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Carbon Neutral by 2050? Here’s Exactly What It Would Take

It's hardly impossible. It just means we have to get to

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Getting to carbon neutral

Just this past January, the World Resources Institute (WRI) released a working paper that outlined the urgency in making the United States carbon neutral by 2050—meaning, keeping as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we’re putting in. Disturbingly (but not surprisingly), the research behind the paper highlighted the need not only to cut down drastically on our greenhouse gas emissions but to also prioritize figuring out a way to start removing carbon from the atmosphere, too, if we’re going to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. No, it’s not impossible. Here are some ways we can get there.

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Making the switch to “clean” energy

The United States is one of the top three carbon emitters in the world, which means it’s critical to the planet that we—along with other top emitters China and India—get to net zero. With federal inaction in this arena, states and municipalities are taking matters into their own hands. For example, Hawaii, New Mexico, California, New York, Washington, and Washington, D.C. now have legislation requiring that their electricity come from renewable or clean sources like wind, water, and solar; other states and 100 cities have made similar, if slightly less official, pledges along these lines. Some utilities have also gotten on board, making these pledges possible. Additionally, switching to solar makes good economic sense for homeowners.

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Implementing a carbon tax

A 2018 analysis out of MIT of 11 separate studies found that taxing the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, then returning that money to the public, was an efficient way to cut down on the use of fossil fuels. And the higher the tax—say, $50 per ton of carbon emissions produced, coupled with a high percentage of increase every year—led to the greatest reductions in emissions. But even a tax that was on the lower end of the scale at $25 per ton of carbon emissions produced led to reductions in emissions significant enough to make a difference.

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Planting trees

Trees are an amazing resource for not only storing carbon but removing—or sequestering it—from the atmosphere, with young trees being the most efficient at sequestration and older trees being the most efficient at storing it in their roots and limbs. There have been concerted efforts in some parts of the world to plant more trees, but what kinds of trees are planted matters a lot, with varieties, rather than monocultures, of native trees being of paramount importance. In one notable tree planting scheme of a near-disastrous scale, the city of Karachi planted 2.2 million non-native trees that sucked the city dry of water. These 12 jaw-dropping photos of the world’s most beautiful trees are all the proof you need trees can be a wonderful thing.

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Halting deforestation

As critical as it is to get more trees growing, it’s equally important that we ensure that we halt deforestation—an enormous detriment of certain types of agriculture. That’s why the chocolate and coffee industries, for notable example, have been pledging to address the conditions of poverty among farmers in places like Africa and Latin America that lead to the cutting down of forests to begin with. But the United States is losing (mostly hardwood, as opposed to tropical) forest, too—almost 950,000 acres per year between 1990 and 2010 to the timber industry, development, agriculture, and a new scourge of insect pests, a problem certain to grow with climate change, reports SeattlePi. See what the Amazon rainforest used to look like.

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Direct Air Capture carbon emissions Denis Torkhov/Getty Images

Direct air capture

It may sound like science fiction, but the technology has been invented to suck carbon from the air using giant fans. It’s been tested out (although it’s hardly ready to go, and certainly not at any meaningful scale) and works (in theory) by using those fans to push air through filters, creating a sort of manageable stream of it, then storing it…somewhere, somehow. Critics point out that while it sounds like a nifty idea, direct air capture alone won’t solve our climate woes. But as Vox reports, it could be one tool in a whole set of tools that we use to get to net-zero—and we need as many as we can find. Find out about 10 accidental discoveries that changed the world.

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Carbon mineralization

The Science News‘ analysis of the WRI report addresses another carbon-removing strategy called carbon mineralization, which is exactly what it sounds like—creating a mineral called magnesite (aka magnesium carbonate) in the lab. Then, using that magnesite to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it deep in the ground. Sounds cool, right? It should be—if it can get off the ground. At the moment, it’s still being fiddled with by scientists as they attempt to work out some of its technical challenges.

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Reducing food waste

You’ve probably heard the incredible, and incredibly alarming, figures by now—something like one-third of all the food that’s produced is actually tossed, and sometimes before it’s even made it into our homes. A tremendous number of climate-related resources go into producing our food, everything from water to grow it, to fuel used to ship it to us, then when it gets sent to the landfill rather than eaten, it releases greenhouse gases as it decomposes. All told, wasted food accounts for 8 percent of global emissions, which is why Project Drawdown rates its reduction as its number three strategy for reducing carbon emissions; cutting it in half by 2050 would reduce carbon emissions by 26.2 gigatons. Try these 9 tricks to cut down on food waste and save money in your own kitchen.

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Family planning

In many places throughout the world, populations are increasing, and these burgeoning numbers of our fellow humans are a strain on our planet’s resources—not to mention, create unfair living conditions and increased suffering from the effects of climate change for those living at the lower end of the earnings scale. The population increased in the United States by 30 percent in the last 30 years and although those rates are slowing, using family planning to get those numbers to drop further is Project Drawdown’s 7th ranked climate solution. Not least because fewer people means fewer greenhouse gas emissions from all quarters—food production and food waste, transportation, energy use, you name it. See what the world’s most populated cities used to look like.

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Farm innovation

Agriculture is a huge emitter of carbon, pumping out 621 million metric tons of a combination of CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide in 2017, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. That’s why WRI recommends investing in a 10-million-acre farm innovation policy that would boost soil health (in itself an important means to store carbon), among other benefits, and lead to an anticipated removal of up to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide in the U.S. by 2050. Many companies are investing in regenerative agriculture for just this reason, which uses practices like no-tillage and cover cropping. Companies such as Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, Lotus Foods, and General Mills have all signed on to increase regenerative ag practices among their farmer suppliers. Next, read on to find out what could happen if the glaciers continue to melt.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.