Time is running out on global warming solutions

  • Froma Harrop / Providence Journal Columnist
  • Wednesday, February 22, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

We all know what must be done to save our planet from global warming: Stop loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. If we do nothing, entire ecosystems will collapse. The ice sheets will melt, and much of our coastline will disappear under the waves.

Understanding that is the easy part. The hard part is taking steps to avoid this future. Many environmentalists think they have the answer: Replace fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide with clean sources of energy – and find ways to make more efficient use of petroleum, coal and natural gas. But one of the planet’s top earth scientists sees that plan as dangerously inadequate.

Wallace Broecker says he likes windmills and fuel-efficient cars to the extent that they can buy time against global warming. But the ultimate solution has to be technology that can actually extract carbon dioxide from the air and power plants, and bury it.

The whole thing sounds fantastical, but the people behind it are firmly grounded on this planet. Broecker is Newberry professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He won the Vetlesen Prize, considered the Nobel equivalent for geology, and holds the Presidential Medal of Science. He is famous for identifying the “great conveyor belt” of ocean currents that affects climate.

Backing him is hard-nosed businessman Gary Comer, who started the Lands’ End mail-order empire in Dodgeville, Wis. Comer has funded a company – Global Research Technologies, in Tucson, Ariz. – that is building a prototype device that can take carbon dioxide out of the air for storage or eventual burial in salty aquifers.

The machine sounds very sci-fi, but sucking out carbon dioxide is no big deal, according to Broecker. Submarines and space capsules already do it. The challenge comes in the enormous amounts of CO2 involved.

Still, the question persists: Why can’t we just stop belching carbon dioxide in the first place, by moving to solar, wind, vegetation and other carbon-free energy sources? The answer is that these promising technologies can’t be developed in time to confront the rapid accumulations of carbon dioxide now heating the planet.

“If the poor of the world were to achieve a standard of living similar to Portugal’s,” Broecker says, “you would need a billion windmills – and you need places where they can go.” Wind power could supply 5 percent to 10 percent of the world’s energy, at best.

“That’s good,” Broecker notes. “It means that that problem shrinks by 5 or 10 percent. But we have to go essentially to zero CO2 emissions.”

This may surprise some environmentalists, but Broecker sees coal as our near-term energy future. “We have enough coal to fuel everything we do for centuries,” he says. Gasoline can now be produced from coal for $40 to $45 a barrel. The trick comes in making coal kind to the environment. If we tack on the cost of capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that coal emits, its price would rise by 20 to 30 percent, according to Broecker’s rough estimate. We can handle that.

Carbon-dioxide removal can take place anywhere in the world. Deciding who does it would require very complicated international agreements. But there can also be money in the work.

Iceland, for example, is built on basaltic lava, which would be a good place to store carbon dioxide. Iceland’s government has asked Broecker to help arrange tests in which massive quantities of carbon dioxide are injected into the island’s lava flows.

President Bush now has a fine opportunity to take serious action on global warming – without disrupting the economy. “If the Bush administration were smart,” Broecker says, “they would announce that we’re going to put a lot of money into getting ready. They could tune up the technology, and figure out how to pay for it.”

The goal is to stop the net buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere by 2075. If we succeed, humankind might even be able to start cutting the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. That would put us in an interesting position, according to Broecker: “We as a planet would have to decide what CO2 level gives us the best – quote, unquote – climate.”

But the business-as-usual route would be a highway to disaster. Babies born today will see our failure.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Contact her by writing to fharrop@projo.com.

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