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We Need to Think Big to Reduce Carbon Dioxide

MIT scientists call on the U.S. government to spend half a billion dollars on projects to capture carbon dioxide from coal. Why think so small?

Last week, an MIT report called for $500 million in U.S. government subsidies to support promising new technologies that might reduce the emissions from coal-burning power plants. (See “The Precarious Future of Coal.”) Worldwide, coal plants burn 5.4 billion tons of coal a year, accounting for a third of our planet’s carbon-dioxide emissions. As a result of coal’s cheapness and abundance, a frenzy of new plants are being built around the world.

The report assesses ideas to capture and bury carbon dioxideas one solution to helping reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. MIT scientists conclude that the science needs time and money to mature, although other, more gung-ho experts in the field believe that solutions are close at hand. Whichever view is correct, $500 million is way too little. What’s needed is for someone (perhaps a presidential candidate?) to launch a plan, equivalent in scale to the Human Genome Project of the 1990s or John F. Kennedy’s pledge in the early 1960s to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.

We need inspired leadership calling for billions of dollars to be spent on a difficult but achievable goal: to find technological fixes to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. This should be part of a comprehensive plan toward conservation and a reduction in fossil-fuel dependency. Part of the solution should be to use our own cleverness–which in some ways got us into the mess of human-produced greenhouse gases in the first place–to create more-efficient plants.

The time seems right for such a bold initiative. Out here in San Francisco, the buzz among life-science investors is about “clean tech” and “green tech,” and companies are springing up in the Bay Area the way dot coms did a decade ago. (There are pluses and minuses to this ecoboom–a topic for another blog.) Where all of this will lead and how successful it will be is anyone’s guess, but the business sector out here sees an opening, and it will need a spur from the government to speed things up.

After September 11, 2001, and the anthrax attack on offices in Washington, D.C., the following month, Congress passed the $5.6 billion BioShield initiative to develop new vaccines for potential biowarfare pathogens. In 2005, Congress passed BioShield II, adding money, tax incentives, and other measures to speed up biodefense. These initiatives have had major problems, but surely if we can spend billions on biodefense for future pathogens, we can spend similar amounts to support both public and private efforts to help fix the global-warming mess.

Furthermore, if we can put a man on the Moon in 1969, we just may be able to reduce coal emissions by a sizable percentage in the coming years. Surely we need to at least try.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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