Guest blog: Can NYC become a leader in carbon removal?

Christophe Jospe is a consultant working with the Center for Carbon Removal, and a New York City resident. In this guest blog post, he explores opportunities for his city to become a leader in developing and deploying carbon removal solutions.

 

As a New Yorker, I am proud to say that New York comes in first in a lot of categories. Finance. Fashion. Food. Advertising. Theater. Music. The list goes on. So what if New York could become a leader in urban carbon removal?

Carbon removal solutions work by cleaning up excess CO2 from the atmosphere. And while it is increasingly clear we’ll need to remove CO2 in addition to rapid reductions to meet our bold climate targets, carbon removal solutions have received comparatively scant attention to date.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of things that cities can do today to put us on a pathway to enabling large scale removal in the future. Here are 7 ways that NYC can add “carbon removal” to its long resume of leadership.

#1: Planting more trees

Planting more trees is probably the most commonly understood way to remove carbon from the air. Last November, NYC Mayor DiBlasio planted the millionth tree as part of the million trees NY project. Also, the work unfolding at the NYC Lowline is showcasing the city’s ingenuity for making the first urban park that is completely underground.

Source: NYC Million Trees -- The planting of the 1 millionth tree in the Bronx.

Source: NYC Million Trees -- The planting of the 1 millionth tree in the Bronx.

But there’s a lot more that can be done and needs to be done. I caught up with Dr. Novem Auyeung, a senior scientist at NYC parks about how the parks thinks about carbon. “The thing people don’t always realize, is that you can’t just plant a tree and call it quits” says Dr. Auyeung. “You have to account for the carbon that gets the tree there and the maintenance of the tree. You have to look out for non-native invasive species. None of these solutions give instant gratification…” 

#2: Coastal ecosystem restoration

Good news is that trees aren’t the only plants that can sequester carbon. So too can wetlands, which not only are a great carbon sink, but they play a critical role in taking the brunt of large floods from hurricanes. Such "Blue Carbon" approaches often discussed as ways to restore, conserve, and manage ecosystems. The new $60m “Living Breakwaters” project is an example of a post-Sandy Blue Carbon restoration project that is able to connect both resilience and restoring ecosystems that can hold carbon. Not only does such a project slow coastal erosion, the reefs actively store about 4 times more carbon by area than forests!

Source: Rebuild by Design – “living breakwaters" project in Staten Island

Source: Rebuild by Design – “living breakwaters" project in Staten Island

 

#3: Biochar for urban gardens

About a third of the waste New Yorkers produce – over 1 million pounds - is organic. Much of this waste can be converted into a stable carbon form called biochar. Biochar can have a number of benefits beyond carbon sequestration, including healthier and more productive soil and better water retention. The city could turn some of its organic waste into biochar instead of letting it decompose, and offer discounted biochar to urban gardeners. Of the four gardeners I surveyed, none were using biochar today, but all seemed open to the concept. Time to get on it! 

#4: Urban Greenhouses using CO2 from the atmosphere

Even indoor agriculture can serve as a carbon sink. Urban greenhouses are popping up all around NYC, and they are hungry consumers of CO2. While greenhouses are currently getting their CO2 from fossil sources, a number of companies have large aspirations to “mine the sky” for CO2.  startups such as Infintree, Global Thermostat, Climeworks and Skytree are developing technologies that are being tested in greenhouses to feed CO2 to plants, which can eventually be scaled to provide CO2 for myriad other applications, from fuel synthesis to underground storage. According to the owner of local NYC greenhouse operator Strata Farms, the option of CO2 from the atmosphere seems like a no-brainer, and an important fit for the growing indoor agriculture movement.

#5: Materials from mushrooms in your home

Carbon-sequestering agriculture doesn’t have to be all about food production either. Furniture, insulation, any structure that is as strong as wood, you name it, Ecovative can make it – out of mushrooms. Ecovative harnesses mushrooms to transform carbon in soils into building materials that lock carbon away in a safe and permanent form. Mushroom-based products can also help trees to stay in the forest and fossil fuels in the ground. New Yorkers already take pride in their LEED certified buildings, and they could take pride in structures that actively removed carbon and stored them in different forms. 

This board from Ecovative is made from mushrooms, not wood.

This board from Ecovative is made from mushrooms, not wood.

#6: Urban “enhanced weathering” in your dog park

“Enhanced weathering” of minerals is a twist on a slow moving process that naturally turns CO2 in the air into rocks. By crushing and grinding certain minerals, it’s possible speed up a CO2 removal process that naturally takes millennia into a human-relevant timescale. These crushed rocks can also be used as a carbon-sequestering substitute for a wide range of gravel products that cities use today. “Our material could work anywhere where you want to put gravel,” said GreenSand founder Bas Zeen. “Parks, beaches, railbeds… you name it!” When I was in a dog park chatting with a fellow dog owner about what she thought about having a carbon negative dog park with enhanced weathering she loved the idea.

Source: “amusing planet” – ground olivine which can store carbon with enhanced weathering

Source: “amusing planet” – ground olivine which can store carbon with enhanced weathering

#7: Algae lamps in the club

Forget lightbulbs. Someone needs to open up a club that uses algae powered lamps. This technology requires no electricity and can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. When I asked the owner of the Belfry – one of my favorite local establishments whether he would buy one, his response was “I’d be open to it. Anything that gets millennials in the door and is a draw is a good investment from our end.”

Source: Europa -- artist rendering of a potential algae lamp

Source: Europa -- artist rendering of a potential algae lamp

Bottom line: NYC has lots of potential opportunities to be a leader in the carbon removal space, show its citizens that there are untapped climate solutions in the ground under our feet and lights above our head. By demonstrating that we can enact these solutions today to gain valuable information for the future,  cities such as NYC can pave the way for a future where we clean up more carbon from the air than we emit.

--Christophe Jospe