Be more energy efficient
Then there are the old-but-still-true things like turning off lights when you leave a room, using energy-efficient appliances (efficiently!) and avoiding flying. It might be overwhelming to contemplate weaning ourselves off fossil fuels completely, but reducing what we currently use is easily achievable. Those are ways to reduce carbon emissions. But the other way to deal with the physical problem is to seek ways to capture and store the carbon after it is emitted. This is much harder as it’s much more dispersed and it’s one argument in favour of electric cars; instead of many exhaust pipes there would (in theory) be only a few large generation sites.
Years ago I listened to Canterbury University’s Dr Susan Krumdiek deliver her ‘myth-busting’ lecture (see the box at right if you want to read it). One of her main points was that if you Google something and all you get is artist impressions of what it will look like, chances are it doesn’t exist. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) from coalburning, electricity-generating plants was one of the myths she touched on. Try a search of it, go to Google’s image option and you’ll see for yourself.
Storing carbon in trees (and other growing things) is valid and worth doing for a host of other reasons. We have to remember though, that a mature forest - whether it’s a fully-grown exotic one or Fiordland - cannot draw in more carbon. Only new growth does the job and then only if it is never chopped down, or if it is turned into something (like house framing) which will lock it in for hundreds of years. Eventually, of course, you run out of new places to plant, you start competing with other land uses, and no amount of re-forestation can address our current rate of carbon emitting anyway.
The best thing to plant, I heard recently, is natives as their habitat slowly moves south (as it gets warmer). There used to be a school of thought that you should plant only local seed stock, but climate change may modify that view too.
The spin-offs from planting can be many: it can double as shelter, control the loss of water (retention or evaporation), encourage biodiversity, and it’s selfgenerating: the birds come, scatter seeds and the seeds self-select. Well, sometimes. On our block it seems that hawthorn is pretty good at selecting itself.
The change in ground cover also leaves less area to manicure, often saving fossil fuels in the process.
The downside - and this is from personal experience - is the need to maintain, prune, thin and de-weed those trees. These can be satisfying tasks with a lot of attendant feel-good factor about them, but they’re never-ending. We probably could have looked to benefit from the carbon-offsetting of our trees but chose not to do so because if you trace that ‘money’ through, chances are it would just initiate more fossil fuel use. Whatever we choose, our individual actions will have flow-on effects; if we’re not buying and consuming so much we might have more time on our hands. Or maybe not, by the time we’ve used it to plant all those trees, grow all our own food and travel more slowly.
If the world does indeed make a serious attempt to wean itself from fossil fuels, it’s going to be an exciting time. I’m
The Role of Science, Angela Merkel 1998 www.sciencemag.org/ content/281/5375/336.full
looking forward to solar panels efficient enough to mount on my bike, and to the application of solar energy to agriculture which would lend a whole new meaning to making hay while the sun shines. n