This article, by Matilyn Bindl, is part of a series highlighting members of the Office of Sustainability’s Experts Database. In a collaboration with instructor Madeline Fisher’s course, LSC 561: Writing Science for the Public, students interviewed campus sustainability experts and produced short feature stories.
In the eyes of UW–Madison Biological Systems Engineering professor Rob Anex, understanding the long-term impacts of climate change is a lot like watching a child make their own bowl of cereal for the first time. Equipped with a bowl of Cheerios, a pitcher of milk, and self-confidence, they start to pour the milk into the bowl…
“It takes a couple of weeks, where they’re pouring and—Oh, there, it’s full!” Anex said. “And they stop, but there’s still milk that’s falling down and overflows. Humans didn’t evolve to manage things with big time delays like that, and climate change is that on steroids.”
In other words, to prevent our global “bowl” from further overflowing with warming, we must stop pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as soon as possible. As part of a holistic approach to limiting climate change, Anex is exploring solutions for reducing greenhouse gases at the source of emissions and removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. His research group assesses the design, performance, and environmental impacts of sustainable agricultural methods and carbon capture technologies.
Anex’s work targets high-emitting practices that have become increasingly prevalent in the developed world over the last several decades. Heavy fossil fuel use across all sectors and conventional agricultural practices such as soil tillage, fertilizer application, and livestock farming are continuously adding to the already dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Combined, these activities are responsible for more than 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the United Nations. If left unchecked, the current rate of emissions threatens irreversible damage to human well-being and the environment.
Because fossil fuels and conventional agriculture are so deeply embedded in our society, Anex advocates for an all-of-the-above approach to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change and help the world meet its climate goals. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at their sources, he said the global community must also commit to extracting carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere and permanently storing it. This approach, called carbon capture, has been criticized by some policymakers and members of the public who claim that such approaches serve as an excuse for people to continue their high-emitting behavior. But Anex has a different perspective.
“When we’re talking about carbon capture, there are absolutely people out there that object to it because it gives people an easy out,” he said. “They don’t have to reduce emissions because now we have a way to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, … and that is fundamentally not true. Carbon capture is critical: we have to do it. We also have to reduce emissions in a big way.”
Following this two-pronged approach of emissions reduction and carbon capture, Anex’s research group uses tools in life cycle assessment and systems analysis to evaluate sustainable agricultural practices and carbon capture technologies. Motivated by his upbringing on a small farm, Anex primarily devoted his early agricultural research on biofuels. Since then, he has extended his studies to perennial groundcover, soil erosion, nutrient management, and the reduction of livestock- and fertilizer-based emissions. On the carbon capture front, his group is currently co-developing a direct air capture technology that traps carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and upcycles it into a cement substitute.
Anex’s mission is to better understand the social, economic, and technical barriers to implementing carbon reduction technologies and find ways to overcome them. By making these solutions feasible today—rather than waiting until they become feasible in the future—he hopes the global community can limit an “overflow” of climate warming and achieve its long-term sustainability goals.