by Judith Curry
Design with the natural cycle in mind to ensure that carbon ends up in the right places. — William McDonough
Nature has published a provocative essay entitled Carbon is not the enemy (full text available online). Excerpts:
Carbon has a bad name.
But carbon — the element — is not the enemy. Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and for the wrong duration.
Rather than declare war on carbon emissions, we can work with carbon in all its forms. To enable a new relationship with carbon, I propose a new language — living, durable and fugitive — to define ways in which carbon can be used safely, productively and profitably. Aspirational and clear, it signals positive intentions, enjoining us to do more good rather than simply be less bad.
It is easy to lose one’s way in the climate conversation. Few of the terms are clearly defined or understood. Take ‘carbon neutral’. The European Union considers electricity generated by burning wood as carbon neutral — as if it releases no CO2 at all. Their carbon neutrality relies problematically on the growth and replacement of forests that will demand decades to centuries of committed management.
Such terms highlight a confusion about the qualities and value of CO2. In the United States, the gas is classified as a commodity by the Bureau of Land Management, a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency and as a financial instrument by the Chicago Climate Exchange.
A new language of carbon recognizes the material and quality of carbon so that we can imagine and implement new ways forward. It identifies three categories of carbon — living, durable and fugitive — and a characteristic of a subset of the three, called working carbon. It also identifies three strategies related to carbon management and climate change — carbon positive, carbon neutral and carbon negative.
Carbon is at the heart of soil health. In healthy ecosystems, when plants convert CO2 into carbon-based sugars — liquid carbon — some flows to shoots, leaves and flowers. The rest nourishes the soil food web, flowing from the roots of plants to communities of soil microbes. In exchange, the microbes share minerals and micronutrients that are essential to plants’ health. Drawn into the leaves of plants, micronutrients increase the rate of photosynthesis, driving new growth, which yields more liquid carbon for the microbes and more micronutrients for the fungi and the plants. Below ground, liquid carbon moves through the food web, where it is transformed into soil carbon — rich, stable and life-giving. This organic matter also gives soil a sponge-like structure, which improves its fertility and its ability to hold and filter water.
This is how a healthy carbon cycle supports life. This flow kept carbon in the right place in the right concentration, tempered the global climate, fuelled growth and nourished the evolution of human societies for 10,000 years.
Let’s keep those carbon bridges open on all landscapes — rural and urban. Let’s use carbon from the atmosphere to fuel biological processes, build soil carbon and reverse climate change. Let’s adopt regenerative farming and urban-design practices to increase photosynthetic capacity, enhance biological activity, build urban food systems, and cultivate closed loops of carbon nutrients. Let’s turn sewage-treatment plants into fertilizer factories. Let’s recognize carbon as an asset and the life-giving carbon cycle as a model for human designs.
The article offers abundant examples of such designs. The articles concludes with:
Such designs offer an inspiring model for climate action. It all starts with changing the way we talk about carbon. Our goal is simple and positive: a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world — with clean air, soil, water and energy — economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.
I regard this as a really important essay. Not only does it change the way I think about something important, but it points to a way forward that people on both sides of the climate debate can respond to favorably.
For more on all this, check out William McDonough’s web site. Fascinating.
Vanity Fair has a profile on McDonough [link], which is well worth reading also. Excerpt:
Many of the radical players in the ecology and sustainability movements who have made their voices heard have done so through protest. Think of the vigilante-style work of Greenpeace in the 1970s. For most environmental activists, communal sacrifice and curbs on industry in order to create greater eco-efficiency—that is, the reduction of environmental impact and resource consumption on a global scale—are the prescriptions of choice. McDonough sees the matter through a very different lens. To him it’s a design problem. Shrill broadsides against industry are misdirected. Dire predictions of heatless winters and a car-less future are missing the point. Perhaps the most compelling part of McDonough’s plan is its repudiation of the Judeo-Christian guilt that has long defined the green movement. He and Braungart reject what they call the “dour face of eco-efficiency.”
“I want things designed so well there is no need for regulations,” he continues. “How about cars that spew out good emissions? Factories that make clean water. Then growth is good. Then the question becomes: What do you want to grow? Right now industry is set up to grow cancer and Alzheimer’s. For every case of leukemia we create nine jobs. Are the government and industry willing to sign on to that as the right kind of job-creation program? If so, we clearly need an alternative plan.”