Silver Linings, Not Silver Bullets

Summary: Many carbon removal techniques have benefits beyond storing carbon, touching upon health, agricultural vitality, and non-climate environmental services. These benefits can provide justification to accelerate the deployment of carbon removal systems by providing a stage for advancing carbon removal solutions and increasing engagement in broader climate change conversations, even if the carbon removal potential of these systems is currently uncertain and/or expensive.

Carbon removal solutions are not a “silver bullet” solution that will fix the problem of climate change, as most carbon removal solutions face significant obstacles to reach scale in a swift, sustainable, and cost-effective way. Nevertheless, it is critical that we accelerate the pace of development for carbon removal solutions in order to curtail climate change. The "silver lining" in this situation is that carbon removal systems frequently offer co-benefits beyond carbon sequestration. Even when some carbon removal projects offer uncertain carbon sequestration potential, these co-benefits can make investments in carbon removal systems a no-regrets strategy. In the process, these early investments in carbon removal systems can provide a platform for critical research and development on the carbon sequestration potential of various carbon removal solutions. In this post, I highlight a few of these “no regrets” carbon removal co-benefits that can be explored and implemented to benefit much more than the climate.

Health

Three billion people worldwide cook over open flame cookstoves, and the fumes from these cookstoves, according to a National Geographic Study, are responsible for the largest environmental health threat in the world today, killing 3.5 million people a year.

A woman in TikTik Kaanu, Nicaragua cooks over an open flame indoors. - Photo credit: Giana Amador

A woman in TikTik Kaanu, Nicaragua cooks over an open flame indoors. - Photo credit: Giana Amador

Efficient stoves can decrease this indoor air particulate matter and carbon monoxide by 92% and 87% respectively, compared to cooking over an open fire. These stoves also decrease the amount of fuel (typically wood)  used in cooking, saving money, time, and forests. For these reasons and others, thousands of NGOs already work on cookstove projects. Few, however, work on integrating biochar into the stoves (biochar is pyrolyzed biomass that has recently been hailed for its potential to store carbon over long time horizons). Beyond the benefits of traditional clean cookstoves, biochar stoves produce a soil amendment after the cooking process that can work to increase soil fertility in home gardens or be sold as an alternative source of revenue for the rural poor. Coupling biochar cookstove projects with scientific tests around the carbon sequestration of biochar in soils can lead to significant improvements in health while providing critical information on the potential of biochar systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Agriculture

Managing agricultural lands using specific strategies like no-till, grazing management, compost, and many more can potentially add significant amounts of carbon to the soil. These increased stocks of carbon increase the soil's water-holding capacity and maintain water in streams and reservoirs, something especially relevant during periods of drought -- including California’s current water crisis. For example, data from the Marin Carbon Project suggest that adopting carbon-sequestering farming practices could reduce the “climate water deficit” (a measure used to quantify the degree to which plants cannot obtain the water they need) by greater than 25% in California. These methods can also decrease soil erosion and salinity, and create thriving feedstocks for grazing animals. Further, with these techniques, farmers can save money by avoiding now unnecessary, synthetic inputs. Further field tests of these systems on the basis of more resilient agriculture can provide critical information about the true long-term carbon sequestration potential for the agricultural sector, and how we can optimize these systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere at scale.

Photo Credit - Giana Amador

Photo Credit - Giana Amador

Environmental Services

As an added benefit, potential carbon removal techniques such as afforestation, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration, can provide valuable environmental benefits. Beyond providing thriving habitat for often endangered wildlife, sequestered carbon in soils can increase soil biodiversity, providing valuable ecosystem services, including natural water purification, pollution filtration, and cultural services. These "natural capital" benefits from thriving ecosystems are enough to warrant implementation on their own, yet importantly enable and advance for carbon sequestration science.

Conclusion

Including the co-benefits to society beyond carbon abatement potential in policy and investment decisions is not unique to carbon removal systems, as many more established greenhouse gas abatement strategies have been promoted for reasons beyond their carbon sequestration potential. If this thinking were extended to carbon removal systems as well, we could find more support for the critical early deployments that will enable research and development to help society understand the potential of carbon removal systems across industries, in the process helping to transform our economy to be more sustainable and equitable along the way.


Think I missed an important co-benefit? Leave it in the comments!