The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
The story of The Lorax has been a family favorite since its original publication in 1971. Described in the 2012 film remake as a “giant, furry peanut,” the Lorax guards a forest of Truffula trees and cautions against the dangers of deforestation. While his message regarding sustainable use of forest resources remains poignant to this day, I wonder if the Lorax should adopt a second mission calling for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. After all, if the Lorax speaks for the trees, then who speaks for the skies?
As a newfound advocate for the atmosphere, the Lorax would need to learn a bit about carbon capture, which involves trapping carbon dioxide to mitigate the effects of climate change—effects that disproportionately impact women and girls. For example, resulting crop failures endanger the productivity of women subsistence farmers, while water scarcity increases gender-based violence risk for women and girls who must procure water for their families. Mitigating climate change reduces risks to vulnerable populations.
Carbon capture is one component of a multi-faceted approach to climate mitigation and, like other components (e.g., renewable energy), provides opportunities to strengthen women’s economic opportunities and leadership in addressing the climate crisis. Women and girls are engaging in research, development, implementation, and entrepreneurship related to capturing carbon dioxide and figuring out what to do with it.
In theory, carbon dioxide can be captured at its source before it reaches the atmosphere (known as point source capture), or it can be collected from the atmosphere itself (through diffuse air capture). Compared to point source capture, diffuse air capture is still a work in progress. To understand why, let’s take a quick detour from The Lorax to Harry Potter by thinking of every carbon dioxide molecule as a Golden Snitch in quidditch. Consider how much easier it would be for Harry to catch the Snitch if there were thousands flying at him at once, which is the equivalent of carbon dioxide generated at an emissions source. But carbon dioxide spreads out in ambient air, and capturing a diffuse gas, like capturing a single Snitch, is substantially more difficult.
Even so, emissions reductions can be achieved by collecting carbon dioxide from point sources, which range from fossil fuel-burning power plants to cement production facilities (maybe even fictional Thneed factories in The Lorax). Once captured, carbon dioxide needs a non-atmospheric home, and a possible destination is deep underground in saline aquifers, basalt rock formations, or empty fossil fuel reservoirs. In 2019, underground carbon dioxide storage projects were ongoing at 51 facilities in locations ranging from Algeria, Australia, and Canada, to Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. That year, carbon dioxide was captured and stored at a rate of about 40 million metric tons annually.
Challenges hindering carbon capture include both high cost and public concern regarding long-term efficacy and safety of underground storage, especially from women in climate-affected communities. Even so, women around the world are creating and joining carbon capture and storage networks to promote knowledge sharing, advance gender diversity in the industry, and build support across sectors related to carbon capture.
Some communities are also worried that capturing carbon will prolong reliance on fossil fuels. But because it takes time for new renewable energy facilities to become operational, capturing carbon dioxide from current emission sources can contribute to climate mitigation now, especially considering that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels recently reached a new all-time high. Plus, underground storage is just one possible fate for carbon dioxide; it can also be used, which is a story for another article, but you can find a sneak preview here. In summary, carbon capture, storage, and utilization are collectively creating new economic and educational opportunities, including for women and girls developing their own technologies and companies.
Agencies across the U.S. government are recognizing the role of carbon capture in mitigating climate change in ways that promote gender equity and equality. The State Department is advancing carbon capture and storage technologies with allies and partners, various agencies have roles in regulating underground storage, and researchers are modeling long-term geological storage outcomes. At the Leaders Summit on Climate, carbon capture and storage were discussed as important innovations alongside renewable energy, energy storage, and desalination. The Biden-Harris Administration is even investing in carbon capture infrastructure projects within the domestic energy industry.
But as the Lorax so aptly reminds us, everyone has a role to play. If you were speaking for the skies, how would you feel about carbon capture?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), which is actively developing policy strategies and outreach opportunities to ensure the leadership of women and girls in developing solutions to climate change. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.