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Going Carbon Negative And Equity In Energy Among Topics At Penn State 'Energy Days' Conference

Woman standing in a grassy research field pointing to a plant.
Anne Danahy

The need to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change is well known, but scientists at Penn State say actually removing heat-trapping gases from the air has to be a part of the strategy too.

Tom Richard, director of Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment and an organizer of its recent “Energy Days 2021” conference, said reducing emissions is important, but not enough.

“At some point we actually have to turn the dial in the other direction and pull CO2 out of the atmosphere,” Richard said, adding that there are ways to do that, starting with plants.

“Our agriculture and our forests that our state is named after actually are pulling millions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year,” he said.

The annual conference brought together hundreds of scientists, researchers, attorneys and experts with a goal of finding ways to address climate change and other energy-related challenges.

Bruce Logan, an engineering professor and associate director of the institute, said going negative doesn’t mean we’re not going to emit any CO2 or stop using all fossil fuels. 

“Every single future scenario that says how we avoid drastic climate change is based on having some proportion of carbon taken and put in the ground,” said Logan, also one of the event organizers.

There are natural and engineered solutions. For example, Logan said, capturing emissions where they’re generated, like at a power plant, putting them in a pipeline and sending them to a disposal site and then into the ground.

A lack of equity in energy, including who can benefit from it and who can be hurt by it, was another theme at the conference.

Richard pointed to energy systems that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, including in cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

“Where there are neighborhoods that are suffering air quality effects on respiratory systems,” he said. “Where there are kids 10 times more likely to have asthma than the nation’s average because of where they live.”

Richard said that shows the need to create energy systems that protect people’s health and are fair and equitable.

Lack of equity could also mean not being able to afford to pay more for green energy, or landlords not having an incentive to make buildings efficient and tenants ending up having to pay high bills for utilities.

Other topics at the conference included going carbon negative, electric vehicles, nuclear energy and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is a consortium of northeastern states that are agreeing to reduce emission through cap-and-trade programs. Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to join RGGI has been a sore spot between Wolf and Republicans in the General Assembly, who oppose it.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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