The seas are rising. The forests are burning. The Midwest is underwater. The UN says we only have 12 years until it’s all over. We must stop using coal and oil, now! No, that’s impractical and unaffordable! Is the challenge just too big? Are we doomed? Maybe not, if we think outside the box using the cloud and our digital tools.
The past five years are, collectively, the warmest years in the modern record. “2018 is yet again an extremely warm year on top of a long-term global warming trend,” said NASA Director Gavin Schmidt. Since the 1880s, the average global surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius).
The Greenland ice cap is melting four times faster than we thought, raising the sea level. Greenland is loosing approximately 280 billion tons of ice per year. This average annual ice melt is enough to cover the entire states of Florida and New York hip deep in meltwater, as well as drowning Washington, D.C. and one or two other small states. At the other end of the world, The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is the size of France and it is melting ten times faster than thought.
While you are a believer in man made climate change or have your doubts about it being driven by anthropogenic forces; you have to admit that something is up and it doesn’t look good. Carbon dioxide is at almost 415 ppm (parts per million) – the highest level in over 800,000 years. Throughout the same time span CO2 has averaged more like 180 to 220 ppm. The earth’s atmosphere has become a warming blanket.
Plus, the news gets worse. Even if we were to suddenly stop all burning of fossil fuels that contribute to this CO2 growth (which seems pretty hard to do), the temperature will keep climbing. There is a momentum to the warming of the air, water and land that will continue for decades to come. What are we to do?
The answer is carbon capture. If we can put the CO2 into the environment then why can’t we take it out? Of course, it’s a great idea and the engineering community has been whacking away at it for 15 years. A number of installations for power plants have been built to capture it at the smokestack and sequester it underground. So far, let’s just say the results have been only limited. But hope springs eternal and no one has given up.
Richard Branson of Virgin fame sponsored a contest to capture carbon from just the open air. Currently there are at least two such demonstration installations running – one is Switzerland and one in British Columbia, Canada and more are coming. The interesting thing about these projects is that they are largely mechanical/chemical engineering based projects. I suppose it makes sense: our machines created this challenge, so our new machines should fix it.
But what if we took another path. Computing power from the cloud is now so cheap it has become ubiquitous and available for projects that would have been infeasible only a few years ago. This has lead historian and author, Yuval Noah Harari, to point out that computing power and biological systems are now rapidly converging.
His famous quote: “Organisms are all Algorithms”, means we can use our computing power to manipulate and enhance biology to further serve our needs. Instead of building new machines to reduce and remove the atmospheric carbon; why not grow a solution to do it?
Here are at least three approaches in the lab that might be used individually or in combination:
Increase the carbon a plant takes up. Joanne Chory of the Salk Institute is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin—found in cork and cantaloupe rinds—which is an incredible carbon-capturer and is resistant to decomposition. By encouraging plants to have bigger, deeper, more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.
Make plant photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers from the USDA and University of Illinois are trying to fix a glitch in the photosynthetic cycle that reduces the process’ efficiency by 50%. The researchers tested genetically engineered tobacco plants (a favorite of plant researchers) under typical farming conditions in a field. The modified tobacco grew around 40 percent more biomass than unaltered plants. While the focus has been on expanding food crop yields, imagine if we couple faster, bigger plants with ones that capture more carbon.
Expand planting of crops (trees?) to capture the CO2. Prof. Tom Crowther at the Swiss university ETH Zürich, and his team recently identified that planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis. Their research estimates that a worldwide planting program could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. Dramatic news but there is a catch. The analysis found it would take 1.2 Trillion native tree saplings planted across an area of about 11% of all land (equivalent to the size of the US and China combined). Would all that land be needed if each tree (or an alternative plant) could store more carbon and/or grow more efficiently?
There are probably many more possibilities hatching in the world’s labs. Cloud eliminated the cost of computing. Now, all we need is more biological imagination and collaboration. Perhaps a new Bio X Prize – like Branson’s – is needed?