AT PRESENT IT SEEMS INCONCEIVEABLE that emissions could be reduced sufficiently to prevent a series of catastrophic weather events including very violent storms and sea level rise. A combination of the difficulty of understanding the nature of climate change and a lack of leadership makes fair and forcful action very unlikely.
Mach: For that first category we know how to do a lot of that now. Managing forests well, utilizing cover crops or compost additions in agricultural management are things that are available now. So the question is how do we create a financial signal – either through conservation or climate policy to make it a reality. In the BECCS space [second category] we see a number of plants at demonstration scale, about 1 million tons per year, we are starting to figure out how to make this happen. Some of our work at Stanford has tried to look at near-term, low cost, and commercially available opportunities in that space. For example, bio refineries that are working on a yearly basis to produce ethanol are a low cost option in capturing CO2. Direct air capture [third category], we are also starting to see prototype scale projects. For example there is a company now in Switzerland that is using direct air capture to filter CO2 into greenhouse agriculture as a way to get plants to grow faster. It’s hard to say exactly how long the [timeframe] is, recognizing for direct air capture you need a lot of energy to make it happen and across that spectrum you need some way to price carbon so we can make these policies translate into reality. PF: While human ingenuity seems almost endless in this day and age, do you think it’s harmful for us to rely on technology alone to confront the challenges of global warming? Mach: Responding to climate change is something that we as people, have never seen the likes of. On the one hand we need to transform our energy and land systems globally, at a rate and scale that we have never done proactively. Let’s say that we are phenomenally successful and we figure out abundant clean energy storage, grid integration, efficiency, pulling some CO2 out of the atmosphere, we grapple [the challenges of] land, and we meet the budget of limiting warming to under 2 degrees Celsius. Even if we are unbelievably successful in the realm of reducing our emissions of heat trapping gases, we still have more warming in the pipeline. It will very likely be twice as much warming as we’ve already seen to date. And that warming carries real risks that will be unfolding in every part of the world… no matter what aspect of risk you look at, it’s unfolding around the world and we will also have to prepare for those types of impacts. PF: What are some policies that we could adopt today that would greatly reduce our risks of climate change? Mach: I think the exciting thing is that there is a huge amount of momentum already in the climate change response space. That ranges from the fact that we are seeing increasing deployments of clean energy technologies around the world, we’re seeing very ambitious pledges towards electric vehicles, whether it be countries or companies and we’re seeing adaptation on every single continent. Here in the U.S. it is mostly states that are starting to figure out all sorts of different options. In terms of becoming more prepared for impacts or adaptation, one real challenge is what is happening in risk assessment and planning. We are just starting to actually implement actions and we are also just starting to really figure out: Once we’ve implemented actions, are they going to be effective? The most compelling options for policies in the near term are figuring out: how can we take some of this really ambitious progress so far and crank up “how fast, how much” and grapple with all of those barriers from finances, to making our legal system work, for something that is really different from how we’ve acted to date. PF: My final question for you is: What do you think the biggest barrier is for the federal government of the United States from passing comprehensive climate change legislation? Mach: In the U.S. we have had the climate narrative get swept up in a whole lot of ideology and fear. I think in some ways the best way to think about federal action moving forward in the U.S. is to recognize that we already see so much action at the city level, state level, and by the private-sector. Those are the enabling factors that at some point are going to make it easy for Congress to take action. Tags: expert voices, negative emissions, climate change, assessment, stanford, Technology, interview, Katharine Mach, research How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.