Global environmental challenges
Better Than A Rainforest? Air Capture Climate Technology Gets A Closer Look
It sounds almost too good to be true: new technology that would be better than carbon neutral — it would be carbon negative, taking more climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air than factories and vehicles put in. It’s called air capture technology, and Reuters took a look at some promising versions of it on October 1.
This technology is expected to help some of the world’s poorest countries capitalize on any global carbon market, which would put a price on carbon emissions and let rich companies that spew lots of carbon buy carbon credits from poor companies and countries that emit less. The least developed countries emit very little carbon now. But the way the carbon market is set up under the Kyoto Protocol, this puts them at a disadvantage. If you don’t emit a lot it’s tough to get access to financing and clean technology under the current rules.
Most of these less-developed countries are going to be on the front lines of climate change, if they’re not there already. The predicted ravages of a changing climate, including droughts, floods and wildfires, would hurt them worst and first. The idea is that they need to develop, to give themselves a cushion against these disasters. To develop, they need energy. And usually, getting energy has meant spewing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding to the climate change that caused the problem in the first place.
What air capture technology could do, some of its proponents say, is let the poorest, least industrialized countries build renewable power plants fueled by sun and wind and use the heat left over from this emissions-free power generation to fuel the air capture technology. A small rules change would let them sell these super-carbon-credits in the global carbon market, giving them access to financing and clean technology, while at the same time they’re cleaning the air. It’s a win-win, air capture’s supporters say.
Sort of, says Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a lead author of the forest mitigation chapter in the 2007 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Plants perfected taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere millions of years ago,” Frumhoff says. “It’s called photosynthesis and they do it incredibly efficiently and cost-effectively. There are plenty of things we can do today, particularly restoring the world’s forests as part of the climate solution.”
Frumhoff notes that many developing countries are already poised to get into the carbon market through the U.N. REDD program, which stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries” and aims not just to keep forests standing but to plant new ones.
Still, he doesn’t reject air capture out of hand. “All good ideas need to be on the table … The innovation they’re demonstrating (with air capture technology) is terrific but they must not be seen as an alternative to cost-effective reductions available today.”
What do you think? Is air capture a distraction from forestation projects that will help developing countries, or a possible major leap forward in reducing climate-warming emissions? Is this an either/or situation? Do we need both? Let us know.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Guillermo Granja (Ecuadorean rainforest of Kapawi, October 20, 2008)