We need to get to above-the-line climate solutions with the same urgency as beach communities spying an approaching tsunami.
When we were young our parents made a bargain with us. If you will not drink or smoke until you are 21, they said, we will buy you the car of your choice on your 21st birthday. Both of them were recovering alcoholics and we could well appreciate their intentions. And so, at age 13, we took the deal. In our wild adolescence, through High School prom nights and fraternity football weekends, we were always the designated driver.
When the long-awaited birthday arrived, in 1968, our choice was a 1953 MG TD open-seated roadster. It was built on the famous Morris MG-Y green oak chassis so you could actually feel the car bend around curves or from the torque as you went quickly through the gears. It had high-ratio rack-and-pinion steering, not introduced in American cars until the 1974 Mustang. The interior furnishing and finish, the tuck and roll leather, the door panels framed in burr walnut, the instrument panel set in book-matched veneer, all amazing for a $1000 used car.
There were no fuel or oil pressure gauges, but it came with a crank starter in case the battery died. It had a top speed of 77 mph (we know because we blew a piston when we ran it up to 100 on the interstate between Albany and Syracuse) and did 0–60 in 18.2 seconds. It was not exactly a Tesla, but at that time, with the ragtop and windscreen down, goggles and silk scarf on, being pushed back into the leather seat as it accelerated was ineluctable.
We remember one other acceleration experience that thrilling — the time we got up bareback on Blue, a King Ranch quarter horse kept for stud by one of The Farm’s neighbors, Dennis Whitwell. Comfortably seated, and with the horse antsy to get going, we wheeled and stomped the gas. We nearly went off over his hindquarters.
It is all about acceleration. Sometimes you experience it so powerfully that you never forget.
We are preparing now for next month’s conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP-23 in Bonn, Germany. The Global Ecovillage Network, buoyed by a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, will be there in the Bula zone with its meticulously well-organized program. Our niche falls at the nexus between carbon drawdown and sustainable development.
Sustainable development has become something of an oxymoron, we acknowledge. It needn’t be. It is unfortunate how the terminology gets used these days. By sustainable development, the UN implies unlimited capacity for physical growth using an extractive economy. It should instead imply directed de-growth of that economy while simultaneously developing harmonious relationships with nature and each other in a sustainable spiral of endless improvement in the quality of life. Better, not more.
These sorts of things should really not be being negotiated by government leaders because that is already limiting discussion to the viewpoints of people who are only looking to their next election cycle or succession to the throne. “Development” means to them anything that can be promised to their people — whether delivered or not — to assure they, personally, remain in power.
The sense of acceleration that excites us now is how serious the discussion has become. No doubt getting slammed by successive category 5 storms, unprecedented flooding and mudslides, city-leveling wildfires, heat waves and droughts has something to do with focusing the attention. Mother Nature is seriously angry now.
Lately we have been attending the free webinars provided by the US National Academy of Sciences, UK’s Tyndall Centre, and others, bringing together various experts to look at our options in the climate arena, without all the b.s. or fairy dust (i.e.: clean coal, nuclear energy, BECCS, and geoengineering).
We could say there is a hierarchy of realistic survival choices now, in roughly this order:
The first three (above the line) are actual drawdown methods that would, if widely applied, pull carbon out of the atmosphere and return us to the Holocene from which we evolved and a climate suitable to sustain civilization.
The second three (below the line) are the “low-hanging fruit” that are the primary focus of international treaty negotiations and national or regional initiatives.
The below-the-line options take us towards zero. The above-the-line options take us beyond. At this late hour, we need to go well beyond to even matter.
First in our list is Natural Climate Solutions. This is a new term, introduced by a team of top climate scientists drawn together by Bronson W. Griscom of The Nature Conservancy in a paper sent to the National Academy of Sciences June 26, 2017 and published in PNAS September 5.
Climate mitigation potential of 20 natural pathways. We estimate maximum climate mitigation potential with safeguards for reference year 2030. Light gray portions of bars represent cost-effective mitigation levels assuming a global ambition to hold warming to <2 °C (<100 USD MgCO2e−1 y−1). Dark gray portions of bars indicate low cost (<10 USD MgCO2e−1 y−1) portions of <2 °C levels. Wider error bars indicate empirical estimates of 95% confidence intervals, while narrower error bars indicate estimates derived from expert elicitation. Ecosystem service benefits linked with each pathway are indicated by colored bars on left margin for biodiversity, water (filtration and flood control), soil (enrichment), and air (filtration). Asterisks indicate truncated error bars.
— B.W. Griscom, et al, Natural Solutions, PNAS 2017
Griscom’s team, which included 32 research scholars from the USA, Scotland, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, and The Netherlands, looked at the way Earth naturally heals when its atmosphere is damaged, and asked whether that healing process could be accelerated, whether it would be enough, and what it would take in terms of land area and money.
