By Carole Douglis
Hint: While weighty, it’s nearly light as air….
That would be carbon dioxide. A few more million pounds just wafted forth while you puzzled out (or read) the answer. Much of that is set to linger in the sky for centuries.
Those who made the calculation also argue that a global tree-planting effort could absorb enough carbon to restore the climate we enjoyed from the beginning of civilization.
Trees are great, but….
I’d love to believe this possible. But apart from the fact that tree cover’s potential for CO2 sequestering is far from agreed…. Consider the gobsmacking amount of public and private commitment it would take, worldwide, and immediately. Trees take awhile to grow, after all–if they survive. Seedlings often wither after being planted with pomp and hope.
Not to mention that standard reforestation with monoculture by definition quashes biodiversity, which is already collapsing in so many areas. Forests would need to supplant a lot of pasture, corn and soybeans–which recently replaced the original forests, to cater to our enormous, ever-growing demand for meat. And we’re starting from way behind, since collectively we’re still slashing forests wholesale.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for forests: the Hidden Life of Trees and Overstory should be required reading for all. In the 2000s, I chronicled the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Billion Tree Campaign as well as producing a UNEP policy paper on forests, disguised as a children’s storybook.
We missed the boat—ready for a torpedo?
If we’d listened to environmental visionaries like Lester Brown and Amory Lovins in the 1980s, we’d be in good shape. But 40 years of denial and greed later, the world’s climatologists, represented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now say we need to scramble to try anything and everything to limit the climate crisis.
Recent city- and state-level action on renewables is encouraging. Energy efficiency and clean energy are essential. But they’re not sufficient to restore, in the near-term, the type of climate that civilization has depended on for 10,000 years.
Planting trees and restoring ecosystems that shelter beleaguered species are also key to easing the twin crises of climate and widespread extinctions. But not sufficient.
Plan B… or maybe we’re on Z?
A network of researchers and activists are thinking beyond mitigating and adapting to the horrors coming soon to a neighborhood near everyone.… They propose that we get busy repairing the atmosphere to prevent them.
The goal is not to evade the totally necessary shift to renewable energy, but to complement it.
Some “climate restoration” methods have been tested for years and are ready for scale-up, given investment. For others, scientists have a hard time even scraping together research funding, partly because the climate community’s attention has been, understandably, riveted to renewables.
Many green activists attack the whole notion of climate repair from fear of giving policy-makers an excuse to ease up on easing out carbon-based fuels. Indeed, Big Oil takes conspicuous interest in “carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).” They say they’ll use CO2 to “enhance” extraction from older oil fields.
If we are going to gift our children a habitable planet, though, we’d do well to open our minds to ideas that may initially sound duplicitous, scary, or even downright wacky.
We could suck it all up, in principle– if we wanted to
With the blessing of the Iceland government, a Swiss company is extracting CO2 from the air and shooting it into basalt formations deep underground, where it literally turns to stone. (Don’t ask me how, but very smart people say it works.)
Experts calculate that, pursued with vigor, this technology could disappear the trillion tons of excess CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050. If only world governments would invest as much as they now do in the military…
Considering the state of international cooperation, this seems unlikely. Other solutions, though, can be financed by the old invisible hand by using CO2 to produce useful products.
On the menu: Concrete and silica; iron dust and fish
For instance, engineers know how to seal CO2 into high-quality building materials. In 2016, workers poured light-weight, “carbon negative” concrete into a boarding area for San Francisco International Airport, demonstrating its viability for paving and building.
Eminent scientists as well as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are calling for creating algal forests and stimulating phytoplankton growth in the ocean— to both absorb CO2 and bring back the fish. How? By pouring iron dust in at critical points where absence of the mineral is a limiting factor for algae and diatoms.
Less marketable but ready to make a difference:
Ironically, oil companies figured out decades ago how to thicken Arctic ice by spraying seawater on it. Today researchers are exploring how to use wind power to rapidly rebuild the ice that’s vital to curbing the planet’s fever.
Can we learn to love the weird?
Like many greenies, I blurted a knee-jerk “That’s crazy talk!” when first encountering most of these, especially “ocean iron fertilization.” So I understand the distrust and the anxiety about unforeseeable consequences.
Yet the consequences of NOT sucking carbon out of the air on a huge scale are all too foreseeable: a global nightmare.
These ideas deserve swift and ample public and private support. We need to know which can work on a global scale, permanently. What side effects may be likely. How to best scale and adapt as needed.
And we need to start now.
Every second counts.
Carole Douglis is a communications strategist and multimedia story crafter. Carole has coached executives, scientists, and other staff on three continents. She has provided communication expertise to UNICEF, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Worldwatch Institute, the World Bank, African Wildlife Foundation, Academy for Educational Development, Chemonics, PACT International, and many more.
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse