We want to introduce you to an unprecedented approach to addressing the concentration of atmospheric carbon.
Prior to the industrial revolution, the flow of carbon through the biosphere was largely characterized by the short term carbon cycle. The short term carbon cycle is characterized by two processes, photosynthesis and combustion; or: respiration or oxidation. Photosynthesis is said to be carbon negative [C-] because it transfers carbon from the atmosphere to biomass and combustion is said to be carbon positive [C+] because it transfers carbon from biomass to the atmosphere.
In the absence of fossil fuel consumption, over a reasonable period of time, the short term carbon cycle is in equilibrium. Equilibrium in this context means that the orders of magnitude of photosynthesis and combustion/respiration/oxidation are largely equal and therefore the concentration of atmospheric carbon remained largely constant.
Fossil fuel use is said to be carbon positive positive [C++] because it transfers carbon from the long term carbon cycle to the short term carbon cycle. and in particular into the atmosphere.
This system has increasingly characterized the flow of carbon through the biosphere since the industrial revolution. Simple arithmetic indicates that this is clearly in disequilibrium and cannot be returned to equilibrium without a carbon negative negative [C--] process of sufficient magnitude.
The key questions are 1) what is a candidate [C--] process and corresponding [C--] product, and 2) under what circumstances can these come into existence?
Combustion is the heating of biomass in the presence of oxygen. The products are carbon dioxide and water.
Pyrolysis is the heating of biomass in the absence of oxygen. The products are solids, liquids, and gases. The liquids and gasses are biofuels or their precursors. The solid is char which is almost pure carbon.
If this char is combusted, the carbon is transferred into the atmosphere. If it is not combusted, then the carbon in the char remains “forever”, and the carbon has effectively been transferred from the atmosphere to biomass, and from biomass to the long term carbon cycle. Clearly pyrolysis is a [C--] process and char that is not combusted is a [C--] product.
At the point in time when there is as much [C--] as there is [C++] there are going to be many big piles of char. Here is the remarkable first virtuous non-sequitur: there is very substantial evidence, both long term anecdotal and more recent academic soil science, that the addition of char, known as biochar, to agricultural soil will fundamentally increase the health and productivity of that soil.
To reiterate: char, the product of the pyrolysis of biomass will 1) permanently sequester carbon from the atmosphere and 2) applied to soil as biochar will fundamentally increase the productivity of the soil.
The second issue: under what circumstances will large scale production of char for the purpose of carbon sequestration and soil remediation come into existence? This is far more problematic.
It will take a revolution in world governance to make this materialize. As a species humanity may be characterized by individual intelligence and collective folly. To equilibrate the atmospheric concentration of carbon we will have to act together in an unprecedented fashion.
In principle the means is so simple as to be almost trivial. It is critical to understand that it does not mean that it is necessary to stop using fossil fuels. It means simply that for each atom of carbon that a consumer is responsible for transferring from the long term carbon cycle into the short term carbon cycle, and in particular into the atmosphere, we must perform an [equal and opposite] transfer. This means that the consumer who is responsible for the carbon emission is obligated to transfer an atom of carbon from the atmosphere back to the long term carbon cycle.
This principle is known as “Clean up after yourself”.
Clean air is shared by all of us. Our economic systems largely create incentives for the production and consumption of private goods. This process frequently is associated with some visible or hidden public loss. The benefits of fossil fuel use have been and continue to be substantial. Increasingly, however we understand that the costs are creating a crisis.
The current use of fossil fuels may be exemplified by the following. I am motivated to “go to the gasoline store” to buy some gasoline (which is a private good) because I want to go for a drive with my girlfriend. But the problem is that when I go for my drive and use the gasoline (when I consume my private good), I also transfer carbon into the atmosphere. This transfer creates a “public bad” At the present time the world increasingly recognizes that the cumulative effect of all of these “public bads” is creating an environmental crisis. The principle of “Clean up after yourself” does not say that a consumer must stop consuming this private good or producing this public bad. But it does say that this consumption/production mix must also be associated with the production of a “public good”. The public good in this case is a quantity of permanently sequestered carbon. The arithmetic is trivial.
Current situation: private good + public bad = private good + public bad
Clean up after yourself: private good + public bad + public good = private good.
The technology necessary to facilitate this revolution can easily come into existence. The quantification of the flows of carbon are a technical detail. The making of char is one of the oldest industrial processes known to humankind; it is not a significant challenge to develop the pyrolysis equipment necessary for the production of char, nor is it an overwhelming challenge to develop the soil and crop science knowledge necessary to optimally apply it to the soil. The great challenge, the challenge whose magnitude cannot be exaggerated is the challenge of governance and human will.
A subsequent paper will start to address this issue and introduce some first projects.