GROWING AWARENESS OF the dangers of climate change has highlighted the necessity to reduce carbon emissions. But how can we do it? From a technological perspective, it is probably possible to reduce our carbon emissions by what scientists say is the required amount in the required timescale. But for various reasons – lack of funding, political inertia, existing investment in fossil fuels – it is not happening. What holds us back is not the lack of technology, but the lack of will: amongst states, corporations and individuals. Sometimes it can seem as if the problem is insoluble.

However, there is another option: one that could still save the day. As critical as it is to reduce future carbon emissions, it is equally critical, perhaps even more critical, to get much of the CO2 that has already been released – and which is responsible for the current warming – out of the atmosphere and back into the ground where it belongs.

This approach, known as carbon capture and sequestration, has until now been largely ignored, and for several reasons. For a start, the Earth’s atmosphere is so huge that it would seem to be an impossible task. There are possible technologies, but they are not nearly so well developed as alternative energy sources. Where technologies of carbon capture have been developed they are mostly for capturing CO2 from smokestacks. But this is still dealing with future carbon emissions. What we need are technologies that will take existing carbon out of the atmosphere.

It is to this end that Sir Richard Branson announced his $25 million prize (the Virgin Earth Challenge) for technologies that could capture a billion tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere (about a tenth of what we now release each year). He is not alone in his belief that we must make this an equally important approach to the problem. His team includes Al Gore, James Lovelock, Sir Crispin Tickell (former UK ambassador to the UN), and James Hansen, head climate scientist at NASA.

A few prototype carbon-capture technologies are showing promise. Some of the most interesting involve biochar (from bio-charcoal). In essence, these processes take vegetation, which has already captured CO2, reduce it to charcoal through a process that captures the gases released (which include hydrogen and other non-carbon fuel gases), and then turn the carbon into a natural fertiliser which is ploughed into the ground. The net result is that the carbon captured by the plants is now returned to the soil in a stable form.

There are several positive aspects to this approach. It is strongly carbon-negative, relatively low-tech, imitates Nature, is local in application, and if applied on global scale could capture a significant proportion of the carbon dioxide we release each year. Moreover, it would provide large quantities of fuel. So it has multiple positive effects.

This is just one example. Other possible approaches involve capturing carbon in large kelp beds or land-based algae tanks, bio-engineering bacteria that would absorb large amounts of CO2, and even artificial trees. Some of the more high-tech solutions are, quite rightly, regarded with scepticism by environmentalists. The ‘technological fix’ mentality is part of what has got us into this mess. However, since it is becoming increasingly doubtful that we will be able to reduce future carbon emissions to the extent needed to avoid runaway climate change, it is essential that we explore every possibility.

We need a global research and development project to address this need – something akin to the Apollo Project which put a man on the moon, but involving many nations, many research institutions, and sufficient funding.

The good news is that things are stirring. Companies from all over the world are rising to the ‘biochar’ challenge. A US Senator drafted a bill recently, promoting biochar in the Senate. And in 2006, a new organisation, the International Agrichar Initiative, held its first ever conference, attended by 135 people from across the world. If we can collectively summon the will and resources to clean up the planet’s atmosphere, we will have set a most valuable global precedent that will pave the way for tackling the many other environmental challenges.

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With thanks to Peter Russell for this article.