The Battle Against CO2 in Wake of Climate Change

Almost three years ago, we took on the task of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. This pledge was undertaken at the Paris Climate Agreement, also known as the COP21. Since then, till the run-up to the Katowice Climate Summit 2018 held last month, it was an unspoken understanding that these goals would not be met. Post the Katowice summit or COP24, there is little hope that this will ever be achieved. The COP24, instead of strengthening the Paris Accord has most apparently weakened it.

Most environmentalists and people concerned about the planet would agree that be it the US pull out or unmotivated developing countries or nascent tech, we know the measures are not going to be enough. A study published by Nature in 2016 highlighted that the most likely scenario is that global temperatures will actually rise by 2.6°C to 3.1°C (4.7°F to 5.6°F) by 2100. On the contrary, the entire amount of carbon emission budget proposed to be emitted till 2100 would actually be emitted as soon as 2030.

Realizing this trend, the world no longer seems to be concerned about ways to cut down on emissions. Instead, now the talk has shifted to finding ways to absorb the emitted CO2 and safely put it someplace it cannot mess up the climate. 101 out of the 116 models on Climate change developed by inter-governmental organizations take it for granted that we’d be able to develop ways to suck carbon right from the atmosphere. But is this achievable? Let’s have a look at some of the ways proposed to make it happen.

Afforestation and Reforestation

Forests have a tremendous ability to soak up CO2 within them. After all, it was they who kept the world going for so long. But since the dawn of the industrial age, we have not only boosted the amount of carbon dioxide to be absorbed by these forests, we have also cut down vast scrapes of forestland. Today’s elaborate discussion surrounding climate change has been a cumulative effect of these two aspects. To gain a grasp of how much carbon a forest can soak up, take the example of the world’s largest Sequoia Tree- General Sherman. The giant tree alone has more than 1,400 metric tons (1,500 tons) of CO2 trapped just in its trunk! Looking at the climate-friendly abilities of this gentle giant, scientists have begun to wonder what a well-conceived forest of just trees could do.

But here’s the catch. For one, it’d take a lot of time. Secondly, the rate of afforestation will have to be complemented by a dramatic reduction in rates of deforestation, and thirdly, it’d take up a lot of lands. Experts believe that we’ll be needing new forests up to the size of India to effectively soak up enough CO2 to counter temperature rise.

Carbon Farming

If growing forests seems like a difficult feat, another solution that has been proposed is that of modifying the prevailing agricultural practices to make them more carbon-friendly. If somehow we could adopt techniques that help us trap more carbon in the agricultural process, the results can be promising. One of these techniques promotes the replacement of the deep-plowing of fields with shallow tillage, which helps soils absorb and retain more CO2. However, most agricultural societies around the world are not well read and do not have access to greater means of awareness and high-end technologies. To implement it universally would be a challenge.

Fertilizing the Oceans

The oceans are by far the largest carbon sink in the world. They absorb almost half of the human-generated CO2 released in the atmosphere but the amount has been on the decline. A recent study suggests that the oceans have absorbed a smaller proportion of fossil-fuel emissions, nearly 10 percent less, since 2000. A reason attributed to this is the problem that we look forward to countering itself. Cold waters have a greater carbon absorbing tendency than hot waters. With the average temperatures rising around the world, this might have resulted in the lower carbon absorbing tendency of the oceans.

Now the question that should come to the mind is, where does all this carbon dioxide go? The answer lies in the vegetation that thrives deep beneath the surface of the oceans. Some 93 percent of carbon dioxide is stored in algae, vegetation, and the coral under the sea. Scientists are now looking for ways to hyperdrive plants’ ability to trap and store carbon using different fertilizing techniques. Though companies started emerging even a decade back, concerns over disrupting fisheries and ocean ecosystems more generally have held them back. In addition, there is no clear picture as to how much of the carbon trapped would stay in the ocean rather than re-entering the atmosphere.

Direct Air Capture and Storage

Of all the technologies mentioned so far this one is claimed to be the most revolutionary. It relies on the usage of a massive number of air filters that entraps the carbon molecules and then stores them. The technology is already operational, used in submarines beneath the surface of the ocean and in space vehicles far above it, direct air capture theoretically can remove CO2 from the air a thousand times more efficiently than plants, according to Arizona State University’s Klaus Lackner. However, this solution has its own set of problems too. The chief amongst them being the economic feasibility. Such a solution requires many filtering devices to be spread evenly around the globe or particularly at the outlets of carbon emissions like factories.

When you cannot solve the problem, change the problem itself.” This seems to be the mantra the world has adopted to deal with the reality of human-induced climate change. Though one of these solutions could help us stay afloat amidst the global environmental challenges that we are facing, they are still aimed at absorbing emissions rather than reducing them. None of these measures would work in the long run if emissions are not curtailed soon.

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