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Capturing Carbon: Is Carbon Sequestration The Way Out Of Climate Change?

Updated on November 20, 2011
The deceptively simple carbon molecule: a central carbon molecule bonded to two oxygen molecules. While essential for life, this common compound could be killing us.
The deceptively simple carbon molecule: a central carbon molecule bonded to two oxygen molecules. While essential for life, this common compound could be killing us.

If Alanna Mitchell is right, the massive release of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere as a result of human activity is disastrous. Carbon dioxide directly affects the basic chemistry of our oceans: in fact, it impacts the basic chemistry of life on our planet.

How can too much carbon be bad? After all, plants use carbon dioxide to breathe. They breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. That means more oxygen for us. They also convert CO2 (with the help of water and sunshine) into the most basic food on which all life is based - simple sugar. So, more carbon dioxide should mean that plants can make more food, right?

Unfortunately, even the best thing in excessive amounts disrupts the intricate and awe-inspiring system of checks and balances that support our planet's functioning. While pollutions of all kinds are causing changes in our planet that we have not been aware of, the problem with carbon is now becoming painfully clear.

The Human Race and Carbon

Carbon dioxide may be the single most plentiful by-product of modern civilization. Even before the industrial revolution and our modern civilization, humans had already driven the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above the level that our planet had maintained for millenia.

Ancient peoples learned to effectively exploit the environment long before assembly lines graced the earth. One negative practice still in use in many economically poor cultures is burning forests to convert them to farmland. Not only have we harnessed fire for destruction, we discovered the benefits of new fuels to burn - from peat to coal to oil - which led to more and more intensive use of these fuels.

Fundamentally, we started to use the planet's stored carbon for fuel, releasing carbon from older and older stores - first peat to coal and finally oil and natural gas. We have used these fuels to drive our technological innovations of all kinds, from the production of metal tools in coal-burning furnaces centuries ago to the development of plastic bags, a modern scourge.

Our carbon-emitting activity has accelerated to unprecedented levels in the past century. With the arrival of internal combustion engines came machinery of all kinds, to help us build faster and better. We have used carbon to create a huge bubble of prosperity, based on cheap fuel and our (inaccurate) view that the world could take anything we dished out.

Both economists and geologists are now predicting the end of cheap oil (and other fossil fuels). Peak oil is a term that has entered the lexicon. In the extremely near future, we will have burned through half of our easy-to-extract oil, leaving only the most difficult sources left to exploit. Oil production will begin to decline. Jeff Rubin, former chief economist of CIBC World Markets in Canada says that we'll have oil at $400 a barrel in 3 to 5 years. The sky-rocketing price of oil will drive our economy in a whole new direction, away from oil and into the arms of alternative energy.

So, it seems that economics will fix our problem. We'll stop producing so much carbon dioxide if our favorite sources of fuel become too expensive. Unfortunately, that may not be enough: we've put so much carbon dioxide into the earth's system, we need to find a way to remove some - and quickly.

Plants and Carbon Dioxide

If there's too much carbon dioxide out there circulating in our atmosphere (and getting into our oceans where it arguably does the most damage), then can't we get rid of some of it?

Turns out that we can. It's called carbon sequestering and the idea is to take that excess carbon dioxide and get it out of circulation for as long as possible. In effect, that is what oil and natural gas and propane and coal are: these are natural carbon sequestrations that we have exploited for fuel, releasing carbon dioxide in the process.

Carbon sequestering is going on every day on our planet. Plant-based life lives and grows by sequestering carbon. It's called photosynthesis, the process through which plants breathe in carbon dioxide to make simple sugars, and breathe out oxygen.

So, just plant a bunch of trees, right?

Well, plants do take carbon dioxide out of circulation, but they don't do it for long enough. When a plant dies, the process of decomposition releases a lot of that sequestered carbon back into the environment as other greenhouse gases like methane. This means that plants are helpful but they won't fix the huge overabundance of carbon that we are dealing with now. We need something that will tie up carbon for long time periods without releasing it - much like the fossil fuels did originally.

Introduction to Carbon Sequestration

Long Term Carbon Sequestering

What is needed is a way to take large amounts of carbon out of the planet's air / ocean system, and fairly quickly, without having to create additional carbon dioxide to do it.

This means we need the right approach - preferably one that mimics planetary processes.

Many of our environmental "fixes" have actually had us using oil or gas in equivalent amounts - just in a different part of the process. A good example is bio-diesel, which is overwhelmingly made in its commercial version from corn. Corn is an exceptionally oil intensive crop, using a lot of petrochemicals - from pesticides and herbicides to fuel in the farm equipment - at every stage of its production. Obviously, if we burn as much fossil fuel in creating an alternative (in addition to the problematic pollution created by phosphates and nitrogens), we don't have the right solution.

