A Sobering Report Card on Climate


I had a poor report card once in middle school, but recent reports on how society has worked on climate change are much worse.

Organizations derived from the United Nations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change produced research in 2023 that adds up to a dismal report card on human progress in countering rising global temperatures, seas and disasters. There is nothing else I know of based on observations from around the world with the scope and credibility of these reports, though they have been criticized as politically tempered to not offend countries with oil-based economies.

But the data is in, and this is how I would translate it to grades, which are easier to understand.

Humanity has earned a C+ for the adoption of renewable energy, a D for adaptation to excessive heat and extremes of weather, a B+ for making commitments to do better but a D- for keeping them, and a woeful “Incomplete” for failing to finance meaningful CO2 removal projects.

Our problem now is that the level of heat-trapping gases is already so high that weather catastrophes will worsen for decades, becoming more frequent and lethal. Even if we all bought electric cars and stopped eating hamburgers the problems would persist.

Adjusting to our hot future will be hard, thus the D grade. But just how are we supposed to cope with heat waves, droughts, floods and fires? How do we pay for repairs, prevention and restoration? Insurance costs are rising abruptly in some coastal areas and even midwestern states prone to tornados. Some insurance companies are waving goodbye in some regions or states. Around the world, the changing climate generates refugees and leads to violence. The list of climate problems is long.

The goal of achieving carbon neutrality, meaning that the level of CO2 released into the air each year is equal to or less than the amount removed (absorbed or sequestered) is not the issue. “Next Zero” is the trendy way some companies and even countries describe their goal to achieve carbon neutrality, thus the B+. But the D- reflects the reality of how hard it will be for countries to keep this promise.

The salient uncomfortable fact is that today’s weather is driven by our previously released CO2, which is about 200 billion tons since the start of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. It is this legacy of CO2 in the air that is responsible for the increasingly dangerous degree of global warming.

2023 was the hottest year on record. The global average temperature was 1.5 degrees C above the pre-industrialization average. 2024 will be the same. We continue to add 30 to 40 billion tons of CO2 each year to this legacy, and it shows up in the ever-increasing CO2 concentration as measured at the CO2 observatory on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. In 2024, this level is now almost 440 parts per million as compared with about 275 before the industrial age. We’re in the post-climate change era and have been for decades. Climate catastrophes will only worsen until we start removing the legacy CO2.

Happily, the B+ for commitments is also based on the nascent interest of the commercial sector in industrial-scale processes that remove CO2 from the air and store it permanently underground.

Three companies I know of now have pilot factories to capture CO2 from the air and pump it into holes drilled into basalt. Basalt, found all over the world, is derived from volcanoes. CO2 (slightly acidic) forms strong chemical bonds with (slightly alkaline) basalt and is thus changed from a gas to a solid. This process can be scaled up.

A Swiss company called Climeworks has such a facility in Iceland, taking advantage of inexpensive thermal electricity and because Iceland is made of basalt. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company, has pursued a similar strategy and has pilot plants in Squamish, B.C., and Texas. The Texas plant is partnered with Occidental Petroleum. The United Arab Emirates, a major producer of oil and gas, is also developing a CO2 capture and underground storage plant at a favorable site on the Gulf of Oman.

CO2 removal as pursued by these companies is wonderful news. In the short term, they may be able to capture and safely store about one million tons of CO2 per year. Sadly, this is much less than 1 percent of the 30-40 billion tons we dump into the air each year.

The other challenge is who will pay for CO2 removal? If there were a global market for CO2 removal, basic economics suggests that the market could eventually reveal the most efficient removal process. Likewise, if industrial emitters of CO2, such as fossil fuel, steel and cement companies had to pay for their emissions, they would have to stop polluting or disappear. This may be easiest for steel and cement companies already making “green” versions of their products. We will need many thousands of these first-generation CO2 removal factories just to keep up with our annual CO2 pollution.

The amount of planet-warming CO2 dumped into the atmosphere last year derived from human activity approached 40 billion tons. The rate of CO2 removal today is minuscule compared to this accumulation since removals will only begin to help the climate when they match the rate of annual increase.

My report cards improved when I took school seriously and paid more attention in class. Can humanity do the same, since the world’s report card now reads “Some progress; must try harder”?

Richard Gelinas, Ph.D., whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a senior research scientist for the Institute of Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.

For further reading:

Report on carbon-dioxide removal; The Economist,  Nov. 25,  2023.

Companies building carbon removal facilities: carbonengineering.com; climeworks.com; an Omani start-up company (https://4401.earth) is building a CO2 removal facility in the Gulf of Oman. The company name, 44.01, is the molecular weight of a CO2 molecule.

COP28 pledges will hardly save us: www.humanecivilization.org.

Mark Poynting; World’s first year-long breach of key 1.5 C warming limit: www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment

Extreme heat will change us; New York Times, Feb. 9,  2024; www.nytimes.com

Mauna Loa Observatory https://gml.noaa.gov