January 13, 2020

How Far Can Technology Go to Stave Off Climate Change?

Photo by Ed Suominen, Creative Commons

Major technological breakthroughs — such as CO2 air capture — will be necessary to slow global warming.

By David Biello
Science Curator
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
University of California Los Angeles

The U.S. now has two coal-burning power plants that avoid dumping carbon dioxide into the airPetra Nova in Texas and Kemper in Mississippi use technology to stop CO2 in the smokestack and before combustion, respectively. Unfortunately, that makes two out of more than 400 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., the rest of which collectively pour 1.4 billion metric tons of the colorless, odorless greenhouse gas into the atmosphere each year. Even Kemper and Petra Nova do not capture all of the CO2 from the coal they burn, and the captured CO2 is used to scour more oil out of the ground, which is then burned, adding yet more CO2 to the atmosphere. The carbon conundrum grows more complex — and dangerous — with each passing year.

In a world with thousands of coal-fired power plants, nearly 2 billion cars and trucks, and billions of tons of coal, oil, and natural gas mined and combusted, it is no surprise that some 40 billion metric tons of CO2 are discharged into the atmosphere annually. The oceans and the world’s plants absorb some, yet concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere inexorably rise year by year, climbing in 2016 past 400 parts per million, compared to 280 before the Industrial Revolution. This is setting off changes from a meltdown in the Arctic, to thawing glaciers worldwide, to weird weather and rising seas. Indeed, the atmosphere has now accumulated enough CO2 to stave off the next ice age for millennia, and every person on Earth now breathes air unlike that inhaled by any previous member of our species, Homo sapiens

To have any hope of slowing such pollution and, ultimately, reversing it, will require an energy revolution and some game-changing technological breakthroughs.