The petroleum industry - who has the most to lose if we stop using oil - has suggested that we capture CO2 and store it underground. While this has some of the hallmarks of a workable solution, it remains energy intensive and expensive. Some estimate that it will cost as much as $150 per tonne to capture and store carbon this way. The big question is: how do we know this carbon will stay put and not "burp" out into the atmosphere?

James Lovelock has an alternative: create "biochar". Biochar is a fancy name for charcoal - but with unique properties.

Take any "biomass", from fast-growing bamboo trees to overabundant algae or your everyday municipal garbage. Bake it at over 300 degrees Celsius, without oxygen. This process locks in as much as 60 per cent of the carbon in the resulting "char".

Char doesn't rot. This is good because rotting plant life releases carbon gases back into the environment. Char doesn't oxidize. It remains chemically stable for estimates of hundreds of years. You could easily bury it - even put it back into abandoned mines or other natural features. Some experts even say we could put it in the ocean (but that seems a bigger risk, given the altered ocean chemistry). If done with every possible type of waste - as well as fast growing plants that are taking carbon out of circulation as they grow - we could begin to turn the tide of carbon overload in our environment.

Facilities to create char could use their own by-product of heat and bio-gases as fuel. This means the process runs like Mother Nature does: the "waste" becomes an input to the cycle. Little if any energy or carbon is lost to the environment.

Subodh Gupta, a scientist with Encana Corporation, says that char is the way to go. He estimates it to cost only $42 for every tonne of CO2.

What To Do Now

The most important thing you can do is push your local, regional and national politicians. Without pressure from the public, politicians will remain focused on the "economy" without regard to the environment.

Frankly, without an environment, there will be no need for an economy.

So, while you can (and should) take steps to stop producing CO2 in as many ways as you can, you also need to ensure that politicians sit up and take notice. We must put the brakes on the world's CO2 engine as quickly as we can to avoid the most severe long-term climate and plant chemistry effects.

Here's how you can reduce your carbon output:

1. Cool less in summer and heat less in winter. Nothing is as effective as just not burning fuel in the first place.

2. Drive less. This is the same principle as the first point - if you don't burn the fuel, you don't release the CO2.

3. Reduce your consumption of products that use fossil fuels or release CO2. This means reducing plastic. This also means buying products made closer to home because shipping of all kinds requires fuel.

4. Reduce, reuse, recycle. People always forget that the best option is NOT consuming in the first place! While it's great to recycle, it's always better to reuse first. So, the order is important. Reduce first. If you can't reduce, reuse - which includes buying refurbished or second-hand. Our last option is recycle - it will take the largest energy investment to recycle, which also means it is the least desirable option.

5. Rethink your lifestyle. If you can handle more of your life on foot or by bicycle, you produce much less carbon. This applies to every process in our lives, from our laundry (which ideally should dry on a line outside) to how we do our errands.

6. Think local. Live in the middle of the services you want to consume. Live close to work, schools, community. Take public transit. Share a car.

7. Get into urban agriculture. Growing your own food is not just inherently satisfying - it is a great way to reduce carbon in a multitude of ways, from reducing packaging to zero to eliminating shipping. Even if you simply grow a few tomatoes on a potted plant, you've reduced how much carbon you are responsible for.

There are a myriad of tools and techniques to be more green. Many government and private agency sites provide more information on small things that can be done that yield results. Not only will you get ideas of what you can do, you'll also be inspired - and gain hope - for what is being done already.


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    • profile image

      Tess Rousseau 7 years ago

      Hi Monique, This is another example as to how we each can do a little which in the long run will accomplish a lot. It reminds me of one step at a time. It also provides hope for the future if we act now. Tess

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      We can definitely act for the future - and without heading back to the "stone age". This is time for human creativity to be applied to the right thing - helping us slow the pace (and eventually reverse) rapid climate change. Some of that may take us back to things that are good for all of us: like more exercise and a life based less on conviences (and throw-away goods) and more on quality. Doesn't sound like a bad thing to me!

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thank you, thank you, thank you, Monique. The current push the coal companies are putting on for "clean coal" sequestration is well addressed in your post, and the "bio-char" idea really does have great potential.

      I think you could emphasize even further its use as a soil amendment--the Amazonian "terra preta" biochar was actually intended to--and did--enhance soil fertility. How about intensive application of bio-char to areas where soil structure has been degraded one way or another?

      Another beautifully timely and well-written hub. Congratulations!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Thanks, Doc Snow!

