In the midst of the recentclimatepledginglovefest, it’s easy to lose sight of the unhappy truth that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have already reached levels that effectively guarantee us at least several decades of global warming. While the Kyoto Protocol is worthwhile—to reduce global emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels—it is only a small first step toward putting brakes on climate change. To do that, scientists estimate that worldwide emissions must be reduced by at least 60 to 70 percent.   

Needless to say, achieving those levels of reductions will be a something of a challenge. We’ll need to consume less, become more efficient, and develop alternative energy sources. We’ll also need to figure out ways to capture greenhouse gas emissions—principally carbon—and prevent it from concentrating in the atmosphere and contributing to warming. The most talked-about way to do this is using carbon "sinks" such as forests and grasslands, which essentially soak up carbon that becomes trapped in the living biological material.

Another possibility—one that is thick with possibility and contradiction—is sequestering carbon manually. The BBC reports on pioneering technology that the United Kingdom is exploring that will capture up to 85 percent of power-plant emissions and then trap them under the North Sea in geologic formations that were once occupied by petroleum or natural gas. Sounds good, right?

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  • But in a rather strange twist, industry is fairly revved up about the technology because, as it turns out, injecting CO-2 into the seabed can make it possible to extract remnant fossil fuels more quickly and cheaply. So storing hydrocarbons makes it easier to burn hydrocarbons, which means we need to store more hydrocarbons, which…

    Okay, that’s a little unfair. Once the technology is perfected (and cheap enough to be practicable) there’s probably more potential for storing carbon than is offset by the ease of extracting more of it. My biggest worry is about the consequences of pumping the seabed full of CO-2. I worry that technological fixes like this quite often become the technological monsters of tomorrow. (If we can just split this atom, we’ll have power that’s too cheap to meter… Oops.)

    The truth is, I don’t know of any specific objections to the sequestration technology. (I’d love to find out if there are any.) But something smells fishy to me.

    Postscript: Also courtesy of the BBC, an interesting gallery of paired images from around the world that documents the effects of warming.