Emitting greenhouse gas is like dumping trash in the town square. So why aren’t we cleaning it up?

Emitting greenhouse gas is like dumping trash in the town square. So why aren’t we cleaning it up?

I’m a forester, and I’m dedicated to avoiding catastrophic climate change, something that feels like a fatal car crash happening in very slow motion. In 2016, I spoke to Professor Klaus Lackner, an expert on removing carbon from the atmosphere. He fundamentally changed the way I think about the problem.

It’s a waste management problem

Prof Lackner doesn’t think of emissions as pollution. For him they’re waste and climate change is a waste management problem. We need to look at the stock of greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, not just how quickly we're adding more.

Emitting greenhouse gas is like dumping trash in a public square. Cutting emissions is great, but it’s like cutting your rubbish by 20% and then dumping what’s left in front of the town hall. In addition, cutting your rubbish output doesn’t stop the pile growing. We need to reduce the size of the trash heap before it smothers us. We need to start the clean up. And we need to start now while we still have a chance.

So how do we do it?

Reducing the trash heap

Protect forests and grow more trees. If left standing, forests will continue their good work, pulling carbon from the atmosphere. At the same time, we can plant trees, change the way we farm to return carbon to the soil, and use technology to pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Prof Lackner and a few other researchers around the world are focused on carbon extraction technology. If trees are the horses of carbon extraction, the researchers are focused on building a carbon-extraction tractor, something faster and more powerful than a horse.

What can I do?

Taking responsibility for my emissions

When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a large mammal threatened with extinction. I also wonder how much I’ve added to the greenhouse gas trash heap over the course of my life.

I decided to take a stab at answering this question and came up with a figure of 700 metric tons of CO2 (tCO2). To get there I multiplied the average per capita emissions by the number of years I’ve lived in various countries - to calculate your own use these per capita emissions numbers*.

With my personal 700 tCO2 figure in hand, I decided to dedicate myself to removing that quantity of CO2 from the atmosphere. If I can do that, I can claim to have added nothing to the emissions trash heap.

I’m going to invest $10 per tCO2, $7,000 in total, in forest conservation, tree planting and soil carbon to get my greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. It’s a kind of self-imposed retrospective carbon tax with actions attached to it.

Is $10 per tCO2 enough? Emissions experts South Pole estimate carbon capture with trees and soil might cost $10 per tCO2, but it could be more. Once I get going I’ll know more.

Spread over 3 years, $7,000 comes out at $45 a week. I quit eating meat for environmental reasons. What I save a week from not buying meat will cover most of this.

So that’s my personal emissions, but what about my professional ones?

There will be some overlap between work and personal, but I’m okay with a little double counting.

I founded The Forest Trust (TFT) 19 years ago but had no idea how much greenhouse gas it was responsible for. Luckily, South Pole were on hand to help. According to them, TFT has emitted 9,300 tCO2 since 1999. We were surprised to learn that we were the first organization ever to ask for this retrospective calculation.

So what are we doing about it?

Investing in carbon extraction

Our CEO, Bastien Sachet, has decided to invest $465,000 to pull this CO2 from the atmosphere. That’s $50 per tCO2. Why so much? While $10 per tCO2 might be enough, it’s very possible it won’t be. To be absolutely sure we get the job done we bumped the figure up to $50. This money will be invested over five years in forest conservation, tree planting, soil carbon and carbon capture technologies - we want to help researchers refine their carbon-extraction tractors.

We’re also talking to some of our members about them going retrospective too, to take their rubbish off the street. Imagine the impact if we can get big companies to invest in this – we remove carbon but we can also help people and Nature at the same time.

It seems like a wise investment to do your bit to get your carbon out of the atmosphere, your rubbish off the public trash heap.

Indeed, I ask myself, why wouldn’t you?

I’d be thrilled to discuss the notion of getting carbon off the public trash heap with you. Feel free to get in touch.

And just to strengthen that sense of urgency....tick tock, tick tock

* Based on CO2 emissions calculated by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center in the United States. These figures exclude other greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions from international shipping and air travel so they don't include everything. But it's a good place to start.

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