Balancing Urgency and Caution: The Controversy and Potential of Carbon Dioxide Removal Technologies

May 1, 2023 0

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies, which provide a means of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, are one of the hottest areas of climate research, but also the most controversial. The debate over whether and how to develop CDR has been ignited by the release of the final section of the comprehensive review of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report found that ways of capturing and storing carbon dioxide might play a role in trying to keep global temperatures within safe bounds. However, scientists and policymakers are divided. Some say the technology must be the immediate priority for research. Others urge caution, and warn against putting faith in untested technology before we have even fully deployed the reliable low-carbon technologies that we already have.

A rash of new technology startups bears witness to the potential business opportunity that many companies and investors see in CDR. These fledgling companies are exploring everything from “scrubbers” that chemically remove carbon dioxide from the air, to “biochar,” which creates fertilizer from burning wood waste without oxygen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) by which carbon dioxide is liquefied and pumped into underground geological formations.

But the key section of the IPCC report, which ignited the controversy, was fiercely fought over by scientists and governments up until the last moments before the document was finalized. Many scientists, campaigners and green experts are unhappy with the references as they fear that giving the impression there are viable options for removing carbon dioxide might engender a false sense of security. Most CDR technologies are unproven, are likely to be limited in scope, take years to develop and will cost large amounts of money.

Friederike Otto, a lead author of the IPCC report and associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, stated that the report was not intended to endorse any particular technology or solution. Instead, it was meant to highlight the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the potential role of CDR in achieving that goal.

Otto also pointed out that the IPCC report was based on the best available scientific evidence and that it did not promote any specific CDR technology. Rather, it recognized that there are different options available and that further research is needed to evaluate their potential and feasibility.

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Despite the controversy surrounding CDR, many experts agree that it is a critical tool in the fight against climate change. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, the United States could remove up to 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year by using a combination of natural and technological approaches.

The report found that to meet climate goals, carbon dioxide removal technologies and strategies will need to remove roughly 10 gigatons of CO2 every year by 2050. The report also discusses possible carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches and then discusses them in depth.

The report also noted that CDR alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, and that it must be accompanied by efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other measures.

While the development and deployment of CDR technologies remain a divisive issue among scientists, policymakers, and the public, many experts agree that they have the potential to play a vital role in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. However, it is crucial to approach the issue with caution, and to ensure that the development of these technologies is guided by scientific evidence, cost-effectiveness, and environmental sustainability.

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