Nuclear energy, capturing and permanently storing CO2, blue hydrogen without the carbon emissions, hydro energy… These might sound like ideas of the future, but these are climate solutions already in the works for a planet that is running out of time.
These and other strategies were discussed by Christopher Field, Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, at the first Energy Solutions Forum seminar held at the University of Nevada, Reno earlier this month. The Energy Solutions Forum, sponsored by the College of Science, will continue through the spring semester with upcoming talks on carbon dioxide capture, solar photovoltaics technologies, geothermal innovations, and flow batteries for grid scale storage. A reception following each seminar provides the opportunity for continued dialogue and an exchange of knowledge to strengthen collaborations within and between scientific disciplines. The series is put on in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of Business with generous support from Mick Hitchcock.
The next seminar will be held on February 22 with Christopher W. Jones, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Tech where his research on catalysis and carbon dioxide capture is making important new inroads in abatement technologies for greenhouse gases.
Discussions around these topics are fundamental as the world is not currently on track to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
If we exceed this rise in temperature, the consequences will be “widespread, and in many cases they're irreversible,” said Field, describing extreme events such as heat waves, heavier and more frequent precipitation, and intensified tropical storms. “We also think that climate change is related to things like the profound drought that we're seeing across the western US, wildfires in California and around the West, and a variety of knock-on effects from high temperatures.”
Three Reasons to Be Optimistic
Although the situation might sound discouraging, Fields believes there is still hope and reasons to be optimistic. “We have within our technology portfolio the ability to limit climate change well below the levels of damage that are inconsistent with maintenance of vibrant human communities and healthy ecosystems,” Field said. We just need to start deploying these technologies much faster than we have been.
According to Field, there are three main reasons to be optimistic. First, we’re making progress to reduce the warming in the Earth’s system. A decade ago warming was projected to go up to 4ºC and now we are on a trajectory to a warm between 2.5ºC and 3ºC.
"These are hard problems where we need a combination of incentives that come from the government for entrepreneurs to build great businesses around these solutions, and we also need smart choices by individuals."
“That's still way too much warming, but it's a huge amount of progress in only a few years,” Field said. “So we really have seen concrete evidence that we can deliver the technologies that limit the amount of warming.”
The second reason is that many countries have access to solutions that are affordable, reliable and attractive, especially those centered around renewable energy, such as electrified transportation and heating and cooling of homes with heat pumps.
The third reason is that the actions are interdisciplinary and multi sector, and it is becoming more common to see people working together to deliver these solutions.
“These are hard problems where we need a combination of incentives that come from the government for entrepreneurs to build great businesses around these solutions, and we also need smart choices by individuals,” added Field.
Taking these three aspects into consideration, there are climate solutions that are affordable and reliable that will help reduce the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions–transportation, buildings, manufacturing, and agriculture– and that inevitably come from electrification, and from getting that electricity from non-emitting sources.
“It can be wind and solar. It could be from nuclear or hydro energy. Or it could also be from fossil fuel if you capture the CO2 and put it in geological formations for permanent storage,” explained Field.
We don’t have all the answers, but climate solutions are out there
There are several emissions sources for which the solutions are still hard to decipher. Field highlights three areas of main concern: heavy transportation and aircraft, carbon-intensive manufacturing processes such as cement and steel manufacturing, and agriculture and animal agriculture.
Although the solutions differ from area to area and the scientists and researchers do not have all the answers, Field thinks that hydrogen is going to be key for both transportation and manufacturing. “You can do all kinds of cool stuff with hydrogen. You can use it to make jet fuel or run a blast furnace to make steel. We just need to get to a point where we can make the hydrogen cheaply enough that it can displace the fossil fuel-based processes.”
“You can do all kinds of cool stuff with hydrogen. You can use it to make jet fuel or run a blast furnace to make steel. We just need to get to a point where we can make the hydrogen cheaply enough that it can displace the fossil fuel-based processes.”
There is also hydrogen made without carbon emissions, such as green hydrogen, produced from electricity, and blue hydrogen, from natural gas. “We can also make hydrogen from natural gas and then capture the CO2 and store it permanently,” Field added. “This could work both as a long term source of hydrogen and as a way to build out the hydrogen driven parts of the economy that will allow us to eliminate the gas emissions from aircraft and heavy transportation, and allow us to make substantial progress on concrete and steel.”
But the area that is probably the most challenging in terms of climate solutions is agriculture, according to Field, as there are not yet particularly good solutions for preventing cattle from making methane or for limiting the release of nitrous oxide, an important greenhouse gas that comes from crop farming.
“There's a lot of ongoing research that is everywhere from meat alternatives to feed additives for cattle that limit the amount of greenhouse gasses. One example is what AgResearch is doing in getting better and better at figuring out how to have high crop yields without the emissions of the nitrous oxide,” Field explained.
In order to maintain progress and to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there must be sufficient investment in research and development of these technologies. The United States will need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on this transition, said Field.
As one of the world’s richest countries, it will be difficult but not impossible for the U.S. to hit carbon neutrality by 2050, said Field, if serious actions are taken, but it is unrealistic to think that the rest of the world will be able to move as quickly.
“My expectation is that we can and should be trying to hit zero greenhouse gas emissions by the last decades of the century, by 2080s or 2090s, as by doing so we will likely be committed to a warming of around 2ºC,” added Field. “This is a challenging level, but we will have to work to adapt to the impacts or look for plan B options, such as introducing another pollutant into the atmosphere to provide temporary cooling.”
There is still a lot of research that needs to be done. Another area for discussion that we should be advancing on right now is what adaptation strategies we are going to work on, as it is very clear that we are not on a trajectory to hold warming to the goal of the Paris Agreement that is well below 2ºC, Field concluded.
About the Energy Solutions Forum
The Energy Solutions Forum is a seminar series that brings together leading researchers across disciplines in science, engineering, and business to advance understanding of solutions-focused topics in climate and energy.
“We need to focus on finding solutions to the problems as we have been talking already for many years about climate change as a problem. It has always been problem, problem, problem,” said Hitchcock, biochemist and philanthropist supporting this Forum. “Now, we not only need to focus on reducing the emissions until finding neutrality, but also in reducing the problems that we have already caused, such as capturing CO2.”
The Forum’s next speaker, on February 22, is Christopher W. Jones, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Georgia Tech whose research focuses on catalysis and carbon dioxide capture. Jones is working on a variety of technologies for effective carbon capture that could limit emissions from gas and oil combustion and counteract historical emissions.
Vanesa de la Cruz Pavas is a graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she reports for the Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science.