The Prospect of Negative Emissions Technologies

Negative emissions technologies (NETs) are methods for removing COfrom the atmosphere using either natural or man-made processes. NETs have come into the spotlight in recent years due to their beneficial impact on IPCC models. For example, models that include rapid development of NETs forecast net negative emissions by the end of the century.

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Median forecast of 18 scenarios produced by 6 different IPCC models.

The prospect of negative emissions is exciting because it represents a strategy for effectively reversing the principal driving force of climate change, atmospheric CO. Besides being a handy trick for climate modelers trying to keep their model outputs below 2°C, these technologies represent a creative, potentially viable solution to the complex problem that is climate change. NETs exist in a variety of forms. In the broadest sense, reforestation is a NET as it results in the removal of COfrom the atmosphere. While reforestation is clearly an essential component of any climate change mitigation portfolio, some of the more ambitious NETs that people are currently working on are much more exciting.

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Six different NETs that are currently being investigated. 

Bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) is a strategy to produce negative CO2 emissions by farming fast-growing grasses and trees that can soak up large amounts of carbon, burning them for energy, capturing the CO2 produced, and pumping it underground. This strategy is unique because it effectively creates a renewable carbon sink. By farming fast growing crops like poplar trees and switchgrass, we can remove COfrom the atmosphere while simultaneously producing a renewable source of energy. These crops can then be burned at biomass plants equipped with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, which compress and liquefy the CObefore pumping it deep underground, back to where it originally came from.

The main goal of this project is to achieve net negative CO2 emissions by the end of the century. If this technology were successfully implemented, it would theoretically give us more time to reign in our emissions as a significant chunk of them could be offset by “negative emissions”. If proven effective, this technology could have a direct impact on the level of global warming that we see in the coming decades—which would be a huge victory for the planet.

Obviously this idea is very ambitious and has yet to be proven on a grand scale but I believe that solving a problem as large and complicated as climate change requires new ways of thinking. BECCS specifically, and NETs in general are creative solutions to a complex global problem. The technology behind BECCS is also not as far-fetched as it may seem. Both bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration are currently operating around the world, at least to some extent. Plenty of power plants are currently burning biomass, including the McNeil Plant right here in Burlington, and a Norwegian oil company has been sequestering CO2 underground for over 20 years. Although these two technologies have yet to be paired on any meaningful scale, there is no reason to believe that they won’t in the future—especially as the cost of CCS drops. Reducing our CO2 emissions is still the best thing we can do in the meantime, but if NETs rise to prominence, we may soon be able to reverse them.

References

  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/vast-bioenergy-plantations-could-stave-climate-change-and-radically-reshape-planet
  2. https://qz.com/1100221/the-worlds-first-negative-emissions-plant-has-opened-in-iceland-turning-carbon-dioxide-into-stone/
  3. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21731397-stopping-flow-carbon-dioxide-atmosphere-not-enough-it-has-be-sucked-out
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2 thoughts on “The Prospect of Negative Emissions Technologies

  1. I think that the use of Negative emissions technologies could be a very promising way to reduce our CO2 emissions into the future. I do however question the notion that we will be able to be in negative emissions by the end of the century, as for this to happen there would have to be an extremely large investment in new technologies. This raises the question that if models are including NETs to keep the temperature change below 2 degrees, are they being a little optimistic, and focussing on a best case scenario?
    Overall, I think that this is a promising step in reducing our CO2 emissions, but I am unsure how effective it could be on a large scale.

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  2. I’m curious about the success of different negative emission technologies, and in what context certain strategies would be more successful than others. More specifically, what additional beneficial ecosystem or social services can these technologies offer, and where can we best implement them. As an example, utilizing forestation and biochar in developing nations to create industry and improve previously exploited landscapes. I’m also interested in better understanding the science behind some of these strategies, and how much carbon is actually being removed and at what scale do these technologies need to be in order to make an impact. I didn’t know there was a specific term for strategies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere-cool post!

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