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