Can “Enhanced Rock Weathering” fight Climate Change?

Is it possible that ‘increased rock weathering’ might contribute to the fight against climate change?

Can "Enhanced Rock Weathering" fight climate change?
A beautiful shot of the Bombo Headland Quarry in Australia

Jim Mann squats down in a mine full of loud heavy machinery and picks up a handful of small black rocks. “This is my magic dust,” he says with a smile as he rubs them gently between his fingers. Jim tells us about how rock weathering may help us in cooling down our planet.

He has pieces of basalt in his hands. It is a hard rock made of lava that is neither rare nor special, but a process called “enhanced rock weathering” could help to cool our world, which is getting too hot.

Scientists at the UN are now sure that lowering greenhouse gas emissions alone won’t be enough to stop heat from reaching dangerous levels. They say that carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the air. This means that it will have to be taken out of the air.

Planting plants is the most natural way to do this, but it has its limits. The CO2 that is taken in by the trees is released when the wood rots or burns, and there are limits to how many trees can be placed.

Direct Air Capture (DAC), on the other hand, uses machines to pull CO2 out of the air and store it underground. This method is permanent, but does it make sense to build such an energy-intensive system when we’re trying to get off fossil fuels?

Enhanced rock weathering is a process that is neither natural nor made by people. It speeds up the natural, but very slow, process of weathering to get rid of the carbon faster.

I’ve come to a mine just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh to meet Jim. His company, UNDO, which does improved rock weathering, just got £12 million in new funding and wants to expand.

Huge diggers are constantly scraping away at the black mountain around us to make concrete and asphalt for roads. The mood is more like the end of the world after a nuclear war than saving the planet.

Volcanic rocks and hills have been slowly getting rid of carbon for thousands of years as they weather in the rain. Enhanced rock weathering uses tiny bits to increase the amount of touch between rain and rock, which increases the amount of weathering and carbon removal.

Some experts worry that this kind of carbon removal might take people’s attention away from the more important goal of cutting emissions, or even be used as an excuse to keep living our carbon-intensive lives.

“CO2 reduction has to come first,” Jim tells me as we watch the tractor move up and down, led by GPS. “But we also need to work on these technologies that can remove a lot of CO2 at once. And what we’re doing with improved rock weathering is nice because it’s lasting.”

Written by Shaheer Ahmed


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