Every good parent teaches their children that if they make a mess, its their responsibility to clean it up. So why aren't we taking this simple idea seriously when it comes to the climate crisis?
The principle is very simple, and should make intuitive sense to anyone raised to take responsibility for their actions. The idea is simply that if you have made a mess, it is your responsibility to clean it up. We have spent 200 years putting CO2 into the atmosphere, so isn't it our responsibility to clean up that damage that we have done? Isn't it time that we not only stopped making a mess by putting CO2 into the atmosphere, but we started cleaning it up by removing that CO2 and safely storing it?
Clean up means we have to do two things. First, stop making a mess: reach real zero emissions as soon as possible. Second, restore the climate by removing as much CO2 as possible, and safely locking it up in rocks, back where it came from. Thats the only way we can truly clean up.
Why not use trees?
Trees are amazing. They provide us with all sorts of things we need, including protection from some of the effects of climate change (eg mangrove forests are amazing protectors from floods and tropical storms). So we should obviously be planting millions of them. They also are a vital ecosystem which humans have for too long destroyed, and so replanting them, and restoring nature in general, is essential to combating the global biodiversity crisis.
However, their effectiveness at aiding with clean up is somewhat limited. Firstly, we did not get the vast majority of the CO2 that is in the atmosphere from burning trees, we got most of it from burning fossil fuels from underground. Therefore, if we are to truly clean up the atmosphere, we must return the CO2 to where we got it from- underground. We have added a small amount of CO2 from the atmosphere from burning trees and other land use changes, and nature can play a key role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere to account for those emissions. But we cannot expect nature to take on the burden of removing all the CO2 we have put into the atmosphere, because, put simply, nature doesn't have that capability to do it at the scale needed.
The second reason is that if we are to clean up the atmosphere, we have to make it permanent, hence why we store the CO2 in rocks, where it can't escape. Trees burn. Peat bogs burn. Sea grass meadows can get destroyed by natural disasters. The problem with nature as our chief clean up store is it is too vulnerable, particularly in a world with a changed climate when these threats become more and more common.
Nature can play a key part of our response to the climate crisis, and must play the key role in our response to the global biodiversity crisis. But nature cannot be what we rely on for clean up- it cannot work at the scale we need, and is too likely to release the CO2 it sucks up, particularly in a warmed world. This isn't to say we shouldn't restore nature at unprecedented scales, because that is the only way to clean up the biodiversity crisis we have caused. Nature is amazing, but we can't rely on it for this.
What to use?
The question of how to carry out clean up therefore becomes a more complex one. Ultimately the list of technologies I will give here is by no means conclusive, nor each one without problems. This is why we need to do far more research and development, far more innovation and trials, we need far more open discussion of these technologies, far more financial, governmental and non-governmental support to allow technologies to develop, all whilst retaining a critical eye.
One of the first approaches often discussed, which will be discussed itself in a later blog, is BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage. Here we would grow crops, burn them in a power station for energy, capture the CO2 produced and store it underground, likely in exhausted oil wells. This solution would generate some energy, and is already working in a few pilot projects and wouldn't get saturated. However, because it requires growing crops, it has land use issues associated with it.
Another is Direct Air Capture, where we build machines to literally suck CO2 from the atmosphere, which we can then use to generate synthetic fuel (helping us reach net zero) or store underground (to help with clean up). Some pilot projects, chiefly Climeworks and Carbon Engineering already exist, and the only real problems are cost and energy usage.
Finally, enhanced weathering is based on the way the earth has historically removed CO2 from the atmosphere- by rocks weathering. This just speeds up that natural process by crushing rocks that react with CO2 and spreading them over cropland, over beaches or even putting it in the sea, where it can then remove CO2 from the atmosphere, possibly at immense scales. The key problem with enhanced weathering is that it requires mining and crushing, each with environmental, economic, social and energy issues.
The key point to make about each of these solutions, and others that are out there, is that they may have problems, but the problems are not insurmountable. Each of these solutions, and more, with enough effort, can be turned into genuine tools for clean up by the force of human spirit and innovation. And by making clean up, restoration, a stated aim of the climate movement and the global response to the climate crisis, we can generate this energy to overcome these problems, and make a better future.
Ok, does clean up mean we can carry on emitting?
The principle of clean up doesn't give us a free pass to carry on making such a mess of the atmosphere by pumping CO2 into it, because the more CO2 we put into the atmosphere, the more likely we are to not physically be able to clean it up. Also, unlike a messy kitchen where if we don't have the will to clean it up, its not the end of the world, with climate change, if we decide to carry on making a mess because we think we can clean it up, and then fail to muster the will to clean it up, then it basically will be the end of the world (not human extinction, but pretty apocalyptic).
Just because we can clean up some of the damage we have done, does not mean we can carry on making a mess for the future to clean up, because who knows if the future will have be able to clean it up.
Its also a matter of decency and inter-generational justice. If we fail to carry out clean up, but use the idea as an excuse to carry on emitting, not only are we burdening the future with an unsafe climate that will kill millions, but also a clean up task so huge it might as well be impossible particularly with the effects of climate change to deal with at the same time.
Finally, there is the idea of tipping points. If the temperature warms too much, because we decide we can clean the climate up later, we may hit 'points of no return' where the climate system takes over the warming from us. When tropical rainforests start emitting rather than removing because wildfires mean they are all burnt. When Arctic permafrost melts releasing tonnes of methane. When Arctic ice melts, and the earth loses the protective sheet that reflects so much heat into space. When glacier are melted beyond restoration. And others, some we know about and some we don't.
We have no clue where these tipping points occur, so every 0.1 degree warmer we let it get, the more likely we are to hit them. If we hit them, clean up may be impossible. That is why we cannot carry on emitting, just because we have clean up in our pockets. We stop emitting to stop making it worse. We use clean up to reverse our past emissions. Its bad enough already today. We don't have to make it worse for the future to clean up.
Clean up is a moral duty
As a society, as a species, we have put far too much CO2 into the atmosphere already. The mess we have caused won't just cause problems into the future, but is causing them now. More wildfires, more storms, more floods, more droughts not only causing huge amounts of economic damage and stalling development, but leading to the suffering of millions today and, unless we clean up, will continue to cause damage for millions into the future, possible for many centuries into the future.
Just stopping making a mess is no longer an option. That may stop the mess getting bigger, but the mess will stay unless we clean up, unless we remove. Stopping putting CO2 into the atmosphere is vital, because at this point we have a chance of cleaning up all the CO2, and cutting emissions will stop the problem getting bigger and will reduce the damage climate change causes. Its a vital first step. But without cleaning up, we are condemning millions to die, now and in the future.
Every child is taught that when they make a mess, its their job to clean it up. Now we are dealing with the fate of humanity for hundreds of years to come, we cannot just stop making a mess. We, as a species, must take responsibility, and clean up the damage we have done. We must remove as much CO2 as possible, on top of stopping putting it into the atmosphere. We must restore.