Events / Policy / Year of Carbon

Geology vs. climate change

What can geological sciences contribute towards the challenge of decarbonisation?

The 2019 Bryan Lovell Meeting at The Geological Society of London aimed to define the role of geological sciences in ‘decarbonisation’. Decarbonisation is the reduction and removal of atmospheric carbon, one of the key drivers of climate change.

cat capture

The problem

Globally, CO2 emissions to the atmosphere have been steadily growing since the industrial revolution. With global population on the rise and demographic shifts bringing a greater proportion of people into the energy-intensive middle classes, the amount of carbon emitted to the atmosphere is set to increase.

Geology was integral to the ‘carbonisation’ of our society; pivotal in discovering, quantifying, and extracting resources such as coal, oil, gas, and critical minerals that have enabled industrial and technological advancement as well as societal and economic growth.

co-emissions-per-capita-vs-gdp-per-capita-international-.png

Graph: GDP against CO2 emissions per capita, plotted on log-scale. Bubble size indicates the relative population of each country. Note: Linear positive relationship between CO2 and GDP.

The challenge

To reverse our current trajectory towards dangerous climate change, and to meet national and international legally binding emissions targets such as those set by the Paris Agreement, we must reduce and remove the ever-increasing concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.

Increasing efficiency of energy use, as well as switching to less carbon intensive fuel sources such as natural gas or renewable electricity over coal, have significant roles to play in mitigating our future carbon emissions. However, greater decarbonisation ambitions must be realised to achieve net negative carbon and drive our emissions down to pre-industrial levels.

Greenhouse-gas-emission-scenarios-01

Global historic and predicted future emissions scenarios. Black line indicates our historic emissions of greenhouse gases (including CO2), coloured bands represent different projected emissions trajectories depending on our next steps towards decarbonisation.

The solution

Geology can offer a number of solutions to the carbonisation challenges facing us. Geological deposits provide many of the raw critical materials, both metals and minerals, that we need for clean and green technology such as energy-saving lightbulbs, wind turbines, and solar panels. Geothermal energy stored in the earth’s crust can be harnessed for heating and cooling; a major proportion of global energy demand that cannot be satiated by electricity alone. The subsurface can provide us with the capacity for energy storage in the form of compressed air, heat, hydrogen fuel, or natural gas. It can also offer a secure, permanent location to dispose of high-level radioactive waste, and the opportunity to store some of the CO2 contributing to climate change in our atmosphere (See: Carbon Capture and Storage). Without utilizing a combination of all of these resources and technologies, it is unlikely we will be able to meet our future global warming targets.

The future

It is a certainty that geology will be important in the decarbonisation of our society. From the general knowledge and understanding of the subsurface, to the skills required to interact with it in a safe and efficient way, geoscientists will be central to many of the solutions by which we are able to make a tangible difference to our impact on the climate.

Achieving a meaningful level of decarbonisation will require ambitious collaboration, public interest in societal change, political and economic support, as well as the geological expertise to implement technical and specialist solutions.

3 thoughts on “Geology vs. climate change

  1. Brilliant blog! It would be wonderful if geologists really got their skates on to help, and just said no to colluding with coal, oil and fracking industries which all make everything worse.

  2. Pingback: Geoscience for the future – launch of the Geological Society’s Early Career Network | Geological Society of London blog

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