Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Our Sustainable Future: Roadmap for preserving the planet

May 28, 2010



Carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks
could be captured with eco-friendly proteins
developed with a technique long used to
discover new medicines.
Credit: iStock
(High-resolution version)

Summary

The United States could completely stop emissions of carbon
dioxide from coal-fired electric power plants? A crucial step for
controlling global warming? Within 20 years by using
technology that already exists or could become commercially
available within a decade, scientists are reporting. The scientists
outline strategies to make the phase-out possible, including
the use of renewable energy and advanced nuclear power plants.
Their study appears in ACS’ semi-monthly journal Environmental
Science & Technology
.

Coal-fired power plants are notorious for their production of carbon dioxide, which is the major greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. The United States currently leads the world in releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with U.S. power plants producing about 2.5 million tons of the gas each year. Scientists now know that the build-up of this greenhouse gas contributes to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, the deterioration of coral reefs, and other harmful effects. Choosing a strategy to reduce levels of the gas is therefore a crucial step for controlling global warming and saving the planet. Pushker Kharecha of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies & Columbia University’s Earth Institute and his colleagues have developed such a plan. It involves phasing out carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s coal-fired electric power plants within 20 years using technology that already exists or could be commercially available within a decade. The scientist described the plan in ACS’ semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Here is Dr. Kharecha:

“The only practical way to preserve a planet resembling today’s world, with reasonably stable shorelines and preservation of species, is to rapidly phase out coal emissions and prohibit emissions from unconventional fuels such as oil shale and tar sands.”

Dr. Kharecha and colleagues outline strategies to make that phase-out possible. They include elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels; putting rising prices on carbon emissions; and major improvements in electricity transmission and the energy efficiency of homes, commercial buildings, and appliances. Other strategies include replacing coal power with biomass such as plant and waste materials and the use of geothermal, wind, solar, and advanced nuclear power plants. The use of carbon dioxide capture and storage at remaining coal plants will also help slow global warming.

Here again is Dr. Kharecha:

“We believe that the United States could completely stop emissions of carbon dioxide from coal-fired electric power plants — which is a crucial step for controlling global warming — by 2030 using these broad strategies. This is a promising roadmap for a cleaner planet.”

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking.

That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Be sure to check our other podcast on Confronting Climate Change: “Green” roofs can help fight global warming. Today’s podcast was written by Mark Sampson. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.