For nearly 20 years, I traveled the globe for work, confident that my efforts to support local, sustainable tourism guides and entrepreneurs made the world a better place.
Until I washed up in Antarctica, that is.
In Antarctica, on a 2041 Foundation expedition led by Robert Swan, OBE, I learned and viscerally grasped, as I had not in the past, the truth of the matter around carbon stored in our atmosphere. That even if we could reduce our emissions to zero instantly, we still have trillions of tons of carbon dioxide stored in the atmosphere to deal with.
As a member of Airminers.org (anyone can join, check it out) and through connections I made in Antarctica, I’ve learned a lot about climate change in the past few years. For instance, my trip to Antarctica connected me with my co-founder Nim de Swardt. Together, we created Tomorrow’s Air with information and expertise, creative inspiration, and a new network of people to help bring a vision for carbon-free travel to life.
In this post, I outline the key facts about climate change that somehow got lost in the noise for me, and maybe for you too, until recently.
The Challenge of Stored Carbon Dioxide
Scientists estimate we need to remove over ten gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.
Suppose all human carbon dioxide emissions were to stop today. In that case, some experts calculate it would take approximately 900 years for natural systems alone to handle the carbon emissions already stored in our atmosphere.
The Role of Technology in Restoring Our Climate
All future scenarios for keeping temperature increase on Earth below 1.5 degrees include carbon removal. Among the different types of carbon removal, the scientific community acknowledges that technologies that scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are necessary. These technologies support natural systems and speed up the rate at which we reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
David Wallace Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth, puts it this way:
“Once a last-ditch, if-all-else-fails strategy, negative emissions has recently been built into nearly all climate-action goals. This is a chilling fact, which almost nobody outside the climate world appreciates: Just about every plausible scenario for avoiding catastrophic change is built on these technologies, which we are only now beginning to test. Of 400 IPCC emissions models that land us below two degrees Celsius, 344 feature negative emissions, most of them significantly.”
You might be asking what carbon removal and negative emissions technology are and how they relate to more familiar forms of carbon offsetting?
Carbon Offsetting and Carbon Removal Explained
The carbon offsetting most travelers are familiar with is:
- Buying carbon credits attached to projects that pay someone else not to emit (emissions avoidance).
- Paying to protect an ecosystem that can help absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
- Paying to support a renewable energy source that can replace fossil fuel energy.
When those projects are credible, they are worthy of investment. However, it is also very important to grasp that carbon offsets maintain the current level of emissions. They do not address past emissions already stored in the atmosphere, which we must clean up to restore our climate.
Carbon removal in general means capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away for decades or centuries in plants, soils, oceans, rocks, saline aquifers, depleted oil wells, or long-lived products such as cement.
Nature can absorb carbon dioxide – think of trees, for example. There are also important technological approaches (or negative emissions technologies) to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The term “carbon removal” is sometimes used as a shorthand for negative emissions technologies.
Carbon removal technologies must work in combination with conventional carbon offsetting approaches listed above. As we say at Tomorrow’s Air, “the trees need all the help they can get!!”
Direct Air Capture Carbon Removal
One example of a negative emissions technology with significant potential to help clean up carbon dioxide fast from our atmosphere is direct air capture carbon removal. With this technology, carbon collectors capture carbon dioxide from ambient air.
Here’s how it works:
- Phase 1: Air is drawn into the collector with a fan and adheres to a selective filter material. Then CO2-free air is released.
- Phase 2: Once the filter is saturated with carbon dioxide, the collector is closed, and the temperature is increased. Pure CO2 is released that can be mineralized or used in other products such as fuel, plastics, and concrete.
The collectors are powered with geothermal energy, ensuring the collector captures more carbon dioxide than it generates in the process.
So, that brings me to Tomorrow’s Air. To bring about a carbon-free travel reality, we need coordinated, unified action by people all over the world. For that, we need a shared dream and a place to pull us all together.
We created Tomorrow’s Air to consolidate the massive, distributed power of global travel – this means travelers plus travel companies – to clean up the excess carbon disrupting all life to keep the joys of our world available into the future.
Tomorrow’s Air is uniting the travel industry to chip in to help remove and permanently store carbon dioxide using Climeworks carbon removal technology. This union means travelers, travel companies, and destinations themselves (government tourism boards that pay to develop tourism and promote it in their communities) banding together to help.
If restoring the climate isn’t motivation enough to join us, we’ve also incorporated traveler benefits from a growing community of sustainable travel companies. So, the virtuous ecosystem begins with everyone in travel helping clean up and permanently store carbon dioxide emissions, eventually getting us to carbon-free travel.
By Christina Beckmann
Christina is a co-founder at Tomorrow’s Air, a pioneering carbon removal collective for travelers incubated by the AdventureTravel Trade Association, a global organization with 33,000 representatives of travel businesses, governments, and media. She has led projects in more than 30 countries and is a frequent speaker and writer at sustainable tourism conferences worldwide. You can read more of her writing on climate action in travel and other topics at christinabeckmann.com.