Written by: Kianna Marquez
Editors: Jennifer Baker, Sophie Hill, Rebecca Dzombak, Alyse Krausz, and Madeline Barron
As a young person, the level of action necessary to overcome the climate crisis feels insurmountable. The overwhelming challenge of mitigating the effects of accumulating greenhouse gases on atmospheric warming often paralyzes me—I have even doubted pursuing a career path in sustainability because I am unsure if our world is beyond the point of saving from environmental destruction and irreversible climate change. However, this past year, I turned this challenging prospect into an opportunity for hope. I found my purpose in contributing to climate action and to the outcome of our climate future, and in inspiring others to do the same.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summary of policy recommendations declares that 1.5℃ in atmospheric warming is the temperature threshold after which substantial changes to Earth’s climate will occur. Since the 1960s, human activities have caused approximately 1.0℃ of global warming, and warming is highly likely to reach 1.5℃ between 2030 and 2052 if it continues increasing at the current rate. Since greenhouse gas emissions, such as those of carbon dioxide (CO2), are major contributors to atmospheric warming, the IPCC translates their recommendations into quantifiable goals: reduce CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The type of emissions in question are global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions, which means that reductions must occur in every part of the world where humans emit more CO2 than is removed from the atmosphere by nature. To reach these goals, many experts beyond the IPCC are pushing for the public to understand that drastic action is required for our society to come anywhere close to meeting these emissions reduction targets.
Drastic action means that simply reducing the amount of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere will not be enough; we need to remove CO2 that we have already emitted. This is where carbon removal, a climate game changer, comes into play. Experts define carbon removal as activities that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and durably store it in geological, terrestrial, or ocean reservoirs, or in products such as synthetic fuels or construction materials. While our preventative actions against climate destruction allow us to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle for the future, the physical removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere diminishes the effects of existing CO2 emissions left over from how we have lived unsustainably in the past. This is what makes achieving negative emissions by carbon removal an essential part of the all-encompassing solution to the climate crisis.
The scope of carbon removal is promising, yet we are still far from deploying the technology at large scales. The research and development behind carbon removal technology is still minimal, and minimal doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about removing dozens of gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year to reach IPCC targets by 2050. Our world needs thousands or more people researching and developing carbon removal strategies to overcome this challenge, and environmental professionals here in Ann Arbor, MI, are working to answer that call.
Figure 1: Diagram of the carbon removal process, provided by the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative.
At the University of Michigan, professors from the department of Mechanical Engineering formed a group called the Global CO2 Initiative (GCI). GCI consists of university faculty and research fellows working to implement carbon removal and utilization as a mainstream climate solution with environmental and economic feasibility evaluations. GCI emphasizes the potential that carbon utilization, or the use of captured carbon oxides to produce economically-valuable products, has for stimulating economic growth (Figure 1).
While GCI has always promoted the education of young people in carbon removal and utilization through course offerings, student engagement with GCI was uncommon. This led me to form the Global CO2 Initiative Student Association (GCISA), a multidisciplinary student organization involving undergraduate and graduate students in educational opportunities, including seminars, projects, professional development, and community outreach, within the field of carbon removal. I started building this group at the end of summer 2020, and we launched as an official student organization at the beginning of the winter 2021 semester. Since then, our group has become more visible and continues to grow. Our students have hosted a public social justice forum with the Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC), led seminars about carbon removal and utilization technologies, and built small-scale direct air capture machines, or Cyan units, with the OpenAir Collective. Through these initiatives, GCISA has established a greater body of university students to help further the goals of GCI in the field of carbon removal.
Figure 2: GCISA project team members building our first Cyan units in the Wilson Center.
GCISA students believe in the power of an action-based approach to addressing the climate crisis, and several have started initiatives that make an impact in tangible ways. For example, Martin Chown, an undergraduate engineering student, leads the project for building Cyan units with other club members in the Wilson Center on North Campus (Figure 2).
“The goal of our project is to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. This is unique from other student-led sustainability projects because we are taking a hands-on, engineering approach to mitigating the impacts of climate change,” Martin says.
GCISA students show eagerness to engage in initiatives because of how compelled they feel to respond to urgent dangers to the environment. Martin mentioned that they have a knack for “tackling all of the corresponding challenges that are popping up head-on” and for carrying a “solutions-oriented mentality” that prepares them to tackle the breadth of challenges posed by the climate issue.
In the campus-wide endeavor to push for tangible improvement in our university administration’s response to the global climate issue, GCISA has become an important addition to the array of student organizations—including SSC, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and Climate Action Movement—who are advocating for environmental justice, divestment from fossil fuels, and carbon neutrality. Knowing that carbon removal has yet to become a widespread conversation piece at other institutions, GCISA students bring a unique perspective to the conversation at the University of Michigan. GCISA’s initiatives give students the platform to disrupt the status quo and put the issue of carbon emissions at the forefront of people’s mind in an action-based way that the university administration has not yet accomplished.
Figure 3: Our Python Workshop flyer posted on social media (left), GCISA members discussing multimedia projects with emissions data during our Python Workshop (right).
Among the possibilities for initiatives in the growing space of carbon removal, members of GCISA have also started discussing multimedia projects with carbon emissions data (Figure 3), forming joint campaigns with SSC to advocate for carbon removal and environmental justice, conducting literature reviews for installing carbon capture on the North Campus Central Energy Plant, and creating a showcase for students and professionals to network and present their research related to carbon capture on an annual basis. At GCISA, we understand that the ideas don’t stop there, and we’re prepared to amplify our platform to accommodate more students who are motivated to make positive change on campus through action-based initiatives that center around carbon removal as a part of the solution to climate change.
GCISA students want to turn the heads of people from all walks of life because we are seeking to overcome humanity’s biggest threat—irreversible climate change. Our world is already experiencing climate destruction, and those of us at this university are privileged with the choice to pay attention to it or not. Despite the mental and physical challenges that the climate crisis causes us, now is the most important time to apply ourselves to climate action with the promise that carbon removal gives for the future. As GCISA students, we have found our purpose in carbon removal, and we believe that everyone has a place next to us. Through science and technology, policy and advocacy, conservancy, environmental restoration, and simply striving to live a more sustainable lifestyle, you can be part of the solution. The future of this world depends on you, it depends on all of us. Our success against the climate crisis is only a matter of us taking the opportunity to tackle challenges together and without reserve.
Kianna Marquez is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying chemical engineering, with an interest in sustainability and green technology. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, reading books, and writing about the environment. She is passionate about making climate change topics engaging and more accessible to a public audience. She has written for The Michigan Daily and for the Great Lakes Writers Corps. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.