      I think the idea of using bio-char as a soil amendment could put it to some good, practical use (beyond simply taking CO2 out of the environment). I need to learn more about this. Seems a bit counter-intuitive though because we want CO2 out of the environment, and then we put it back in the soil... However, there are definitely experts out there advising this approach.

    • profile image

      pgrundy 7 years ago

      Great hub. I've read a bit about bio-char as a soil amendemnt and would like to know more. I do think we need to be much more aggressive about getting off fossil fuels. There really isn't any time left, and here we have people still arguing about if it's even a problem. Thank you for this informative article. Well done!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Thanks for the compliment... This is a topic that I am passionate about - and as a writer, I just can't help putting what I learn out there. Let's keep spreading the word!

      And I'll see what I can find out about bio-char and soil amendments... ;-)

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 7 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa


      I am glad to finally find someone who understand the situation.  To most people all they know is plant a tree and quit using fossil fuels.  I get the biggest kick out of the plant a tree.   All I have to do is plant a tree.  And when the tree dies, what happens to its carbon?   Dah, it is re-released and did not do any thing for us, unless it was used to replace fossil fuel in some way.

      There are so many bad ideas floating around from people who do not understand.  Thanks for the nice hub to clear some of it up. 

      Bio Char for soil and soil fertility, won't the carbon decompose and be released back to the atmosphere, thus not helping out in reducing CO2 emissions. I understand it for fertilizing the ground, but not as a carbon reducer.

      Also, of the Bio Char, the fuel for the heat needs to be either bio or some renewable energy, or the benefit will be less.

      Keep on Hubbing!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      eovery - the whole idea of using bio-char as a soil amendment baffles me as well - but as I understand it, the biochar doesn't decompose in such a way as to release the carbon. The resulting molecular structure is very stable - in the same way that oil, if you just left it sitting around (as opposed to burning it) will not release carbon from its structure.

      You are quite correct regarding the fuel for the burning of bio-char: it needs to be environmentally-friendly too! I do understand that once you have started the process, you can actually recycle the heat and gases released during the burning of the char, and this makes it MUCH more environmentally-friendly (and effective as a process).

      Thanks for the kudos! ;-)

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      As I understand it--and I don't claim a lot of depth of knowledge here--the biochar is stable over timescales of centuries. (The Amazonian "terra preta" has been dated to as farback as 450 BC.) In fact, it is more than stable: it actually self-regenerates once established.

      I didn't know that until I looked up this Wiki article to get the date I just mentioned:

      The "terra preta" improves soil because it provides good habitat for beneficial microbes, and because the absorptive powers of charcoal--think of charcoal filters here!--mean that it is excellent at holding nutrients of all sorts.

      Well, the article says way more than I know, so perhaps I'll just shut up now & let those who will read!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      That's my basic understanding too, Doc Snow! It's fascinating: I may just have to do some research into the underlying science, because this kind of process is outside of our "normal" way of thinking... But something that sequesters carbon AND is good for soil - seems you can't go wrong! ;-)

    • profile image

      Hugh Laue 7 years ago

      All the up to date detail you could want on biochar can be found in "Biochar for environmental Management" by Lehman and Joseph, Earthscan, March 2009. What could go wrong is big business abuse if CDM continues in it's present form. Not a panacea but could surely help.

    • MercuryNewsOnline profile image

      MercuryNewsOnline 7 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I like reading that part of your artcile about plants and carbon dioxide. However, you did not elaborate about your idea of planting more trees.

      Trees and our forests give more oxygen than plants. The denudation of forests in many parts of the world has vital implications on the environment.

    • profile image

      new_biochar_land 6 years ago

      The world is a great place, but it is falling apart and we all are responsable for this. Be responsable now and try to make it better.

      Biochar, one of the newest option can contribuate to atmospheric CO2 reduction. Find out more:

      The Biochar Revolution is exactly what it says !

    • profile image

      Nurul 2 years ago

      I ran the tests today with small cubes instead of those huge chnkus and had much better results because conduction was able to take place on all the extra surfaces. Surprisingly, the microwave didn't show any substantial differences in hot and cold spots with just one beaker of water in it. The differences were most pronounced when there were two beakers of water or more in it. This is more meaningful to me because I will always be using a sample and a beaker of water to absorb excess microwaves. I found that the best configuration was to put one beaker to the right (in front of the magnetron's waveguide) and one in the back right corner. In fact, as long as you put one beaker in front of the magnetron, there was no bad combination. However, when I put one beaker in the back right corner and one in the back left corner, I found that the back left one absorbed almost 63% of the energy! So it matters which corner you put things in, even though the chamber is symmetric, the electric field is not. In fact, just by putting different materials in it changes the electric field somewhat so I am partially shooting in the dark by using two beakers of water. Gives me an idea though! Sorry for such a long response!

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