The fact of the matter is that climate change is real, whether we like it or not. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution, and 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends are most likely due to human activities.
Since we can’t go back in time and replace those pollution-heavy plants with clean-burning factories, we have to apply everything we know about reducing climate change from this point forward. Still, some scientists are hopeful that we can reduce some of the damage through negative emissions technologies.
Of course, all sorts of industries are working to greenify their products, and some of them have succeeded more than others. While we have scientists (and Elon Musk) to thank for popularizing eco-friendly technologies that are already in place today, like LED lighting and electric cars, we also have research institutions working on cutting-edge new advancements that could really push us back into the environmental safe zone. The most promising approaches are ones that reduce carbon emissions on a day-to-day basis as well as those that go into the atmosphere and suck out old pollution like a vacuum.
1. Carbon Storage
A good chunk of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere comes from the generation of electricity, and too much carbon dioxide traps in heat and warms the atmosphere surrounding our planet. Therefore, creating clean energy is really a matter of creating energy that doesn’t emit an excessive amount of carbon dioxide. Carbon storage is one such approach to this problem. It separates and captures the CO2 from the emissions and then transfers it to underground geological formations, where it remains permanently. Right now, there are plenty of promising carbon storage technologies in the testing phase, including carbonate fuel cells being developed by ExxonMobil.
2. LED Lights
Along with certain alternative energy sources, like solar and wind power, light-emitting diode (LED) lights are one of those green technologies that we already use every day, and every time someone switches to LEDs, we move one step closer to reversing the long-term effects of climate change. These kinds of lights have a significantly lower carbon footprint than other kinds of bulbs – that is, they consume much less power and therefore emit significantly fewer carbon emissions. Plus, they have the power to reduce a person’s household gasoline consumption by an incredible 700 gallon per year. If everyone swapped out their energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs for eco-friendly LEDs, we would see a major reduction in CO2 emissions.
3. Wind, Hydro, and Solar Power
To piggyback off LED lights, let’s look at another couple of technologies that are already out in the world reducing carbon emissions. Wind and solar energy are much cleaner than fossil fuels, so they’re equipped to help reduce the effects of climate change, especially if they become more mainstream. Of course, it’s also important to note that both these resources are renewable, at least for the time being. Clean energy demolishes fossil fuels in the CO2 department, with wind alone cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent in 2016. As these technologies become more widespread and affordable, they’re replacing “dirty” energy at a rapid rate.
4. Artificial Photosynthesis
Another experimental approach to clean energy, artificial photosynthesis recreates Mother Nature’s process of creating fuels – it converts sunlight, CO2, and water into usable fuels, all from a lab. But this doesn’t solve the issue of carbon emissions; it only strives to make the world’s natural fuel sources renewable, right? Not quite! Scientists are working on ways to harness something we want less of – in this case, carbon dioxide – and turn it into usable energy through artificial photosynthesis. For example, a team of researchers in Florida used artificial photosynthesis to transform carbon dioxide into fuel, creating promise for a clean-burning fuel source and a possible new application for all that excess CO2.
This science uses nanomaterials:teeny-tiny particles that can pull and employ carbon dioxide from the air — to reduce toxic pollutants that contribute to climate change. As far as advancements that can actually reverse rather than slow global warming, this is the most promising. These mini materials could actually rid dispersed carbon from the air, effectively “scrubbing” the atmosphere. The harvested carbon dioxide could then be repurposed into other materials entirely, like alcohol and other useful products. Nanotechnology can also replace bulky coatings and materials, making automobiles and airplanes lighter and thus more efficient.
6. Direct Air Capture
Like nanomaterials, a direct air capture is a form of “negative emission technology” designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the air, leaving behind a cleaner atmosphere and, in theory, slowing the effects of climate change. The world’s first negative emissions plant opened in Iceland late last year, debuting direct air capture machines that could suck CO2 out of the air the way trees do. In fact, the machines are nicknamed “artificial trees,” due to their ability to rid the air of carbon dioxide. Instead of using photosynthesis like trees, direct air capture extracts CO2 from the air using chemicals that bind to it, but it doesn’t affect other atmospheric chemicals, such as oxygen.
With all this in mind, it’s important to understand that, while it’s our most promising strategy, technology doesn’t have the power to completely reverse the damage we’ve done, at least not in the immediate future. Even the most high-potential advancements won’t restore the Earth to its pre-industrial revolution state, so scientists are emphasizing the need to come up with negative emissions technologies to actually clean out the atmosphere in addition to reducing the number of greenhouse gasses we pump into it. Regardless, humans are the key to the future of the planet, and there’s reason to believe there’s hope for it after all.