from the world's big
Top 6 ways to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere
Researchers evaluated the best and worst ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in a recent report.
- A recent report from International Institute for Applied Systems Science evaluated six land-based methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
- Though they concluded that every technique would be a net positive for the world, some were riskier or costlier than others.
- Among the safest, cheapest, and overall best approaches were restoring the wetlands and soil carbon sequestration.
In 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement set out the ambitious goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to below 2°C above its preindustrial levels, preferably to 1.5°C. These numbers might seem small, but the amount of energy needed to transform the entire world's average temperature is tremendous, and so too are its effects. If, for instance, the global temperature blasts past that 2°C mark and reaches 4°C, then nearly all of the U.S. will turn into an uninhabitable desert.
But focusing too much on the doom-and-gloom that climate change discussions so often revolve around can be pretty exhausting. So, let's focus instead on possible solutions. If we're to stay below 2°C, we'll need to deploy a multifaceted strategy. Part of that has to be finding ways to remove the greenhouse gases already in our atmosphere.
Recently, researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Science looked at the top six land-based methods for sucking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to evaluate their costs, their benefits, and which might be our best options going forward. While some of them are more risky or higher cost than others, all of them were found to contribute in some way and to effectively remove greenhouse gases from out of atmosphere.
1. Afforestation and reforestation
Between 1990 and 2015, the world lost 290 million hectares of forest. Restoring these depleted reserves (reforestation) and planting in previously un-forested areas (afforestation) is a fairly simple, common-sense approach to fighting climate change. Trees suck CO2 out of the air and store it in their timber — not only that, but they also contribute to food production, help to regulate freshwater, offer habitats to animals, and provide jobs and recreation among other benefits.
On the other hand, afforestation and reforestation require a lot of water usage and take up land that could otherwise be used for farming. Despite this, the researchers estimated that this strategy could remove between 0.5 to 7 gigatons (that's a billion tons) of CO2 from the atmosphere. To put that into context, one estimate provided by Carbon Brief suggests that human beings have released 1,374 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. We don't have to get rid of all of this extra CO2, fortunately; just enough to keep warming within acceptable bounds.
2. Wetland restoration
Wetlands might seem like an odd candidate for being one of the most beneficial features of the planet, but they have the potential to scrub another 2.7 gigatons of CO2 from the air. In fact, although wetlands cover 9 percent of the planet, they're estimated to deliver 23 percent of the total value offered by the globe's ecosystems.
For instance, wetlands are the best regulators of water resources out there—they're even sometimes intentionally developed near sewage plants to help filter out pollutants. They also provide habitats for keystone species, can help to produce certain crops (e.g., rice or cranberries), and are extremely resilient to rising sea levels.
Although they tend to release some methane, the amount of CO2 they suck up is well worth it. Regrettably, however, half of the globe's wetlands have been lost, making their restoration a top priority. In addition to being a cheap venture, the researchers also identified virtually no downsides to restoring wetlands.
3. Soil carbon sequestration
Like wetland restoration, soil carbon sequestration — storing carbon in the soil over the long term — presents few downsides. This can take place through a variety of mechanisms, the biggest one being the photosynthesis of plants. But smart crop management, like rotating crops, planting perennial crops (those that don't need to be replanted every year), and so on, can increase how much carbon is stored in the soil. So too can optimizing fertilizer usage, tilling less intensely, improving water management, and many other techniques. Implementing these techniques could result in a reduction of between 2 and 5 gigatons of CO2.
By farming with the conscious goal of sequestering more carbon in the soil, we also gain the benefit of having more useful soil for use in building materials, pharmaceuticals, electronics, and other industrial applications. Plus, it helps to prevent erosion, preserves the landscape, and increases crop yields.
Flickr user Oregon Department of Forestry
Biochar is the result of biomass pyrolysis; simply put, it's charcoal. When biomass is burned in a low- or no-oxygen environment, it becomes carbonized, locking that carbon into the material and preventing its transference to the atmosphere. Biochar stores carbon in a long-term, durable fashion. Typically, biochar is distributed in soil, where it can help improve food production and balance the pH of acidic soil. Microorganisms in soils also emit nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, but adding small amounts of biochar significantly reduces these emissions, along with other greenhouse gases other than CO2. Plus, producing biochar can also generate electricity.
However, biochar production has to be done carefully. If produced without following clean guidelines, biochar can actually release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But if done correctly, producing biochar could reduce greenhouse gases by up to 2 gigatons of CO2 a year.
5. Terrestrial enhanced weathering
A considerable amount of chemistry is slowly but consistently being conducted beneath our feet. In particular, weathering plays an important role in soil chemistry. As the soil's minerals break down over time, they release nutrients and form secondary minerals, like clay. We can improve this process and encourage desirable soil chemistry by adding crushed silicate rocks rich in calcium and magnesium and low in metal ions like nickel or chromium. Basalt, for instance, would be a good candidate.
Doing so could reduce soil acidity and encourage the transformation of CO2 into bicarbonate ions, or HCO3-. As an added benefit, run-off HCO3- could increase ocean alkalinity, making the ocean more resistant to pH changes. Although it would have some positive effect, the researchers noted that field-scale assessments of this technique's interactions with other approaches — like reforestation — would be necessary to determine exactly how much terrestrial enhanced weathering could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
6. Bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
An engineer walks through the Bailey Bioenergy Facility in Washington, D.C.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The use of BECCS is something of a one-two punch; it provides energy, avoiding the need to use fossil fuels, and as feedstocks grow for later use as fuel, they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Plants like switchgrass or giant reedgrass make for excellent BECCS feedstocks.
Generally, regular bioenergy is a carbon-zero product, since the fuel sequesters CO2 as it grows and releases CO2 as it's burned for energy. But incorporating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology in this process results in negative emissions. This beats adding CCS technology to fossil fuel processes, since burning fossil fuels starts off by adding emissions to the atmosphere — existing CCS tech can therefore only reduce fossil fuel emissions, rather than turning them negative as is the case with bioenergy.
If BECCS were implemented at a large scale by the year 2100, it could remove 15 gigatons of CO2 per year. However, doing so would be expensive, and the land taken up to grow bioenergy feedstocks could be used instead to grow food. It would also require a greater use of fertilizers and would require a good amount of water to grow.
With the exception of wetland restoration and soil carbon sequestration, all of these approaches for greenhouse gas removal present some kind of downside that we would need to mitigate. The most challenging approaches would be afforestation/reforestation, BECCS, and biochar production, primarily due to their use of land that could otherwise grow food and their water requirements.
However, the researchers found that all of these methods for greenhouse gas removal would not only reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but, on balance, they would also make our lives better, either by creating jobs, reducing pollution, contributing food, promoting ecological diversity, or other ancillary benefits. Combating climate change is often presented as a costly venture, but in reality, it's more of an investment. By assessing the costs and benefits of approaches such as these six, we can get a better picture of what our return will be.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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