Carbon is NOT Our Enemy!

Listening to all the chatter about carbon and climate change (carbon footprint, low-carbon economy, zero carbon, carbon tax), you would be forgiven for thinking that carbon is some sort of hazardous waste…. Something that should be used as little as possible and if you do, taxed for your sins.

Yet carbon is the sixth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, neon, and nitrogen (and ahead of silicon). In the earth’s crust though, carbon drops to 16th place with oxygen being most prevalent. Carbon has a whole branch of chemistry (organic chemistry) dedicated to it, because carbon can bond with itself and many other elements to create any of at least 10 million known compounds. Many of those compounds are part of the chemistry of life. Along with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, carbon is an essential – and prevalent – element in all plants. According to Wikipedia and other sources, nearly 20% of the human body is carbon (65% is oxygen and just under 10% is hydrogen). So why are we so fixated on low-carbon this and zero-carbon that? It’s because rising atmospheric CO2 levels make it clear we have carbon in the wrong place (as a gas rather than in material form here on earth).

William McDonough (co-author of Cradle to Cradle and Upcycle) explains our situation this way: “We don’t have an energy problem. We have a material problem. We have carbon and material in the wrong place, the atmosphere, that’s the problem.” Source
We need carbon in the soil and available as carbon dioxide (CO2) to plants. So whether you believe the climate is changing or believe that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is affecting the climate, don’t get distracted from humanity’s ever-present need for carbon – it is quite literally the stuff of life.

Some might say “well, it’s just semantics. You know these terms are just short-hand for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.” Yes, most of us do know that. But there’s something lost in the simplification. And it’s the McDonough’s point about material (carbon) being in the wrong place. It’s not that there’s too much of it; it’s just not in the right place.

Climate change language matters for two reasons. First, using terms like low-carbon or zero carbon paints carbon into the role of villain — creating the impression that carbon is something that needs to be reduced or used as little as possible. That’s just plain wrong. We need every bit of it we can get — in the right places. Humanity won’t survive without it. Second, when we present carbon as something that must be reduced or used as little as possible, we miss the opportunities to move it from the atmosphere back to the places where it is life-supporting: our soils, our plants and trees, and animals (including humans). And we miss opportunities to cycle carbon from form to form (from soil to plant to human to organic waste to soil…, from soil to tree to a manufactured product to recycling facility to another manufactured product…) Shouldn’t we be focused on hanging onto carbon and putting it to work over and over again in all its forms? We won’t wear out the carbon atoms… just change the particular form they may take at any moment in time.

Tony Lovell of Australia does a great job in explaining the contribution of our natural resources (forests, plants etc.) to regulating atmospheric CO2 (15 billion tonnes a year) and the significance of putting carbon back where it belongs: in the earth. Source: Lovell says that because of the below-ground root mass of grass plants, a hectare of healthy perennial pasture recovers as much carbon each year as a hectare of rain forest.

But you won’t hear much about this in mainstream media. Instead we see posters that exhort us to reduce our carbon emissions, reduce our carbon footprint, or work towards a low-carbon economy. The recently-released Ontario Climate Change Discussion Paper 2015 is an example. It touts the benefits of a low-carbon economy as though there is no other way to address climate change. It refers to the “benefits of technology leadership in solutions that have applications in new global markets for low-carbon goods services and technologies.” Only in the single paragraph on Agriculture & Forestry is there any reference to the potential for carbon sequestration (the technical term for recovering atmospheric carbon and holding it in soils or other life forms.) and recycling.

The Ontario discussion paper includes references to: zero emissions in the transportation sector; systems of innovation to support development and deployment of low-carbon technologies; innovation that would lead to improved productivity of all capital, including natural capital, in order to reduce emissions; low-carbon science and technology. Where’s the call for innovation in carbon capture (recovery) and reintroduction into material cycles? Our singular focus on carbon capture and storage from fossil fuel industries seems to end at burying CO2 deep underground. That’s a good start but will our efforts end there? Can we not apply more innovative thinking to carbon capture in other sectors, with an eye not only to long-term storage but to continual reuse of that same carbon? Could we at least stop paving over our soils? Come up with ways to use the exteriors of buildings to capture carbon? Move to high-carbon biomass buildings (including insulation)? Extend our existing distributed network of carbon recovery equipment (known as trees and plants) so that carbon recovery takes places on every street and backyard as well as in fields and forests?

We need to change our climate change conversation… and educate ourselves and fellow citizens about the many options for putting carbon back where it belongs: in the earth.