They eliminated from consideration monoculture plantations, untried “fairy dust” technologies, and anything destructive of indigenous cultures or to biodiversity. All pathways require conservation and restoration of existing agricultural fields and natural forests. Any improved land management practices must include safeguards for food, fiber, and habitat. They adopt Land Degradation Neutrality, Sustainable Development Goal 15.3.
We allow no reduction in existing cropland area, but we assume grazing lands in forested ecoregions can be reforested, consistent with agricultural intensification and diet change scenarios. This maximum value is also constrained by excluding activities that would either negatively impact biodiversity (e.g., replacing native nonforest ecosystems with forests) or have carbon benefits that are offset by net biophysical warming (e.g., albedo effects from expansion of boreal forests). We avoid double-counting among pathways.
Books like Paul Hawken’s Drawdown or Bruce King’s The New Carbon Architecture are primarily concerned with below-the-line options. There is scant information available on what lies above. For this reason, many people, including some climate scientists, brush off the above-the-line natural climate solutions (NCS) options, such as trees in pastures and biochar, as unproven speculation. That is a mistake. Griscom’s paper has gone a long way to correct misconceptions and mischaracterizations.
New Carbon Architecture: Building to Cool the Planet - Kindle edition by Bruce King. Download it once and read it on…smile.amazon.com
Contribution of natural climate solutions (NCS) to stabilizing warming to below 2°C. Historical anthropogenic CO2 emissions before 2016 (gray line) prelude into either business-as-usual (representative concentration pathway, IPCC scenario 8.5, black line) or a net emissions trajectory needed for >66% likelihood of holding global warming to below 2°C (green line). The green area shows cost-effective NCS (aggregate of 20 pathways), offering 37% of needed mitigation through 2030, 29% at year 2030, 20% through 2050, and 9% through 2100. This scenario assumes that NCS are ramped up linearly over the next decade to <2°C levels indicated in previous figure and held at that level (=10.4 PgCO2 y−1, not including other greenhouse gases). It is assumed that fossil fuel emissions are held level over the next decade then decline linearly to reach 7% of current levels by 2050.
— B.W. Griscom, et al, Natural Solutions, PNAS 2017
Contrary to some of the critics of world efforts to reverse climate change, NCS shows that it can be accomplished quickly without fairy dust, and at negative cost. But lets look at some of that technology going on sale now.
Number one is direct removal. “DAC” is now associated with what we previously derided as “artificial trees;” a closed chemical loop, powered by fossil fuels (likely fracked gas) that continuously captures CO2 from ambient air using amide solutions and not-insignificant amounts of energy. The biggest obstacle is not even the energy, since these calorie leeches could be mounted on existing power stations or solar powered, but what to do with the captured carbon? Most storage schemes lose up to 75 per cent of carbon to leakage.
The DAC process starts with a “wet scrubbing” air contactor which uses a strong hydroxide solution to capture CO2 and convert it into carbonate. This occurs within an air contactor structure modelled on industrial cooling tower design, which effectively contains the liquid hydroxide solution. Our second step is called a “pellet reactor” which precipitates small pellets of calcium carbonate from the aqueous carbonate solution. This calcium carbonate, once dried, is then processed in our third step, a circulating fluid bed calciner, which heats it to decomposition temperature, breaking it apart into CO2 and residual calcium oxide. The calcium oxide is hydrated with our make-up water stream in our fourth step, called a slaker, and is returned into the pellet reactor to precipitate calcium carbonate, and close the chemical loop.
In our baseline design, our calciner is heated by oxy-fired natural gas, so that the calciner contains CO2 originally captured from air and liberated by the pellets, CO2 from natural gas combustion, and water vapour. This gas stream is sent for clean up, compression, and water knock-out, in order to produce a stream of pure CO2. This configuration avoids emission of CO2 from natural gas usage, and we also have technical variants that reduce or eliminate natural gas requirements by substituting biogas or clean electricity.
Instead of artificial trees, what about using real trees? As the Griscom study shows, Natural Climate Solutions make economic sense at $10 per ton of Carbon (either emitted — payors ; or sequestered — payees) and shift into top gear at $100 per ton. DAC needs at least ten times that market peg to make its business case.
Also currently under exploration are a variety of carbon-absorbing biocretes and biocomposites that go beyond merely entraining photosynthesized carbon the way biochar, forests and kelp do, and actually suck GHG from the atmosphere.
We are not talking about materials that sequester carbon in their manufacture, like Novacem, Calera, Sriya or hemp fiber blocks. Its nice to think of offices and homes that can be built to endure without the huge carbon footprint that cement usually creates. That’s below the line technology. But what about concrete substitutes that draw more carbon from the atmosphere into their structure passively, year after year?
These would be cements that react with carbon, either in the ambient air or in a marine environment, to form carbonate structures within the concrete itself.
