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Racing against the clock, UM scientists look for new ways to remove carbon dioxide from atmosphere

Huron-Manistee National Forest
Photo courtesy of Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service
Michigan forests like this one could play a key role in combatting climate change.

According to NASA, 2016 was the warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. It was the third straight year to break the record for global average temperatures.

Around the world, governments, businesses and individuals are taking steps to reverse this trend. 

Most of these efforts to combat climate change have centered on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, largely by limiting the use of fossil fuels. But what if simply reducing carbon emissions—even reducing them to zero—is not enough? That is the assumption behind a new initiative from the University of Michigan.

It’s called Beyond Carbon Neutral, and its goal is to “develop technologies, programs and policies to raise the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.”

John DeCicco is a research professor with the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, and a faculty member on the multi-disciplinary initiative. He told us that, with atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide higher than they have been at any prior point in human history, we have surpassed the level that might be considered safe.

“We’re already into the danger zone,” he said. “So it’s time to redouble our efforts to not just reduce emissions, but we have to start sucking CO2 out of the air. And that’s what this project is about.”

That idea – sucking carbon dioxide out of the air – is known as “negative emissions” or “carbon dioxide removal.”  The potential methods to generate these negative emissions are as numerous as they are varied. Faculty involved with the Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative come from departments across the university, including chemical engineering, microbiology, and economics.

One of areas of research supported by the initiative could have particular relevance in Michigan: reforestation.

The state was once almost entirely covered in dense forest. Though much of that forest has been cut over the past two centuries for timber and to clear space for agricultural use, it remains well-positioned for successful reforestation efforts. DeCicco told us that just one acre of well-managed forest in Michigan could sequester one ton of carbon dioxide every year for a century.

“We could let parts of the state begin to reforest,” DeCicco said. “We could manage the forests that we have to help them suck up and park more carbon, and that is probably the most tangible thing we could do pretty much anywhere in the country right now… and it’s certainly a great opportunity for the state of Michigan.”

Other projects supported by the Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative include engineering carbon-sequestering concrete and the development of enzymes that help convert CO2 to other chemical compounds. The initiative is also supporting a seminar series throughout the winter with speakers discussing possible approaches to carbon dioxide removal.

Listen to our full interview with John DeCicco above. 

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