Climate / Earth Science / Science

Time to ‘fix’ the carbon problem

The UK has announced a research program into carbon capture technology! This is a good thing and, in fact, I can’t believe that at this point, it counts as a world first. But why is it important?

Regardless of the source, carbon dioxide is what is popularly called a “greenhouse gas”. In the atmosphere, CO2 absorbs heat energy and holds it within the atmosphere — raising the temperature of the Earth on a global scale. It can absorb heat energy because it can actually vibrate in a way molecules like O2 can’t, allowing it to absorb a photon. Carbon isn’t the only greenhouse gas — methane is a big contributor, for example — but we understand how carbon should move through the biogeochemical cycle, which makes it a good target for something we can learn to ‘fix’ ourselves. To ‘fix’ carbon means to remove it from the atmosphere, for example by sequestering it in rocks.

A carbon dioxide molecule absorbing infrared radiation. Image via UCAR.

In the past, CO2 has become abundant in the atmosphere because of volcanic activity, but in the Anthropocene (that’s now), humans are releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere as well. That happens when we burn fossil fuels, which still provide most of the energy we use day-to-day to get around, heat our homes, etc.

We need some CO2 in the atmosphere, or Earth would be a frozen ball of ice. But too much will make temperatures everywhere tropical. That’s why it’s important for us to learn to fix carbon, to control the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere — or adapt to increased temperatures, rising sea levels, etc. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because temperatures are rising too fast for plants and animals to adapt. It could drive a lot of species to extinction. Even if they aren’t species we rely on, it will change the balance of the Earth’s biosphere, and it could become impossible for us to adapt even with all our technology.

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