A new foundation makes the case for undoing climate change

Smoke billows from the chimneys of the Belchatów Power Station in Poland, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant. Photo by: REUTERS / Kacper Pemp

UNITED NATIONS — Climate change is upending ecosystems, threatening to push more than 100 million people below the poverty threshold by 2050. But what if climate change — and nearly all of its impacts — were reversible?

Solutions to undo the damage caused by a warming planet are not so far fetched, according to experts from the new Foundation for Climate Restoration. It starts with the goal of removing excess carbon from the atmosphere.

“To restore the climate we have to get the carbon back out of the atmosphere. That is basically it. It would be really smart to restore the Arctic ice and a few other things, but we have to get the climate back to the way it was,” explained Peter Fiekowsky, founder of the year-old organization. “There is a trillion tons of CO2 we need to remove, and we need to do that before our society collapses, because it will take us a fair amount of effort.”

The foundation, run by Fiekowsky, an MIT-trained physicist, and CEO Richard Parnell, former COO of the United Nations Foundation, will host the first annual Climate Restoration Forum at the U.N. Headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, one week ahead of the Climate Action Summit in New York.

Fiekowsky hopes the forum helps spark additional partnerships, funding, and research on achieving climate restoration by 2050. It could also be a springboard to broaden policy dialogue beyond the necessary work of climate mitigation and adaptation.

“Mitigation and adaptation are critically important, renewals are absolutely on course and we are headed to a carbon-free future. But there is also restoration, the idea of getting the carbon out of the air,” Parnell explained in a phone call with Devex. “Our idea is you need to get started with carbon restoration right away.”

A ‘gargantuan’ task

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached its second-highest annual rise over the last six decades this May, increasing the risk of extreme weather events and temperature rises as high as 2 degrees Celsius within the century. Current levels of CO2 are 50% higher than levels human beings have ever survived with long term, according to findings released Tuesday by the Foundation for Climate Restoration. 

The task of lowering CO2 to safe levels sounds “gargantuan,” according to the foundation’s report, “Climate Restoration.” It is a massive undertaking, but the technology and financing methods already exist to restore the climate, according to the foundation. Climeworks, Global Thermostat, and Carbon Engineering are among the existing companies that capture CO2 from the atmosphere.

Scientists, such as Julio Friedmann, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, have identified carbon dioxide removal as very ambitious, but necessary work that is scientifically possible. Conventional mitigation and carbon dioxide removal could, together, achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, according to a July 2019 paper Friedmann published.

This week, the foundation will present a few proposed solutions on how to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by tapping into existing markets. First, industrial plant emissions could sequester excess CO2 and produce synthetic limestone, which can be used for construction, rather than traditional quarry gravel. Second, marine ecosystems could be restored to develop underwater forests, which hold large amounts of CO2 and could help sequester up to 50 billion tons of CO2 on the ocean floor each year.

Parnell concedes that it is not “practical” to rely on governments to support this work. But it would only cost private construction companies an estimated 1% more to use synthetic limestone, according to the foundation’s estimates.

Fiekowsky said he thinks more ideas will be “bubbling up” after the Tuesday afternoon forum, which they are hosting in partnership with the Earth Day Network and the youth-led Future Coalition network. A new global coalition of experts, companies, and organizations will also be announced. The foundation’s next two years of work will focus on additional research, he said.

“These are the two solutions we have come up with, but there are more out there,” Fiekowsky said.

“We want to spark research, policy, for governments to actually say, let’s look at restoration. There is no funding but there is a sort of domino effect ... to be able to somewhat change the conversation that there are some solutions. What does that look like, what planning has to change, what budgets have to change?” Fiekowsky continued.

Removing excess carbon from the atmosphere by 2050 could help negate most of climate change’s impacts, with the exception of sea-level rise and extinction of species, according to the foundation.

One hurdle will be people accepting climate restoration as a plausible idea they should get behind, Parnell said.

“I’ve been in the climate space for 20 years and what struck me is the sense of hope. People have woken up to the climate issue and now people need to understand that there is something they can do, that they can be empowered and make change,” Parnell explained. “The biggest challenge is people understanding we can do this. It is not insurmountable.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.