Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

The inevitability of geoengineering

I don’t know which I find more remarkable, the speed and determination with which we tear fossil fuels from the ground and burn them, adding to our already too high level of atmospheric CO2, or how incredibly long it takes us at times to connect dots.

In the first category we have, of course, the rampant spread of fracking and unconventional extraction of natural gas and oil, particularly here in the US, plus the newly heightened interest in mining offshore methane hydrates, e.g. Unlocking Icy Methane Hydrates, Largest Fossil Energy Store. One could not ask for a starker example of short term economics, which in this case is a euphemism for greed, taking precedence over our own long-term self-interest. We have arrived at a critical state where it is imperative that we find whatever maturity and foresight and strength of will are needed to leave as much of the available carbon in the ground as possible, and instead we’re rushing to ramp up production and therefore consumption of it as quickly as possible.

The latest example of the second category, our lethargic dot connecting, is the recognition that, golly gee!, if we don’t burn all those carbon deposits then the massive valuations of fossil fuel companies are so much low-grade balloon juice, and we’re staring at a not insignificant chance of a financial mess that would make the recent mortgage meltdown look like the good old days. How long have we known that Exxon Mobil, BP, et al. would be serious endangered, along with the investments of many millions of people and institutions, if those deposits of ancient wealth were suddenly wiped off their ledgers? We should have been talking about this for years, decades even, but it’s only recently that it’s become a hot topic.[1] So, this give us quite an interesting situation, assuming we’re dumb enough to sit back and expect the runaway truck known as the “free market” to learn to steer itself. (See Burn our planet or face financial meltdown. Not much of a choice for some more on this.)

But wait, you must be asking as you glance at the title of this blog post, what does any of this have to do with geoengineering? Glad you asked, because it’s a particularly glaring example of our ineptitude when connecting the dots that are sitting right before our collective face. According to a presumably leaked version of the next IPCC report, even that staid group is awakening to the inevitability of geoengineering.

From World climate change goal at risk as emissions surge [emphasis added]:

A global goal for limiting climate change is slipping out of reach and governments may have to find ways to artificially suck greenhouse gases from the air if they fail to make deep cuts in rising emissions by 2030, a draft U.N. report said.

A 25-page draft summary, by the U.N. panel of climate experts and due for publication in 2014, said emissions of heat-trapping gases rose to record levels in the decade to 2010, led by Asian industrial growth.

The surge is jeopardising a U.N. goal, set by almost 200 nations in 2010, to limit a rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius above levels before the Industrial Revolution, according to the text seen by Reuters on Friday.

The panel, made up hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists, is trying to condense all the peer reviewed findings since 2007 into a summary for policymakers.

Its draft said that if emissions were not checked by 2030, they would be so great that governments would have to take carbon dioxide out of the air to limit rising temperatures by the end of the century – not just cut emissions spewed from cars and factories – a sea change in the approach to climate change.

Governments must sign off on the document that emerges from the draft by Working Group Three of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and which will serve as the climate policy road map for the next six or seven years.

Delaying deep cuts until 2030 may make targets for limiting warming by 2100 “physically infeasible without substantial overshoot and negative global emissions … in the second half of the century”, it said.

“Negative emissions” mean policies such as planting more forests that naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow or burning biofuels, for instance wood or farm waste, and capturing and burying their greenhouse gas emissions.

Given how hyper-cautious the IPCC has been in prior reports (witness their treatment of polar ice, for example, which fell very far short of events since the last report was published in 2007), and given what we know about the factors I natter on about here endlessly — long CO2 atmospheric lifetime, rising emissions, our current state of thermal disequilibrium — I think it’s about the safest bet one could make that not only will we employ geoengineering in an effort to head off the truly nightmarish impacts of climate change once they’ve already started, but that we’ll employ several. Air capture of CO2 will be critical if we want to curb ocean acidification, and for a quicker, short-term fix (there’s that knee-jerk approach again) we’ll no doubt use sulfate injection and/or orbital mirrors and/or ground-based albedo modification.

Of course, not everyone thinks geoengineering is a wonderful idea, e.g. No, we should not just ‘at least do the research’, but that has nothing to do with the fact that we’ve locked ourselves into a path where it is absolutely inevitable that we will “have to” resort to such desperate and risky measures.

But I’m getting ahead of the curve with such pronouncements. We still prefer to ignore the dots arrayed so neatly before us that they practically beg to be connected, and we cling to the quaint and increasingly bizarre notion that we’ll somehow avoid both the incredibly high-stakes gamble that is geoengineering and the truly devastating consequences of climate change, even as we continue our race to exploit ever more and (in the case of natural gas) cheaper carbon deposits.

