Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nah! We’re Not Doomed

I keep getting into arguments with my friends about whether humankind is doomed. There are people, you know, who insist that billions of people are going to perish, either because of climate change or peak oil. I disagree, and I’m bored with the conversation. Yes, we are vulnerable, but not necessarily from those two factors, singly or in combination. Along with Vaclav Smil, I think there are two other, more serious, dangers—a pandemic (which is overdue) and nuclear warfare, whether accidental or on purpose. Some progress is being made on the nuclear weapons front, but there are still 23,000 such bombs, and a lot of fissile waste material that could be used as dirty bombs. The pandemic problem will not take us entirely by surprise, but there is no perfect way of reducing the risk, since germs can spread faster than vaccines.

So here I simply want to mention the two issues that scare most of my friends: energy and climate.

Please don’t quote me, but I think the gusher in the gulf may be a blessing in disguise, for it sends a strong message: We cannot count on oil—even our “own” oil (whether offshore or in the tar sands). Even the “drill, baby, drill” chant is muted these days, which means that the supply of oil will diminish quickly. The sooner peak oil happens, the better, because we need to stop using oil ASAP. When the price of oil goes up, we will reduce the use of it, shifting to other forms of energy and/or conserving with smarter technologies. We seem unable to enact legislation to put a steep carbon tax on fossil fuels, but scarcity may help us by reducing the supply handily, thank God.

According to Trevor Findlay, who has published a recent report, we are not likely to have a real nuclear “renaissance,” though there will be a modest increase in the number of nuclear power plants. The coal industry is quite a different matter. I’m not sure how we can hasten the shift away from coal.

But as Vaclav Smil (not to mention T. Boone Pickens) point out, natural gas emits much less CO2 than coal or oil. And there is a whole lot of it. Discoveries of shale lately have multiplied the amount of available gas, especially since new technologies allow the drilling into gas-rich shale sideways and in curves. You can reach it easily and it will not “peak” in our lifetime. The trick is to shift to natural gas while developing solar, geothermal, wind, and other sustainable sources. (I favor putting up kites in the stratosphere, where the wind is constant, unlike the situation here on the ground.)

See, I’ve handled energy already, in three short paragraphs. Now, on to climate change, which is indeed more of a challenge than Peak Oil. Still, it can be handled — even without sending sulfur into the stratosphere to imitate the effects of Mount Pinatubo.

I will probably come back to this many times in future blogs, but here I’ll just crib a little information about carbon-rich farming from the Worldwatch Report 179, “Mitigating Climate Change.”

First, let’s try organic farming on a big scale. That means giving up nitrogen fertilizers, which release nitrous oxide that has 300 times the warming capacity of carbon dioxide. Moreover, if the 65 million hectares of corn and soy grown in the US were switched to organic, about 4 percent of the US annual CO2 emissions could be sequestered.

Then there’s no-till farming. You poke a hole in the ground for your seeds but don’t turn over the soil. Plowing exposes the roots to the air and releases the CO2 from the soil into the air. You handle weeds with mulch, and by planting perennial crops whenever possible. Already 7 percent of the world’s arable land is being managed with no-till farming, and the amount is increasing because of the higher price of fuel.

But best yet, we know how to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it for thousands of years, while improving agriculture enough to overcome erosion and a burgeoning population. It is by producing biochar. Dr. James Lovelock, who believes humankind is indeed very nearly doomed (though a million people may survive at the north and south poles) claims that it is still entirely possible to save us — but only if we wake up in time and bury enough biochar. He urges us to capture algae from the oceans, convert it to biochar, and bury it.) See his article at

Surely you must know about biochar by now. (See the photo.) It is biomass that has been burned in a low-oxygen environment, When put into the soil it retains carbon indefinitely and releases nutrients slowly over a long period of time. The Amerindians of the Amazon knew how to do that 500-2,500 years ago.

Worldwatch notes that there is a global production potential of 594 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in biochar per year available simply by using waste material such as forest and million residues, rice husks, peanut shells, and urban waste. Most crops benefit by having biochar added up to 183 tons of CO2 equivalent. “If biochar additions were applied at this rate on just 10 percent of the world’s cropland (160 million hectares) this method could store 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, offsetting nearly all the emissions from fossil fuel burning.” (p. 15).

Lovelock says, “Take a place like the Gulf of Mexico… there's a good steady ocean current that flows through there called the Gulf Stream… there are also lots of platforms there, disused oil platforms. These platforms could be good locations for starting some biochar experiments.”

The Gulf of Mexico is a great place to harvest algae because it is already polluted by the “Red Tide,” which damages sea life. The BP oil rigs could be converted to bases for capturing the algae for conversion to biochar and sequestration.

Every day I receive brilliant ideas like this from an organization called “Carbonmarket,” which floods me with tweets. I suggest that you all join Twitter and follow Carbonmarket. You will no longer lose sleep over the prospect that humankind is doomed.

Cheer up. The world is full of geniuses working on your behalf.