Global Warming Solution? Energy Conservation and Carbon Biostorage

This is the second in a series of articles outlining proposed solutions to the problem of global warming. Read the first article here

Good design gives us the most for the least — the biggest bang for our buck. For example, a properly engineered steel beam is no larger than it has to be to carry its anticipated load and provide a little extra margin of safety. A bigger beam would be uneconomical, while a smaller beam would be unsafe.

The same principle applies to tackling complex problems. Any proposed global warming solution should try to mitigate and adapt to global warming’s negative effects by the least costly and disruptive means, while recognizing that costs and changes to “business as usual” are inevitable. Our strategy should be to try to turn the costs into benefits, and the changes into long-term economic stability and positive cultural evolution.

In the first article in this series I discussed design parameters and called for a three-part global warming solution of conserving energy, lowering existing greenhouse gas levels (not just curbing future emissions), and transitioning to appropriate energy technologies. All three strategies can and should be implemented simultaneously and immediately.

Energy conservation is fundamental to the sustainability of any dynamic system, because it takes energy to get energy. Fortunately, energy conservation is the cheapest, most effective and most easily implemented measure we can take to reduce global warming — while simultaneously addressing a host of other environmental problems.

The 2009 McKinsey Report on energy efficiency  establishes that investments of $520 billion in efficiency measures — not counting energy used for transportation — can save $1.2 trillion in energy expenditures by 2020-2025, with most of the investments delivering savings for the decades to come. (Other studies predict similar results.)

The investment could come from all sectors, public and private, and in small and large amounts. For example, houses represent 35 percent of the possible gains in efficiency, so there is a large role for homeowners to play.

The Biostorage Global Warming Solution

Removing greenhouse gases, mostly CO2, from the atmosphere must begin immediately. We are already close to the safe limit (450 parts per million) of CO2 loading, and we’re seeing the early effects of global warming. The carbon emissions of both developed and developing countries, particularly China and India, will push us past the safe limit in about 20 years, and CO2 persists in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, locking in warming trends.

While many schemes for capturing and sequestering “carbon” have been proposed, most involve developing new machines, some of which are energy intensive and all of which are expensive. But nature has been sequestering carbon for millions of years — look at all that coal and oil! — through a mechanism known as “biostorage.” Plants, with their combined millions of square miles of leaf and algal-cell surfaces, use free solar energy to capture atmospheric CO2 and convert it into billions of tons of botanical biomass (tissue).

In nature, this process is mostly reversible: when plants die and decompose, most of their carbon is released back into the atmosphere. However, as coal and oil illustrate, a portion of that carbon can remain buried in the earth.

By mimicking nature’s processes, humans can convert up to 30 percent of farm and forest waste biomass into a form of charcoal called “biochar,” a soil amendment, and bury it in the soil, where it will remain for hundreds or even thousands of years.

So biostorage is a two-step process of growing plants, which quickly but temporarily store carbon in their biomass, and storing some of that carbon permanently as biochar or in other forms.

Trees dwarf other plants in their carbon storage capacity and planting millions of them is an obvious carbon sequestering strategy. But other forms of plant cultivation are also promising.

For example, pioneering agronomist Wes Jackson has developed “perennial grains” — hybrids of native prairie grasses and food crops such as wheat and sorghum — at The Land Institute in Kansas. Prairie grasses have huge root systems that live for years beneath the soil. If perennials overtake annuals as a primary food source, and if millions of acres are planted, billions of tons of carbon can be sequestered in the living roots, and recycled into new plants as the old ones die and are broken down to make new “plant food.”

In upcoming articles in this series, I’ll discuss other biostorage ideas and the technological, cultural and economic transition needed to shepherd humanity through the global warming era.

~PSW

This post is a modified version of an article that was originally written as syndicated newspaper column, published in various locations around the U.S. in February, 2012. 

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, David Archer

(Note, David Archer, the teacher of a popular course on global warming for non-scientists at the University of Chicago, now offers a version, “Open Climate 101” — online and for free. If you complete the online course, he’ll send you a signed certificate. Read a good review of Online 101 on the NY Times Dot Earth environmental blog.)

Storms of My Grand Children, James C. Hansen
Hell and High Water, Joseph Romm
Forecast, Stephan Faris
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Mark Lynas

Related Links On Ecotecture:

Global Warming Solution? The Framework for a Plan (1st article in this series)

How Can We Stop Global Warming? Brains, Bodies or Biochar? 

Is It Too Late for Renewable Energy to Slow Global Warming? 

Man-Made Global Warming: It’s Real, Get Over It!

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.

 

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