Opinion guest column

How MIT could more effectively combat global warming

MIT should invest in research on climate engineering and removing CO2 directly

As alumni, we receive numerous communications from MIT. Many of these tout research projects that purport to combat global warming, and most of them target the reduction of CO2 output through projects related to renewable energy and vehicle electrification.

These efforts are well-intentioned but ineffective. MIT’s own interactive climate model, En-ROADS, shows that even with maximal worldwide adoption of wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, the temperature rise would be abated by only about 0.3ºC and that temperatures at the end of the century (i.e. 80 years from now, when most of today’s students will already be dead) will still be higher than they are now. And if the interventions are limited to America and a few other Western nations, the decrease in expected warming will be even less — essentially negligible. This is a scant payoff for all the time, money, and brainpower that is being invested.

MIT could have a larger and more immediate impact by providing strong support for research in two areas. The first area is direct CO2 removal and sequestration. This is done by drawing in air through giant fans, chemically removing the CO2, and storing it underground. This is currently being done on a small scale at an operating plant in Iceland that removes 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. This demonstrates feasibility but would have to be scaled up dramatically to make a dent in the 36 billion tons of CO2 emitted worldwide each year. But direct CO2 removal is one of the few ways that we can actually reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. When more CO2 is removed than is generated, temperatures will begin to fall.

The second possibility is climate engineering. This would be a purposeful effort to mimic the effects of volcanoes. Large volcanic eruptions put into the upper atmosphere millions of tons of ash and sulfur dioxide that partially block sunlight from reaching the earth and thereby produce an immediate cooling effect. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 resulted in a substantial cooling effect for the next couple of years. And the Tambora eruption in 1815 caused snow to fall in Virginia on the Fourth of July in 1816.

Both of these approaches require significant research and development. The cost of direct CO2 removal must decrease by well over 90% to be affordable. But this is comparable to the achieved cost reduction of solar panels over the last 30 years.

Climate engineering requires even more study. How do we do it effectively, and how could we measure and minimize any adverse effects of releasing chemicals into the atmosphere? It doesn’t have to be done all at once: the approach could be to try a little, measure the effects, and make whatever modifications are needed. Whatever downsides there are must be weighed against the downsides of doing nothing — or at least nothing effective.

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars will make no perceptible difference in global warming during our lifetimes. Would an intense and highly focused research and development program on direct CO2 removal and climate engineering not be a better investment of resources? These measures do not require worldwide cooperation and could be effectively implemented by the U.S. and our allies acting alone.

The Apollo Project was announced in 1961, and eight years later, men stood on the moon. Could CO2 sequestration and climate engineering produce global cooling in our lifetimes? If you believe in science and can do the math, it’s possible.

Tom Hafer ’70
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Henry Miller ’69