We’ll continue skipping along this comfortable path of denial for a while, perhaps a few years, perhaps a decade or two, until Father Physics and Mother nature tackle us, grab us by the throat, and slam our head into the ground repeatedly. Then we will panic, look for someone to blame[2], and demand that Something Be Done, and said Something will, no doubt, include geoengineering (along with adaptation measures), paid for by the government and taxpayers and further enriching many of the same large corporations that currently are doing not nearly enough or are even actively fighting our growing awareness of our mess.[3]

[1] Please don’t point out to me that some article or blog posting was published in 2002 saying as much. I’m not claiming no one individual made this connection, but that it didn’t rise to the current level of awareness until very recently.

[2] I’ve said repeatedly online that the day it becomes inescapably clear, even among right-wing echo chamber media, that we are in very deep climate change trouble, the usual suspects on Fox and other outlets will immediately blame the climate scientists for “not making a sufficiently compelling case that we had a serious problem”, even though they themselves played a major role in diluting the scientists’ message for years.

[3] Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could pass laws that said any company that funds denialism or does less than a reasonable amount to reduce their CO2 emissions is not allowed to profit from adaptation or geoengineering efforts for, say, the next century?

11 comments to The inevitability of geoengineering

  • JV

    Planting forests ? Too slow, i.e, a forest of 4 million square kilometers might sequester 30-40 billion tons of CO2, but forests grow over 50+ years (not including tropical rainforests) and most of the sequestration would occur as the trees are over 20 years or older.
    Minimal effect at best.

  • Shared this with the Geoengineering NewsFilter at — stop by for a visit!

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – I’ve waited quite a while to see such a title – it’s a delight.

    You’ll maybe have noticed how, as the news gets increasingly dire, journalists, scientists and politicians keep a wide margin between themselves and the leading edge ? They thus appear to progress, but actually remain proportionately just as far from recommending the commensurate actions as ever.

    Doyle’s article in Reuters on the IPCC draft is a classic case in point. For instance, “…governments may have to find ways to artificially suck greenhouse gases from the air if they fail to make deep cuts in rising emissions by 2030…”

    Having downloaded WRI’s national emissions database (best I’ve found, only misses out Somalia and a dozen small island states) I’ve been building a spread sheet and graphs of a scenario of what the requisite changes are.
    With an Emissions Control treaty peaking global outputs in 2022 and following a rather flat sigmoid curve to near zero by 2050, airborne ppmv rises to 470ppmv by that date – where it would level off if the feedbacks weren’t driven by the consequent loss of the sulphate parasol and the timelagged warming to do more than neatly fill the natural carbon sinks. (Fat chance sans AR).

    The Carbon Recovery mode of geoengineering is included in the sheet and shows that it is physically possible to get to 280ppmv by 2100, if a number of conditions are met:
    - First, the nations commit to the 2050 near-zero goal.
    - Second, they commit to recovering their carbon debts during this century, and to planting sufficient native coppice forestry between 2016 and 2040, and to siting the processing capacity between 2025 & 2050, to do so. (This ain’t at all slow for the scale of the task).
    They also have to undertake to maximize the charring and burial of urban and agricultural wastes to raise the annual sequestration.
    - Third, they have to commit to developing means that can be applied to ending the warming and thus halting the feedbacks, whose CO2 output will otherwise predictably dwarf efforts both for emissions cuts and carbon recovery.

    I should clarify here that JV above is both wrong and right about forestry being “of minimal effect at best”. The figure of 30-40GtsCO2 taken in by 4.0Mkms2 of forest is around 3.664 times too small, so I suspect the figure is actually for Carbon, not CO2.
    But even with that rise, and with a quadrupling of area to the max 1.60GHa.s (from the WRI/WFN study), the intake would only be around 560Gt CO2, far below our present carbon debt of over 1,000Gts CO2.

    Yet in assuming that forestry is ‘just leaving trees to grow’ he misses the yield advantages of coppice forestry. These are of continuing intake of CO2 at the maximum growth rate, thus giving around 8.0Ts/ha/yr rather than 6.0Ts average for fifty years, and of the extra vigour of coppice growth of about 20% (due to the large extant root-ball). Thus a global average yield is not of 6 but of 8 x 1.2 = 9.6Ts green wood /ha /yr, which can be harvested and used for biochar for about 70 years this century (assuming a rapid start on planting and a 10yr harvesting cycle).

