The Planet

Welcome To The 2017 Industrial Evolution

Stopping global warming starts with its biggest perpetrators by Benjamin Powers

January 5, 2017

After years of negotiation, 195 countries finally adopted the Paris Agreement last December, legally obligating each nation to dedicate themselves to climate change mitigation. It was generally seen as a great victory—though still symbolic—in the fight against global warming, as we’re years from seeing worldwide action, not to mention tangible results. While we wait for large-scale change, desire on an individual level to “do our part” continues to swell. We recycle, buy environmentally responsible goods, and bike to work a few times a week. But these one-off actions, though they may make us feel great, can only go so far in actively disrupting the trajectory of climate change.

Two-thirds of man-made global emissions come from the industrial sector. A 2013 study published in the journal Climate Change found 90 companies working in oil, gas, and concrete to be responsible for this lion’s share, meaning, if we want to stop climate change soon, we need these industries to overhaul their environmentally destructive production processes now. They’ll just need to get creative. Here are three promising technologies already in use that could forge the path of a smarter industrial future, which prove that progress isn’t as far-fetched as we think.

Carbon Recycling utilizes captured carbon emissions from factories and plants to create or replace elements of everyday materials like plastic and concrete. A 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report from found that as much as 10 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions come from the production of concrete—the second most utilized substance in the world after water.

Since 2013, Solidia Technologies, a sustainable technology company, has developed methods to “cure” concrete—a process that prevents loss of moisture and improves quality—by way of a CO2 injection. This ambitious and easily adaptable technology not only produces stronger concrete, but could also reduce the carbon footprint of concrete-based construction products by up to 70 percent. Solidia’s technology is currently being commercialized in various LafargeHolcim plants, one of the largest producers of concrete and cement in the world. 

Carbon Capture is the process by which CO2 emissions are harvested from industrial factories and plants for repurposing by other companies.

Greenhouses are often aerated with CO2 via gas heaters or other methods, and according to studies, increased CO2 levels have led to elevated growth rates of 50 percent or more in produce. In August, CO2 Solutions, a Canadian carbon capture technology company, revealed plans to harvest and sell up to 30 tons of daily emissions from Resolute Forest Products, a Quebec-based pulp and paper plant, to Serres Toundra, a nearby greenhouse and one of Quebec’s largest cucumber producers. According to TriplePundit, a website reporting on the intersection of good business practices and the environment, the process “will allow this 114-acre greenhouse project to employ up to 400 local residents and reduce Quebec’s dependence on imported fresh food by the time it is fully operational in 2019.” What’s more, CO2 Solutions expects to net approximately $303,000 annually from the sale of captured carbon and associated carbon credits. That translates to over $3 million in revenue over the decade-long partnership, signifying tangible progress in the technology’s financial viability.

Latent Carbon Capture, or direct air carbon capture, is the process of taking carbon directly from ambient air and converting it to concentrated CO2, which can then be used for a variety of purposes, including aiding produce growth in greenhouses or carbonating beverages.

By the end of 2016, Climeworks, a Zurich-based company, is working to design and launch an industrial-scale CO2 capture plant with the capacity to capture 900 tons of CO2 annually from the surrounding atmosphere. The three-year pilot-and-demonstration project will provide emissions to Gebrüder Meier, a Swiss vegetable producer that boasts 200 acres of fields and 14 acres of greenhouses, while a local municipal waste-disposal company will provide the plant with low-grade heat to convert the ambient carbon into a concentrated form. According to Climeworks, this would enhance the growth of the produce in a nearby Gebrüder Meier greenhouse by up to 20 percent. While there are a few ways to recapture carbon already released into the atmosphere, this is the most nascent of the technologies, given that its large-scale commercial viability has yet to be proven. 

A recent paper in the journal Nature found that to have more than a 50 percent chance of limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—the generally agreed-upon level at which climate change becomes disastrous—large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies, like the three mentioned here, will be necessary.

Illustration by Emily Lin

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Welcome To The 2017 Industrial Evolution Stopping global warming starts with its biggest perpetrators