In Search of Climate Solutions

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
March 31, 2020

Climate Research

Katie Lebling
Katie Lebling ’10
Research analyst, World Resources Institute

Katie Lebling’s childhood was filled with all things outdoors. Her mother, an environmentalist, seized every opportunity to bring her children close to nature in their Boston suburb. They camped. They watched birds. They swam in lakes.

Imbued with her mother’s passion for the environment, Lebling ’10 cultivated that interest by pursuing a biology major with an environmental science concentration—and a Chinese minor—at Colby. In her junior year, she studied in Beijing, China, finding an environment in stark contrast to where she grew up. Experiencing the air pollution there, she wondered, “How do you fix that, and how do you prevent that from happening in other places?”

Now, as a research analyst at the Climate Program of World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based global research organization, Lebling is working to answer that question, not just for China but for the entire planet.

Lebling’s journey at WRI began almost four years ago. For the most part, she was focused on the organization’s online platform called the Climate Watch. She worked to build on its greenhouse gas emissions database, which synthesizes different data sources to present a detailed and historical overview of it. Despite the existence of other resources, she noted, “ours is one that a lot of people use.” After the Paris Agreement, she was involved in revising the platform to include information to track each country’s commitments and progress.

Last year, she joined another team within the organization that’s working on carbon removal technologies. “It’s a pretty new thing for WRI, and I think for a lot of the green NGOs,” she said. As the name suggests, carbon removal technologies can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. There are various natural and technological approaches to do that, ranging from tree restoration to direct air capture to carbon mineralization.

“I think even in the past year or two, [carbon removal] went from being a kind of crazy idea to now being more of an accepted thing that people understand we’ll need alongside mitigation,” she said. Lebling pointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5 report, which included carbon removal in most of the scenarios that put us on track to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. The federal government, she noted, recently appropriated $60 million for research and development of carbon-removal technologies—at least $35 million of which is for direct air capture—for the fiscal year 2020.

In January Lebling and the team published a research paper called “CarbonShot: Federal Policy Options for Carbon Removal in the United States.” In this, they evaluated the natural and technological approaches to carbon removal and put forward their assessment of priority federal policy options to advance carbon removal in the United States in 2020 and beyond.

“The biggest one there that’s probably gotten the most media attention is direct air capture,” she said of the technological approaches. Direct air capture, or DAC, uses enormous machines to capture air. Then, by using chemical reactions and later heat and electricity, the carbon dioxide gets separated and concentrated. This carbon then can either be injected underground for storage or used to produce things like chemicals, fuels, and building materials as well as in enhanced oil recovery.

“There are only three companies doing this; it’s [in] very small scale at this point,” said Lebling, noting that the cost per ton of direct air capture is still pretty high, but there is literature putting forth ways to reduce it.

While there’s a lot of excitement about the prospects for this method, there are also concerns about the energy required in this process and about how the captured CO2 would be used. “The biggest use for capturing carbon now is enhanced oil recovery, which is injecting this into depleted oil wells to get more oil out,” she said, noting that this is what incentivizes some companies to further develop this technology. “If you can use that economic output as a means to bring down the costs enough to then be able to scale it up further, then that’s one potential pathway.”

These technologies, by themselves, won’t be enough to solve the climate crisis; Lebling and WRI argue that they should play a significant role alongside mitigation efforts.

“At some point, the natural options will saturate,” Lebling said. “You can only plant so many trees, you can only put in so many cover crops, and then the technical side has to take over and fill in the gap, and then from there scale-up.”

Among those technical options, WRI is optimistic about the potential of direct air capture. “I think from our perspective direct air capture is quite promising because despite significant drawbacks that need to be improved on, the scale is unlimited, theoretically.”

But getting to that point requires much more funding, research, and development. “This has to be done alongside mitigation; you can’t hold back your ambition on reducing emissions and deploying renewable energy because you’re saying, oh, we’ll have all this negative emissions technology in the future and that’ll take care of everything,” she said.

Now, she’s researching the ocean-based application of carbon-removal technologies to see what might be done there.

“Some days I’m very optimistic about [the future], some other days I’m not,” said Lebling. “But I think this work does make me feel more optimistic because it’s looking at the possibilities of all these different ideas that are out there, that if they just get the right funding and the right support could be game-changers.”