Places to B

The Habitable Zone — we’ve only known our location at the edge since 2015

In our story thus far we find our little party of bipedal vertebrates adrift on a planet whose climate is experiencing hyperthermia — quickly approaching heat stroke. This world is already running on the inner edge of the zone for habitability as it orbits its nearby star. An orbital shift just slightly closer to Venus or sightly farther from Mars would render it as inhospitable to life as either of those two neighbor worlds.

That unfortunate ending could also be achieved by a subtle shift of its atmospheric chemistry — a mere one tenth of one percent change in a single component (carbon dioxide, for instance) could be enough to irreversibly doom all higher life forms, beginning with high-maintenance mammals such as our little party. A comparable shift in the opposite direction would return the comfortable conditions of the late Holocene in which we evolved.

There are no lifeboats, and no nearby world to colonize. We have to either repair the thermostat on this vessel or perish.

If we listen to the best minds among us, we know that it is no longer adequate to curtail air pollution, even if we ended fossil fuels by 2020. We have to net sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and draw out at least a third of what is already up there — the legacy emissions of our predecessors. We need to do it fast — within decades. Given the tipping points already crossed, we may need to take down even more, even faster. We’ll find that out soon enough. The important thing is to just get started.

Dr. Glen Peters, Senior researcher, CICERO:

Project Drawdown

Hannah Mowat, forests and climate campaigner for Fern:

Project Drawdown

Of the drawdown options, some work better than others. Some are easier to scale, some more difficult, or expensive. Some are downright dangerous. Some are snake oil. In the snake oil category is the current darling of technocornucopians: BECCS — Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. In little more than a decade, BECCS had gone from being a highly theoretical, money-changers’ proposal for Sweden’s paper mills to earn double carbon credits to becoming a “key negative emissions technology” promoted by the IPCC to avoid dangerous climate change.

Dr Joeri Rogelj, Energy research scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis:

Project Drawdown

At first blush this sounds realistic. We can deal with criticism that “in general, negative emissions technologies’ only benefit is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere” by adding other benefits. In fact we could add enough benefits that NET pays for itself and even increases wealth, growing all 8 forms of capital in the process. We could make terra preta soils this way — making electricity from biomass crops or ag wastes, making biochar in the process and converting that to biofertilizer and probiotic feeds.

Sadly, that is not what the BECCS people have in mind. They are more into “sky mining;” replacing fossil coal with plantation monocropped charcoal briquettes, shipped on railcars and burned in gigawatt steam plants to keep the lights on in distant skyscrapers and running subterranean, 135-mph Tesla autobahns, perhaps in the process sending a portion of the flue gas from the briquette burn down a pipe to the bottom of the ocean. That last stage would come at many times greater cost than the entirety of the other parts of the process, including the Tesla autobahns.

BECCS was studied last month by CarbonBrief. It appeared at first, in the early 2000s, as a backstop technology in case we got bad news from the climate system. Today it has become the savior-in-chief for technological civilization.

Project Drawdown

The acronym BECCS first appeared in 2001 in a paper in Science that suggested that switching from fossil to biomass energy and then storing the carbon emissions underground could sequester 500 gigatons of carbon over the course of the 21st century, which represents some 35% of projected emissions. The paper’s authors said:

“The long-run potential of such a permanent sink technology is large enough to neutralize historical fossil fuel emissions and satisfy a significant part of global energy and raw material demand.”

This is a big claim. It begs scrutiny. As CarbonBrief discovered, BECCS fails on several grounds.

Rob Bailey, Director of energy, environment and resources, Chatham House:

Project Drawdown

Prof Ottmar Edenhofer, Co-chair of AR5 Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Chief economist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research:

The industry is not without its cheerleaders, however. Prof David Keith, Gordon McKay professor of applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; Executive chairman of Carbon Engineering:

John Lanchbery, Head of climate change policy, RSPB:

Prof Pete Smith, Professor of soils and global change, University of Aberdeen:

Project Drawdown

Is BECCS even possible? Many have their doubts. Prof Sir David MacKay, Former chief scientific advisor, Department of Energy and Climate Change:

Project Drawdown

Dr Oliver Geden, Head of EU division, German Institute for International and Security Affairs:

Project Drawdown

Glen Peters adds:

Project Drawdown

But Peters is missing an important point. He is thinking that any NET scenario requires land that will come out of the reforestation or food requirements, when in fact it gives land to those. When the agroforestry potential is considered, and the concept of carbon cascades introduced — forest then food then energy then biochar then more forest — these elements do not exist in opposition to one another. They are a team. Putting rotational food forests on an area 1.5 times the size of India is not a loss, it’s a gain.

