From unusual wildfires across the globe to the unprecedented heatwave of Siberia, the impact of climate change were felt in every corner of the globe in 2020. Humanity has now come to a “moment of truth,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his State of the Planet speech in December. “COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold.”
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2020, hitting 417 parts per million in May 2020.
The last time CO2 levels were consistently at or above 400 parts per million was around four million years ago, during the Pliocene era, when the world was 3ºC warmer and sea levels were 10-25 meters (33-82 feet) higher than they are today.
“We are seeing record levels every year,” says Ralph Keeling, head of the CO2 programme at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has been monitoring CO2 concentrations from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii since 1958. “We saw record levels again this year despite COVID-19.”
In the three years since 195 nations pledged in Paris to cap global temperature increases at 2 degrees Celsius, a few things have become unmistakably clear.
The world must quickly phase out the fossil fuel industry. And that is no longer enough.
We need CO2 removal strategies that also act as an essential bridge to a clean-energy future.
“CO2 removal has gone from a moral hazard to a moral imperative,” says Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center for Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
There are several reasons to put this at the forefront of our climate strategies and targets. With economic recovery, gas-to-coal switching and low fossil fuels will drive energy sector CO2 emissions 1.4 gigatons (4.4%) higher year on year in 2021, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.
We are clearly not moving with the right momentum to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – or even in the right direction.
“The longer we have postponed drastic reductions, the more daunting the challenge of achieving those reductions in the necessary time frame,” says Erica Belmont, a University of Wyoming engineering researcher.
Even if the developed part of the world switched to renewables, poorer nations would likely to fall behind in the race. CO2 emissions from some industries, such as steel and cement production, which contribute significantly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, will be challenging to eliminate. The cheapest (and cleanest) kinds of sustainable aviation fuel still cost roughly twice as much as conventional jet fuel.
The good news is that CO2-removal technology has advanced at a far greater speed than expected in the last decade, says Stephen Pacala, a Princeton professor who oversaw a study of carbon remove strategies published by the National Academics of Science.
The cost of machines that directly capture CO2 from the atmosphere have fallen by two-thirds or more. Advances in research and developments from industrial carbon-capture has helped push for innovation in efforts to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Mark Herrema and Kenton Kimmel
Huntington Beach, California, USA
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