of fish that will be generated by the resulting recovery of the ocean food chain, and therefore the burden on taxpayers is quite small. Photosynthesis will spawn plankton, which soon will beget tuna, salmon, and more. This was already done successfully in 2012 in an ocean pasture off the southern Alaskan coast.
By carefully tending the ocean pastures, the levels of photosynthesis can return to where they were pre-Industrial Revolution, and we will be on the road to climate restoration.
And if you need more good news, the plankton blooms will generate enormous amounts of white clouds that will cool the planet by their sunlight-reflecting "albedo" effect...which leads us to the challenge of restoring the Arctic.
Restoring the Arctic
Remember that the climate problem we have is a "greenhouse" problem of more heat coming in than going out. Well, the ice up there on the Arctic, because it is white, for centuries has been reflecting an enormous amount of the sun's heat back into space. That's called "albedo." But as this ice melts, the color of the Arctic surface changes from white to dark, heat-absorbing blue. This dramatically reduces the albedo, and heavily heats the planet, especially when the sun beats down on the North Pole 24/7 in the summertime. Fully one third of the warming we suffer now is because we have lost Arctic albedo.
If the melt continues, we will face unstoppable melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Make no mistake, this is the kind of sea level rise that would put the entire southern half of Florida under water. Do you live on the coast?
And don't forget that the Arctic's formerly frozen ground until now has been keeping the lid on a Pandora's box of climate-destroying methane deposits. Methane is like CO2 on steroids. Climate-ruining amounts of methane will be released if the permafrost that holds it melts.
Fortunately, these nightmare scenarios can be avoided. Here is one method you may not have heard about yet.
A group called "Ice911" coming out of Stanford has developed the idea to spread a specially formulated safe, floating, reflective sand on top of ice. That sand increases albedo and causes the ice to absorb less heat, so the ice can survive the Arctic summer, building thicker, multi-year ice.
It is not necessary to cover the entire Arctic, as applying the sand in strategic Arctic locations can rebuild ice volume. It is essentially just sand, so it is not a danger to birds or fish.
The estimated cost is only $5 billion dollars per year at full development.
The longer we delay action on the Arctic, the sooner we will need even stronger measures such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM) in order to save the ice. Possibly, we have already crossed that ominous line.
The Shift to Climate Restoration Has Already Begun
It's time to change our mantra. The mantra we hear about managing the climate problem is that we need to limit the rise of temperature to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius hotter than the pre-industrial norm. Is that a wise goal? The Amazon and Siberia are burning after the just one-degree rise we have now, and we are already on the brink of many climate-ruining tipping points of no return. A wiser mantra would be "let's restore our climate to what it was for our grandparents," to bring CO2 back to proven safe levels below 300 ppm. This vastly improved goal is included in the concept of climate restoration.
This month, as the UN is conducting its special summit in New York City to galvanize support for avoiding climate ruin, a group called Foundation for Climate Restoration (F4CR) will be right there with them in the Big Apple, presenting plans that include the points I am making here in this article. The climate movement needs to improve its goals and strategies. F4CR does a good job with that, having already found traction within the UN and the halls of Congress.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) introduced a House Resolution in April calling for Congress to declare that the U.S. "is committed to ensuring a safe and healthy climate for future generations, and to creating solutions for restoring the climate." The resolution states that "multiple methods capable of CO2 removal from the atmosphere at 50 GT CO2 per year have been demonstrated" and calls for more research into "the best methods to remove all excess CO2."
If somebody tells you that climate restoration will cost trillions of dollars, tell them that's not true. If we go full speed ahead on the three methods mentioned in this article, we would be well on our way to climate restoration, and the immediate cost is merely in the tens of billions.
People, groups and actions that we all support and admire such as Extinction Rebellion, school striker Greta Thunberg, and many others, demand ER but almost never mention NE. But you can do a lot as an individual by alerting good folks like them to the good news in this article. Having limited goals such as "only ER" and "limit the damage to +2 or 1.5 degrees" are serious mistakes. ER alone cannot solve the problem; NE is necessary, doable, very affordable and safe if you do it right. We can get CO2 back to proven safe levels below 300 ppm.
And PS: Let's encourage birth control, and don't forget the Arctic!
The movement for doing something about climate is taking off now, and it will grow very quickly. Think about how fast the anti-Vietnam War movement grew between 1965 and 1967. Let's make sure that as our success surges, the goals of the movement cover all of the climate-saving requirements and not just ER.
I want my climate back. Do you?