    On these figures the planting of about 1.25GHa.s would provide feedstock for 36% efficient charcoal retorts to yield enough charcoal, together with a much smaller tonnage from urban and farm biomass wastes, to sequester both 1,000Gt CO2 of carbon debt plus that from phase-out emissions before 2050.

    The effect on airborne CO2 is sufficient for it to peak at 445ppmv in 2036 and to bring it to 280ppmv around 2100.

    These massive and rapid efforts are what is required if we’re to avoid the warming impact and marine impact of lasting excess CO2. Clearing that excess is also the only means of halting its driving of the microbial decay of peat bogs worldwide, which has been accelerating at 6%/yr since the early 1960s, and is on track to dwarf present anthro-CO2 emissions in the 2060s.

    All of this information is publicly available (i.e. not firewalled) but paid so-called journalists like Doyle are either too stupid, too timid or too lazy to connect the dots, and thus write about how – if govts fail to make deep CO2 cuts by 2030 they may have to find ways to suck carbon from the air . . .

    One aspect of the Carbon Recover requirement that I find heartening is the multiple yields of the biochar option – which is beginning to attract multiple constituencies of support.
    - Besides being by far the best of the sequestration options,
    - there are very strong farming advantages for fertility and for avoidance of both fertilizer cost and runoff pollution, as well as for soil moisture regulation against both drought and flood.
    - There is also a massive rural employment potential, which a lot of cities will welcome as a means to avoid their favelas going critical.
    - There is also an immense biodiversity gain worldwide (did I mention that in-cycle coppice holds the best biodiversity of any European ecosystem?).
    - And in addition to all that, there is the fact that the woodgas co-produced by the retorts has strong a GWP value and so must be treated – if the traditional conversion to methanol is employed it yields about 200Bbls of petrol-equivalent liquid fuel per kms2/yr of biochar feedstock. When govts finally realize that Carbon Recovery implies significant carbon-neutral liquid fuel outputs off non-farmland, they seem likely to take action.

    With regard to the Albedo Restoration options, I think you may be a bit pessimistic. There are very good scientists committed to researching benign alternatives to sulphate aerosols, and for all the subject is anathema to Washington while the brinkmanship of inaction endures, there’s a lot more scientists outside America than within it. Also the space mirrors fantasy can clearly be discounted on grounds of cost, and of the impossibility of scaled trials, as well as the small matter of their being irretrievable.

    Given that the US has what is probably the planet’s best opportunity for launching the Carbon Recovery effort – in the form of over 70,000 mls2 of beetle killed-forest – maybe this is the issue it would be worth trying to get US campaigners to face up to ?



  • JV

    Just how do you figure 4 million square kilometers of forest would generate 80 gtons+ of wood over a 50 year cycle ?

    E.g, 300,000 square kilometers of boreal forest containing about only 600 Mtonnes of C over 50 years, is 12 mtons of carbon captured per year.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    JV – I’m not sure I understand quite what you’re questioning, but I surmise there may perhaps be a confusion between carbon taken in by a forest and the carbon it retains.

    From your examples above, 4.0Mkms2 = 400MHa.s, while 80Gts Wood = 80,000Mts Wood. If both are divided by a million it gives: 80,000TsWd over 400Ha.s which equals 200TsWd /Ha. Dividing that over 50 years gives a retention rate of 4TsWd /Ha /Yr.

    If that is dry wood yield then it’s reasonable for an average including dryland forest, but if its of green wood it’s only around 2/3rds of the average. Even here in the temperate UK at 50 degrees North we can get 8.0Ts GWd /Ha /yr from ash and sweet chestnut, but the average is less.

    Your second example is again about retention over 50 years, of 600MtC over 300,000kms2, which is 30MHa.s. This gives a retention rate of 600/30 = 20TC /Ha. Divided by 50 years this gives just 0.4TsC /Ha /Yr, which is very poor – but as you say, it’s of boreal forest.

    Taking an average of 6.0Ts GWd /Ha /Yr gives (in round numbers) 4.0Ts DWd and 2.0TsC taken in from 7.33TsCO2. 1.0MHa.s of this forest thus extracts 7.33MtsCO2 /Yr, while 4.0Mkms2 (400MHa.s) extracts 2,932Mts CO2 /Yr, and in 50 years about 147GtsCO2.
    Clearly nothing like the volume of carbon in that intake is retained – as I guess you’ll know only a tiny fraction of the thousands of seedlings per hectare will become mature trees – the rest are gradually shaded out or otherwise killed, and then outgas their carbon.

