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« Aspen Skiing Company: Save Snow | Main | Nicole Sillapere: Greening The Party »

November 28, 2006

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Ian Brander

CONCERNING THE DRAWING DOWN OF CO2 FROM THE ATMOSPHERE


THE BOTTOM LINE

A growing forest absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere but a mature forest is carbon neutral. A mature forest can continually absorb CO2 if treated in a specific way. The forest must be consistently managed to remove all dead, diseased and thinned material. This wood material will be collected at a central facility, where it will be burned, composted, and/or gasified, producing electric power or hydrogen, in a process which will not release the CO2 (as would have happened in the natural decomposing process.) Instead, the CO2 will be captured and sequestered in porous rock formations underground. The managed forest will continually grow and absorb CO2 which will, in turn, be continually collected and sequestered.


THE CARBON CYCLE

CO2 is necessary to life. Plants use power from the sun to break apart the CO2 molecule. The plant keeps the carbon and releases the oxygen. All biological organisms are mainly built of carbon. A tree takes minerals and nutrients and water from the ground but its main structure is carbon taken from CO2 in the air. As it requires energy to break the CO2 molecule apart, the energy can be regained by recombining carbon and oxygen. All animals and most machinery take advantage of this process. As animals,we eat carbon and breathe oxygen; we then breathe out CO2 after a chemical combining process which provides our energy. This is not introducing any new carbon into the cycle. When a plant dies, its carbon is recombined by a wide variety of biological processes, all of which take advantage of the energy released. Burning wood and decomposing wood release the exact same amount of CO2. The natural carbon cycle releases vast amounts of CO2, but it also takes up vast amounts of CO2 in a cycle that has been stable and balanced since the last ice age.


THE PROBLEM

Our machines use the same process of combining carbon and oxygen to take advantage of the energy released. The problem with this process occurs because we are not tapping into the existing carbon supply in the atmosphere, but are instead using carbon which had been sequestered inside the earth’s crust. This introduced carbon is what has unbalanced the carbon cycle and caused global warming. In a hypothetical world, where we suddenly stopped using fossil fuels and releasing extra CO2, we would still want to draw down the excess CO2 to try to prevent the melting of the polar ice caps and other positive feedback mechanisms. In the real world, where we are not about to stop using fossil fuels, it becomes far more urgent to draw down as much CO2 as possible and sequester it back inside the earth’s crust.


PROS, CONS, AND UNKNOWNS

The process of managing a portion of the world’s mature forests in a way that sequesters CO2 is important in that it may be the only practical way of actually drawing down significant amounts of CO2. This could potentially prevent the elimination of many species by giving them extra time to adapt to their changing environment. The negative aspects of this process must be weighed against this huge benefit.

• One potential problem with CO2 sequestration is that oxygen is being sequestered along with carbon. As oxygen is relatively plentiful, this would not cause an immediate problem. It must, however, be studied and monitored.
• The process produces power, but it also requires power to gather in the wood resources and to pump the CO2 along the pipeline and then underground. My guess is that there would be a net power supply to nearby communities.
• Wild spaces would be intruded upon by roads, pipelines and power lines. All we could do is try to minimize the ecological footprint with careful planning.
• The management of the forest will be a boon to logging operations. Trees will grow larger and straighter and selective logging will be far easier to do.
• The risk of fire would be much reduced.
• Inside the managed areas there will be very little rotting wood, therefore biological processes and animal habitats which require rotting wood may be forced out of the neighbourhood. These managed areas would be surrounded by untouched forest; and, although some animals may be forced to relocate, others might find the plentiful new growth much to their liking.
• This process will be labour intensive, at least at the beginning. This can be considered good (for employment) or bad (adding to costs.) It will, of course, become more automated as it evolves.

Another huge question is whether managing forests in this manner can be financially self-sufficient. Income could be derived from three sources: forestry; electrical production; and carbon credits. Carbon credits could possibly be the larger income of the three. Since this would probably be the only method of drawing down carbon, it would receive extra carbon credits.

A cost benefit analysis followed by a test site would answer many questions. Government funding for research and development is likely the only way to do a practical test. Governments attempting to reach greenhouse gas targets will likely be highly motivated to fund such a test project.

Ian Brander
1042 E. 20th Ave.,
Vancouver, BC
V5V 1N8

brander.ian@gmail.com

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