Yale’s quest to sequester more carbon
At the heart of almost every discussion of climate change, there is carbon. It accumulates in the atmosphere — produced primarily by the burning of fossil fuels — and if left unchecked it may lead to catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.
Humanity’s first response to the carbon crisis, most experts say, must be to produce much less of it. But to improve our chances of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change, they add, we also need to begin removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. This can be achieved, scientists argue, by sequestering carbon and locking it away in rocks, forests, and clean fuels.
And at the heart of that effort, there is the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture.
Launched in 2021 with a $100 million gift from FedEx, the center bolsters multidisciplinary research that seeks natural solutions to bring down atmospheric carbon levels. The center is a key element of Yale’s Planetary Solutions Project, a campus-wide effort to develop practical, impactful responses to Earth’s climate and biodiversity crises.
The center’s work is grouped around three main areas: helping ecosystems store more carbon, boosting the sequestration of carbon in rocks, and converting carbon dioxide into fuels and useful materials.
Each of those topics — as well as a discussion of industry perspectives on carbon neutral commitments moderated by Yale School of the Environment Dean Ingrid C. “Indy” Burke — will be featured in the center’s first symposium, set for May 2.
In addition, last week the aerospace company Boeing announced a $10 million commitment to the center, matching a similar commitment announced previously by Southwest Airlines.
David Bercovici and Liza Comita, the center’s co-directors, spoke with Yale News about Yale’s efforts thus far and the scientific promise of carbon capture. Bercovici is the Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Comita is a professor of tropical forest ecology at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE).
What is involved in getting a new center like this up and running?
Liza Comita: We’re building a new research center from scratch. In the last year, we’ve recruited a number of faculty experts around campus to provide input, and we have a scientific leadership team with faculty from YSE, FAS, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science representing different areas of scientific expertise around carbon capture.
So far, we’ve funded four large research projects led by one or more Yale faculty. These are projects that were a core part of the center’s initial proposal. We also put out an open call for additional research proposals from the Yale community back in the fall. We’re now in the process of determining this next round of funded projects, which will be announced in late May.
We’ve also hired administrative support staff and a managing director, Anna Schuerkmann, who has been with us a couple of months now. We’re currently interviewing candidates for what will be four new endowed faculty positions that are funded through the center. We had a very strong and very large applicant pool, which is wonderful. As I always stress, new faculty members bring not only their individual expertise, but also entire research programs with them, including graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and necessary infrastructure.
Moving forward, we’re also going to have a postdoctoral fellowship program, which we hope to announce over the summer and start accepting applications in the fall.
Let’s talk about some of the science. Where are we with the three focus areas of the center?
David Bercovici: We’re building out the center with some thought to the scales of different capture approaches, how fast and ready they are, and their capacity. There are some approaches where the science is better established, what we might call low-hanging fruit. For example, we have a project synthesizing existing knowledge for avoiding deforestation and interactions between forest ecosystems and agriculture. And we have a project on blue carbon and coastal systems. These ecosystem methods might be implemented for immediate impact over the coming years and decades.
But then we are also looking at capture processes with even larger capacity to capture and store carbon over decades to centuries, but where we know less of the science. This would include capture in rocks and in the oceans, which both have a massive potential for soaking up CO2. We have projects on capturing carbon through mineral weathering both in crops and in the oceans. Finally, industrial processes, such as taking CO2 and using it to make useful products, are things we’re still in the process of building up.
But we should always stress that carbon capture is not a panacea, or a substitute for reduction in emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Emissions have to be reduced by every available method. But capture is essential for hitting negative emissions targets needed to avoid potentially catastrophic future outcomes.
You also consider the amount of time that captured carbon would remain stored, correct?
Comita: Yes, because in some instances there are limits. For example, there is only so much area where you can reforest and only so long those systems can store a given amount of carbon. If we have increased droughts and fires, due to climate change, then that further reduces our carbon storage options. In other systems, like geological capture, the natural processes are slower, but we can look into ways to speed them up. And the permanence is higher. The overall potential for how much carbon we can store in oceans is massive. It dwarfs what is possible through ecosystem capture.
What things about the center excite you the most?
Bercovici: I’m a geophysicist so I’m attracted to the problem of ocean carbon capture and its interplay with ocean circulation, and especially because of the storage potential there. But as we said, all methods have to be explored to cover both immediate and long-term goals. So, all of the projects are vitally important.
Comita: Two things come to mind. One is that the majority of this research has the potential for major co-benefits. For example, we know that forest restoration and avoided deforestation have biodiversity benefits, hydrological benefits in terms of clean water, and enhanced mineral weathering could give us increased crop yields and improve coral reef health. We’re excited about solutions that could have positive benefits on local livelihoods around the world.
The other thing is by having a center of this magnitude, we can be a convener both within Yale and with groups around the world working on these topics. This is not just about Yale. This is a larger vision of how we can move the field forward.
On a personal level, what does being a part of this effort mean to you?
Comita: Climate change is the most pressing problem our society is facing and this provides an opportunity to help design solutions to have a real impact.
Bercovici: We have kids, and families, and every day we interact with young students and colleagues; we want the best future for all of them, and their own kids to follow. Yale cannot sit on the sidelines with a problem as existentially important as this one.