Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

A View from Jane Long

Carbon Cleanup

Acting to solve our climate problem will take big investment and a strategic approach, says Jane Long.

  • February 20, 2013

Climate change seems to be back on the political agenda: a majority of the U.S. public favors action, and President Obama has promised new efforts. The hard part is deciding what to do.

Jane Long

Previous attempts to deal with global warming have focused on marginally reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but that doesn’t come close to solving the problem. The carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere stays there effectively forever, so the problem will just get bigger until we stop all emissions. Our strategy should aim to eliminate them and deal with the harm we have already caused. Here’s an outline of how we could do it.

This story is part of our March/April 2013 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

Reaching zero emissions while meeting our energy needs will require us to reduce demand. Our first step should be to commit to never building another energy-inefficient city, building, vehicle, or industry.

Next we should focus on energy production, resolving to produce only zero-emission electricity and to electrify heat and transportation. Renewable electricity is popular, but we have to overbuild by a factor of three or four to make up for times the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Alongside that extensive new infrastructure, large-scale energy storage and some ability to control demand to fit supply will be needed, and that could take many decades. Plentiful, cheap natural gas creates half the emissions of coal, but making that fuel part of a zero-emission world will require some means of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Nuclear power works 95 percent of the time at large scale without emissions, and new passively safe designs are available. We can create a reliable emission-free electricity system for both rich and poor nations by combining CCS, nuclear power, and renewables.

Not all transport can be electrified, and it is unlikely that biofuels can be made at scale without affecting food availability or generating greenhouse gases, so we must also search for alternative scalable, non-biomass-based zero-carbon fuels.

No matter how fast we act, the effects of climate change could become severe. Could we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or shade the planet with sulfate particles? (See “A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming”) Most such geoengineering concepts will probably turn out to be bad ideas, and caution is appropriate. But we may need to take steps like these in the future. We should begin systematic geoengineering research now.

Nuclear power, CCS, electrification, energy storage, decarbonized fuel, efficiency standards, and geoengineering: our to-do list is long. But we have no choice.

Keep up with the latest in sustainable energy at EmTech MIT.
Discover where tech, business, and culture converge.

September 17-19, 2019
MIT Media Lab

Register now
More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

    The MIT Technology Review App

  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

  • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.