Pozzolanic reaction of volcanic ash with hydrated lime is thought to dominate the cementing fabric and durability of 2000-year-old Roman harbor concrete. Pliny the Elder, however, in first century CE emphasized rock-like cementitious processes involving volcanic ash (pulvis) “that as soon as it comes into contact with the waves of the sea and is submerged becomes a single stone mass (fierem unum lapidem), impregnable to the waves and every day stronger” (Naturalis Historia 35.166). Pozzolanic crystallization of Al-tobermorite, a rare, hydrothermal, calcium-silicate-hydrate mineral with cation exchange capabilities, has been previously recognized in relict lime clasts of the concrete. Synchrotron-based X-ray microdiffraction maps of cementitious microstructures in Baianus Sinus and Portus Neronis submarine breakwaters and a Portus Cosanus subaerial pier now reveal that Al-tobermorite also occurs in the leached perimeters of feldspar fragments, zeolitized pumice vesicles, and in situ phillipsite fabrics in relict pores. Production of alkaline pore fluids through dissolution-precipitation, cation-exchange and/or carbonation reactions with Campi Flegrei ash components, similar to processes in altered trachytic and basaltic tuffs, created multiple pathways to post-pozzolanic phillipsite and Al-tobermorite crystallization at ambient seawater and surface temperatures. Long-term chemical resilience of the concrete evidently relied on water-rock interactions, as Pliny the Elder inferred. Raman spectroscopic analyses of Baianus Sinus Al-tobermorite in diverse microstructural environments indicate a cross-linked structure with Al3+ substitution for Si4+ in Q3 tetrahedral sites, and suggest coupled [Al3++Na+] substitution and potential for cation exchange. The mineral fabrics provide a geoarchaeological prototype for developing cementitious processes through low-temperature rock-fluid interactions, subsequent to an initial phase of reaction with lime that defines the activity of natural pozzolans. These processes have relevance to carbonation reactions in storage reservoirs for CO2 in pyroclastic rocks, production of alkali-activated mineral cements in maritime concretes, and regenerative cementitious resilience in waste encapsulations using natural volcanic pozzolans.
— Marie D. Jackson et al, Phillipsite and Al-tobermorite mineral cements produced through low-temperature water-rock reactions in Roman marine concrete. American Mineralogist (2017)
Direct removal can also be accomplished by minerals that soak up carbon from the air, such as peridotite, essentially turning air into stone. There is enough peridotite in Oman and the neighboring United Arab Emirates to absorb 33 trillion tons of CO2, equivalent to 1,000 years of present-day emission rates.
The smart money is covering that wager. Can exchange-traded peroditite futures be far off?
After direct air capture is Biomass Energy with Biochar (BEBCS). We have described field and forest soil carbon capture systems here often, and other natural means might include wetlands, such as chinampas and mangroves, and what Project Drawdown refers to as “marine permaculture,” or what we have described as kelp forestry, potentially in combination with food-fuel-and-biochar production systems that cascade yields for enterprises, beyond the trophic cascades that benefit biomes.
BEBCS (Biomass Energy Biochar Capture & Storage) is a personal favorite, transforming the snake oil of BECCS (Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage) by solving the dual BECCS dilemmas of how to pay for it and what to do with the captured carbon.
You could call this “sky mining” but one company has already staked out that claim and destroyed the meaning. Quorum IP of Stockholm, dba SkyMining AB, takes the steps that are required — supergrasses that soak up CO2, pelletizer, pyrolizer, and biochar that could withhold the carbon for millennia — but then add a final step that completely defeats their purpose. They burn the biochar in retired coal plants to make electricity.
We use a commercially viable process of rapid carbonization to convert biomass into a copy of fossil fuels; in a process that mimics natural processes — but “measured in minutes instead of millions of years”. The technology has been tested on industrial scale and the proven process is ready for global deployment.
BEBCS employs waste biomass — in plentiful supply everywhere in the world — to make cascades of food, fuels, fibers, biocomposites and electricity before ending as biochar-based biofertilizers to restore degraded soils. The amended soils become resilient to weather extremes (droughts, floods, locusts, etc). The BEBCS process, which we elsewhere call our Cool Lab, profitably employs people at all stages, and can scale without taxpayer subsidy.
“Is it possible that technology no more complicated than an Easy Bake Oven — one that pays for itself — can reverse…medium.com
Of the hundred solutions to climate change put forward by Project Drawdown, a handful of them are outright frauds — ecomodernists parading as the Green Man. In that category we place nuclear fission and fusion, autonomous vehicles and hyperloop. Of the remaining 96, 71 are below-the-line solutions. Only 25 of Drawdown’s 100 best practices actually pull carbon from the atmosphere and oceans and store it safely away, although the storage is still problematic for more than half of those.
Drawdown misses completely on carbon-absorbing biocretes and biocomposites and gives short shrift (with a healthy dollop of factual error) to biomass (ranked #34) and biochar (ranked #72).
Right now the world is focused on the below-the-line section: windmills, electric cars and solar. Climate scientists are screaming that won’t do it — we need to get to above-the-line climate solutions with the same urgency as beach communities spying an approaching tsunami.
We are in just the first stage of a learning curve. The acceleration promises to be memorable if we don’t kill ourselves going over the back of the horse.
Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (GVIx.org), and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies with high returns on investment.