A new effort to rally governments and corporations behind technologies that suck greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to help stave off disastrous global heating will be launched at the United Nations on Tuesday.
The first annual Global Climate Restoration Forum, held in New York, aims to spur international support for emerging and sometimes controversial methods to claw back planet-warming gases after they have been emitted from power plants, cars, trucks and aircraft.
The Foundation for Climate Restoration, the group behind the forum, has released a manifesto for its goal to “restore” the climate by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to those of a century ago. Atmospheric CO2 is rising sharply, peaking at 415 parts per million this year, far above the level during most of human history, around 300ppm.
The foundation aims to restore this historical norm by 2050, saying success would be on a par with the moon landing or the eradication of smallpox. It warns that the current climate is leading us “down a path toward the probable extinction of our species and thousands of others”.
“Mother Earth will survive without us but we’d like for humans to survive too,” said Rick Parnell, chief executive of the foundation, which was created last year. “This is the beginning of a 10-year strategy to get governments and companies to understand the need to restore our climate now. Humanity got us into this situation, it can get us out of it.”
Global average temperatures have increased by around 1°C in the past century due to the buildup of planet-warming gases from human activity. World leaders have agreed to limit this rise to 2C, and ideally 1.5C, although global greenhouse gases are not declining and major emitters such as the US and Brazil have shown signs of going backwards.
Any realistic chance of avoiding highly dangerous levels of global heating will likely involve the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, either through mass reforestation or nascent technology that either eliminates it from industrial processes or sucks it directly from the air.
The Foundation for Climate Restoration’s report outlines the most promising of these options, such as Climeworks, a Swiss company that uses giant machines to pull CO2 from the air and use it in greenhouses to boost plant growth. It has more than a dozen projects under way and has partnered with an Icelandic project that injects CO2 deep underground into basalt formations.
Another avenue defined by the foundation as “permanent, scalable, and financeable” is a company that turns CO2 into limestone that can be used in building. It recently supplied concrete for a new terminal at San Francisco’s airport.
The report also mentions the intentional placing of iron in parts of the ocean to boost its ability to absorb CO2, as well as efforts to seed reflective sand across the Arctic to reduce escalating melting.
Some environmentalists have rejected such approaches as radical geoengineering that will have harmful unintended consequences. Others have criticized the development of CO2 removal technology as distracting from the need to reduce emissions.
However, the UN-hosted forum highlights the narrowing window to confront the climate crisis before scientists’ warnings of severe societal impacts become reality.
“Mitigation and adaptation are absolutely critical in climate change, the piece missing is restoration,” said Parnell. “It’s not about leaving things as business as usual, younger generations won’t allow that. But we need a breakthrough, we need to go further.”
David Keith, a Harvard academic who has led solar geoengineering work, said it was “encouraging” that the ideas were being discussed but said the ambition of the forum may be a little unrealistic.
“I think the timescales they propose for deployment of carbon removal make little sense and seem ungrounded in the real-world politics of cutting emissions which ought to be our first priority,” he said.
Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, said it would be difficult to restore the Arctic and that iron fertilization of the oceans “has not been proven. In fact most data suggest that its contributions would be small, they also would have large ecological impacts.”
“I think [the foundation] wants to do the right thing, but it is also important to do a careful analysis,” Lackner said.