Atkinson Center brainstorms solutions for carbon removal

Climate scientists agree the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be reduced. But there is a divergence between those who focus on lower emissions as the solution, with less and less carbon pumped into the air via the use of renewable energy, and those who believe excess carbon needs to be actively recaptured and stored in the earth or transformed into new products.

And then there are those who want to embrace both approaches.

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future hosted a workshop May 4 to find ways to marshal the research capacity at Cornell University and work with partner organizations to develop interdisciplinary solutions for drawing carbon out of the air and oceans and sequestering it. The eventual goal is to nurture a “new carbon economy” that would put the carbon to good use – and financial benefit – as feedstocks for construction materials, fuels and chemicals.

“Reducing emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the environment is essential and urgent, but that alone will be insufficient to prevent future climate catastrophes,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Atkinson Center. “So we must also remove carbon from the atmosphere. We can accomplish that by enabling plants and other organisms to do it, or by engineering solutions, or by some combination of biology and engineering. And there are economic opportunities for recapturing carbon, if not now, then in the near future.”

Several dozen faculty members – from engineering, agriculture and forestry to planning, design, economics and the humanities – gathered in King-Shaw Hall to present overviews of their research as it connects to carbon removal, and brainstorm potential projects for collaboration. The faculty were joined by senior scientist Jane Zelikova and managing director Giana Amador from the Center for Carbon Removal, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy think tank based in Oakland, California.

The center is convening a New Carbon Economy Consortium that consists of research institutions, nongovernmental organizations and industry partners collaborating on research and educational initiatives to transform carbon into valuable products and services across forestry, agriculture, energy and industry.

“When we started thinking about raising the profile of carbon dioxide removal at Cornell, it was apparent that the thought leaders in the U.S. on how to achieve ambitious research and development goals on carbon dioxide removal are at the Center for Carbon Removal,” said Natalie Mahowald, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and Atkinson faculty director for the environment, who helped organize the event. “So we were very excited they were willing to come and talk about the consortium with us.”

Zelikova, an ecosystems scientist who described herself as someone who “runs around and chases carbon molecules through the atmosphere and plants and soil,” said the road to de-carbonization is a difficult one. If the planet is to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, she said, carbon dioxide removal needs to be scaled up quickly.

“In the past, it’s taken 50 years or so for something like a nascent technology to be commercialized,” Zelikova said. “We need that to ramp up much faster. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Potential methods for recapturing carbon and jumpstarting a more sustainable economy include engineering crops such as perennial grains to help store carbon, harnessing biomass conversion technologies for producing electricity and liquid transportation fuels, and incorporating carbon-capture technology into the air-handling infrastructure of commercial and industrial buildings.

The workshop’s brainstorming session resulted in discussions around socio-economic mechanisms for enhancing carbon removal; innovation in bioenergy and carbon capture/sequestration; materials and building design for a zero-carbon future; and ways to use Cornell as a living laboratory.

One major challenge identified was the lack of available funding for such a complicated scientific endeavor, with one group suggesting the need for a “Manhattan Project for carbon capture” that would include a huge influx of capital and government support to bring scientists and engineers together to address the problem.

The workshop participants agreed that any solution would require extraordinary collaboration.

“We need to share information in a way we haven’t been sharing before,” Zelikova said.

“This workshop is a great starting place for these types of collaborations,” Lodge added. “The Atkinson Center looks forward to working with our partners in continuing the carbon reduction conversation.”

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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