Hannah Mowat sums it up:

Project Drawdown

Dr. Stephan Singer, Director of global energy policy, WWF International:

Project Drawdown

The reality is that staying under the 1.5C threshold is now nigh-on impossible. Dr. Andrew King, a researcher in climate extremes at the University of Melbourne concedes that meeting the 1.5C target now means overshooting and coming back down. He told CarbonBrief, “This isn’t possible with current technologies.”

The thing is, we are going about this all wrong. The way forward is not trying to sustain the unsustainable — growing bigger megacities powered by gigawatt power monsters and hyperlooping them together while we send Space X missions to Mars to pave the way for waves of Virgin Galaxy tourists.

We need to face the facts. If we suddenly came up with a low cost fusion reactor that runs on seawater it would only hasten our demise.

The only way for our small party to survive is to step away from the captain’s chair and let Mother Nature retake the helm of this little blue spaceship in this great big galaxy. We can help, but we need to follow her orders.

In its new study of all available options, Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown mixes emission reducing technologies and methodologies with actual drawdown counterparts. Eliminating all Project Drawdown’s portfolio of renewable energy and conservation options, less than a quarter of the chosen 100 strategies selected for comparison can actually remove and sequester atmospheric carbon year-on-year:

  • Afforestation
  • Alternative cement
  • Bambooo
  • Biochar
  • Biomass (if holistically managed to optimize drawdown)
  • Bioplastic
  • Coastal wetlands
  • Farmland restoration
  • Green roofs
  • Managed grazing
  • Multistrata agroforestry
  • Nutrient Management
  • Peatlands (expanding)
  • Perennial Biomass
  • Regen Ag
  • Silvopasture
  • Temperate Forests
  • Tree intercropping
  • Tropical Forests
  • Tropical staple trees
  • Waste-to-energy (with CCS)
Project Drawdown

Both Project Drawdown and the BECCS crowd have one thing right. The problem is not technological. We know how to do this, even if is almost impossible. Landing men on the moon once seemed impossible, too. We did it with the help of computers less intelligent than your phone.

The problem is entirely one of social consensus. Right now we are in discord because those with the most to lose have muddied the waters to obscure their obscene profits from the destruction of Earth. The way forward is not to jail them (although it’s not a bad idea). The way forward through these recurrent economic obstacles is by bending the profit motive the way an aikido master receives an onrushing opponent. We need to bend the adversary’s momentum to switch the advantage. We need to tame capitalism from unconscionable excess to noble purpose. It is the only way to power our transition to warp speed.

Project Drawdown

Human ingenuity is already bending the curve with Mondragon-style cooperatives, Smart Money investment klatches, and Public Benefit (“B”) corporations or limited liability companies. Profit is not synonymous with greed. Any plant or animal that produces excess seed in order to assure a surplus to “lend” to start the next generation is engaged in capitalism.

A new class of Cool Bonds and these other strategies provide the seeds of a viral wave to carry the shift from annihilation highway to garden planet. While governments waffle and bicker, the alternative money people are who will step in to invest in afforestation, cool labs, bamboo, and biochar. They will do it at the trillion-dollar level, with or without Deutchebank, Goldman Sachs or a government dole.

As we write this it may seem as if the tide is drawing out, but what comes next will hit the business world like a tsunami. That tide will sweep along the politicians with it.

If you have money to invest, this is where you should invest it: carbon cascades; Cool Lab biorefineries; fishermens’ cooperatives; girls’ education; permaculture for hedge fund managers, not necessarily in that order. Find places to B. Not places to BECCS.

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Albert Bates

Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.