    The very ancient silviculture of coppicing aims to minimize those competition-losses by felling on a cycle whose length is from 5 to 28 years, depending on species and products. Most cycles are between 7 and 15 years which gives a useful size of poles for handling and for many uses. By retaining the root ball coppice also utilizes the fastest period of growth – between 15 & 30 years-of-age on normal standards – without the long delay in its starting. Thus an average of 9.6Ts GWd /Ha is a fair estimate – but of course it is only for deciduous species, so the range excludes those areas and climates where they don’t thrive.

    Hope this clarifies things,


  • JV

    The seedlings don’t absorb much carbon before they keel over.

    No, there’s no confusion. An upper bound to the carbon a forest can retain is how much it takes in. Attempting to calculate how much carbon a forest retains would require extensive data on the composition (tree type) of the forest and the type of land it’s situated on, how warm it is and how much water the forest has available. Since our forest is hypothetical, it seems pointless to engage in such a calculation. In any case, obviously no British forest (covering the entire area of Britain, of course :-) )will ever retain 65 gtons of carbon during a 50 year cycle.

    As a rough guide, it’s estimated that the Brazilian rainforest takes in 1.5 gtons of CO2 a year, and that value dropped because of the drought in that area.

  • JV

    Coppicing is a nice activity.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    JV – I’m sorry you don’t get it.

    I’m not remotely interested – with regard to the urgent and essential sequestration of carbon – in what a forest can retain over a 50 yr cycle. And from your assertions regarding retention rates I gather that you haven’t experienced the major work of thinning cohort forestry as a professional forester.

    FYI The Amazon rainforest is reportedly about 60 million yrs old, and has an average of about a foot of soil under it. It is (was) essentially a steady state ecosystem. If it is taking in as much as 1.5MTCCO2 more than it’s outgassing, then most of that has to be washing into the immense river network, where a further fraction will rot, largely anaerobically, with the remainder being flushed to the Atlantic.

    One of the major differences whose significance you apparently cannot see, is that your 50yr cycle forest not only has a far worse growth rate than coppice, but after it matures it must either be felled and replanted, with branches mostly left to rot, the roots rotting down anaerobically, and only about half the better trunks’ volumes ending up as lumber, or alternatively it is just left to do not much in the way of further intake of carbon. If it has not been extensively thinned and replanted during 5 or 6 decades on the Derby system, then being of a single age it’s trees will mostly die at around the same time, thereby suppressing regrowth and causing a massive net outgassing.

    Apart from their substantial output of thinnings, I’d agree with you that cohort forestry is not a silviculture of any serious significance for Carbon Recovery. This is why those of us who study the issue tend to focus on coppice.

    Your sarcasm with regard to reforesting the whole of Britain is wasted on me I’m afraid. Besides its woodlands, the land I farm here in central Wales has a couple of square miles of grazing rights on the mountains to north and south, and as a hill farmer I know well just what fraction of the 30% of Britain that is classed as high moorland is of no use to the flocks. Locals here are cautiously agreed that coppicing the steeper and the wetter parts, as well as the bracken, would actually improve the grazing – which does no harm to the coppice if it’s limited to >six-year-old plots.

    So no, not the whole of Britain, but very substantial areas. These would not only massively raise biodiversity, and rural employment, and local carbon neutral fuel supplies, they would also raise the chances of avoiding the entire range of British ecologies being lost in the looming climate destabilization.

    But perhaps you have a better idea ? Lackner trees maybe? If so, pray tell what you’d propose doing with over 3,400 million tonnes of waste product, with no known market demand, from the capture of just one ppmv of CO2 ?


  • JV

    I think coppicing is useful for those issues you mention, but I don’t think it will have any significant effect on CO2 emissions, as my original assertion. Now find some other debating partner.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    It is simply dishonest to imply that my proposal of coppice afforestation is intended to affect CO2 emissions. It isn’t.

    Your various assertions have been answered in detail, and you’ve not put up any refutation whatsoever, preferring to continue posting spurious tangential views about 50-yr cycle cohort forestry. It would have been more honest to explain your actual reason for opposing general afforestation.

    As for finding another debating partner,
    ‘after you Claude.’

  • JV

    Aha ! You weren’t being serious.. Lewis, I don’t oppose afforestation at all – the Chinese have engaged in this to hold back desertification. I think that a green movement – with decreased industrialisation and more of taking back the concrete jungle and replacing it with real jungle is the way to go. That’s what will happen anyway as fossil fuel exports from producers decline.

    All the best to you and your efforts in this difficult time.