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Towards a carbon rebalancing act

If the world is to prevent global temperatures from rising another 2 degrees Celsius, we will need to remove some carbon from the air. Here are some promising innovative attempts to do so.

A secret weapon in the fight against climate change long has been hiding in plain sight: plants. Plants gobble up billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, inhaling as they grow the biggest pollutant contributing to climate change.

What if we could harness the power of photosynthesis — and of technologies that use analogous synthetic processes — not only to clean up CO2 from air, but also lock that carbon back into the Earth in order to help mitigate climate change?

The question of how to bring about a carbon re-balancing act was a topic of conversation at the VERGE Hawaii "Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit" earlier this summer. Innovators in energy, agriculture and manufacturing spoke about developing solutions that can remove or clean up the carbon already in the air.   

One such innovator is Tom Price, director of strategic initiatives at All Power Labs.  He described the advances All Power Labs is bringing to energy access and carbon sequestration. All Power has gone "back to the future" by using flexible biomass gasification systems first invented over a century ago to provide electricity (for example, to the microgrid powering the conference) while also producing a charcoal byproduct (also known as biochar).

Biochar, a more stable form of carbon that can remain in the ground for decades or longer, can be used for a number of purposes ranging from agricultural fertilizers to wastewater treatment.

"Plants harvest carbon from the sky, we harvest energy from the plants and return carbon to the soil — it’s like coal mining in reverse," he said.

Beyond biochar, other agriculture innovations hold promise to remove carbon from the air. Amanda Ravenhill, co-founder of Project Drawdown, said her organization is researching agricultural and forestry practices that can sequester carbon in soils.

Techniques ranging from restoring peatlands to integrating tree planting into agricultural operations can offer options to enhance resilience to the changes in climate already underway, while increasing the productivity of land. And of course productivity, in turn, increases the bottom line for land managers.

Communities all over the world can be leaders in the quest to clean up carbon from the sky — and examples abound in Hawaii.

Jack Beuttell runs Kunoa Cattle ranch in Kauai, which strives to graze livestock in a way that encourages grasses to grow deeper roots, which in turn enhances the amount of carbon stored in the ranch’s soils.

Hawaii already has demonstrated how it can lead the clean energy transition by setting 100 percent renewable energy targets. It also supports laboratories for innovation in this quest, such as the Energy Excelerator, that are developing the solutions that can be exported around the world for others to meet their own clean energy goals. The work of Beuttell and "carbon farmers" like him shows that Hawaii — and other small island economies — can influence climate action far beyond its borders.

What’s clear is that the need for leadership is more urgent than ever. While nearly every nation in the world has agreed to the ambitious climate targets reached in the Paris Agreement last December, climate experts are clear that current pledges for action likely will fall far short of making these goals a reality.

Climate models estimate that we will need to remove on average hundreds of billion tons of CO2 over the next century ... to meet the 2 degrees Celsius climate goal.

Climate models estimate that we will need to remove on average hundreds of billion tons of CO2 over the next century — an amount an order of magnitude above today's global annual emissions — to meet the agreement’s 2 degrees Celsius climate goal. And the window for action is rapidly closing: at the current rate of emissions, we are on track to break the carbon budgets needed to stay below 1.5 C in five years and budgets for 2 C in 20 years.

Small island nations have led the way on new frontiers in climate action many times before, and carbon removal provides another opportunity for these communities to continue their leadership on this global stage.

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