Are Carbon Emissions a Red Herring?

Global warming is most often framed as inevitable unless we can solve one problem: reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use.

But, despite more than two decades of attention, emissions have only continued to increase. Part of the issue is we have not been able to embed scalable, cheap clean energy alternatives deeply into our global economy. All the while, China, India, and Africa want the same standard of living as the Western World—and that increases demand. Almost a billion people don’t have access to clean water; 2.5 billion lack access to modern sewage and 5 billion don’t have air conditioning (more need it every day!). These are energy problems and the developing world is as entitled to this standard of living as we are in the western world. We want more energy for all—it is the right thing to do. The dilemma is how to achieve this progress as the planet continues to warm.

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Our climate debates, when not distracted by denialists, end up about this massive trade-off: slow progress (hurt the poor) or destroy the planet (hurt mostly the poor). Yes, this will enrage hardened climate activists. They see the promise of clean energy and all the new jobs and opportunities that come with it. So do I. But, it likely won’t happen fast enough. And any increase in the price of energy along the way (e.g. carbon taxes which incent real innovation) will hit the poor twice as hard as the rich given the energy intensity of basic living

Regardless, even as clean energy comes online, the installed base of power will continue to emit. If 100% of all cars sold today were electric, it would take decades to have an all-electric transportation system (not to mention a 100% renewable grid that powers them). I am all for pushing clean energy technologies aggressively. Even without a climate crisis, cheaper, non-polluting energy would be a generational innovation bringing health and security to billions. We should invest like mad.

But, how can we reframe the climate problem away from this massive trade off? 

There is another side of the equation we just don’t talk about. Carbon can be removed from the air. And, we don’t need fancy (and expensive) sequestration technologies for this reversal. Nature does it every day—in gargantuan amounts. Humans emit 37 gigatons a year of carbon using fossil fuels. Nature consumes ~750 gigatons a year! Yes, 20 times the amount we emit is consumed by the natural world via the magic of photosynthesis. Of course, nature gives most of it back—roughly 730 gigatons through natural processes. 

But given these facts, which is easier:

  1. Reduce 100% of human emissions by totally transforming the most important industry on earth?

  2. Help nature get 2% better at consuming and holding carbon?

My money is on #2. There is just too much evidence #1 will take too long and face too much resistance on both sides (“No nukes!” “I want my v8 pickup!”).

And the good news is we are finally understanding the powerful ways we can harness nature to consume carbon. Consider the following:

  1. Soil health. I wrote a post on regenerative farming and the trend is starting to get wider coverage. Reducing tillage and chemical use, increasing holistic grazing (yes, cows!), planting cover crops, ensuring species rotation—many of these ideas are easy to implement to reinvigorate our soil so that it consumes and holds carbon.  The holding capacity of the soil is massive—and with proper management, it truly could be a climate (and diet!) breakthrough. Consumers can help by demanding food raised using these regenerative techniques - with demand the farmers will change.

  2. Genetically modified plants and trees. By studying plants that consume more carbon and store it more efficiently, we can help create more of them—and modify other plants to do more of it. Many biologists are working the problem - and the signs are encouraging. Just as we have bred animals to grow more meat and crops to deliver more yield, we can help plants have bigger and deeper root systems to consume and hold more carbon.

  3. Reforestation. Rainforests, coastal mangroves, grasslands, and other natural ecosystems are massive carbon sinks. While the burning of the Amazon suggests no progress on this front, huge opportunities remain to restore massive ecosystems every bit as powerful at consuming carbon—from the Great Plains grasslands to massive coastal ecosystems to our own overgrown pine forests

These are just a few ideas—many more are emerging as we get closer to fully understanding the complex plant ecosystems of our planet. Many of them also look a whole lot cheaper than reworking our economy on an expedited timeline.

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I am not suggesting we give up on emissions and our clean energy future. But, why aren’t we just as obsessed with the carbon removal part of the equation? We have 15 trillion dollar plans to limit emissions but no real focus on reversing our bad habits.

My guess is the reasons for this neglect are two-fold. One, it is much harder to measure the impacts of natural sequestration. Taking a coal plant offline and replacing it with solar panels is easy to measure and gives fast gratification. Improving soil organic matter is much harder to track and understand. Two, there is a political need to force our fossil fuel companies and other polluters to face real consequences. If we get good at storing carbon, won’t they just have license to pollute even more? Perhaps, but the economics of solar, wind and other technologies will surely be irresistible over time. We just need to get there.

Until then, we can buy time by removing carbon from the air—naturally. More energy for the world is actually the just thing to do. Finding every way to spread prosperity AND save the planet is the imperative. Nature itself holds some key answers if we will just embrace it.