If you’re like me, you’re tired of hearing about climate change. We already understand that the threat is real. So all we really want to hear about now are solutions. And they had better be good ones because we are running out of time.
That’s why it came as a shock to me while reading Drawdown that Electric Vehicles aren’t expected to make all that much of an impact on climate change between 2020 and 2050. In fact, the best-selling book only expects EVs to “draw down” an average of .36 billion metric tonnes or “GT” of CO2 per year during this period. That’s only about 1% of the 40 GT of CO2 we humans currently dump into the atmosphere every year. This is largely due to predictions that only 16% of the 2 billion vehicles on the road by 2050 will be EV’s.
Don’t get me wrong. I love electric vehicles. But making a mere 1% impact on climate change after altering 16% of a significant market like cars demonstrates a very scary fact. We are not thinking big enough. Minuscule 1% changes won’t cut it. We need 10% changes and we need them fast. And I have one to propose: Make everything we can from plants.
If 16% of what the Industrial Sector makes were made from plants, in facilities powered exclusively by renewable energy we could draw down 3.564 GT or nearly 10% of man made CO2 per year. Now that’s a solution. It involves two measures of Carbon Sequestration and one measure of Carbon Avoidance.
CARBON SEQUESTRATION VIA MANUFACTURING
Carbon Sequestration is the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it away for an extended period of time. Via the process of photosynthesis, plants efficiently remove CO2 out of the atmosphere using free solar energy. By making what we need from plants, we lock up the carbon in plant material (which is derived from atmospheric CO2) into raw materials and products which can then be recycled indefinitely. So how much CO2 are we talking about sequestering into raw materials and products you ask? For those of you who like math, here is your answer.
Dried plant material is 45% Carbon. So every ton of dried plant material used to manufacture something contains .45 tonnes of Carbon. Every atom of that Carbon has an atomic weight of 12 and originally came from a molecule of atmospheric CO2 with an atomic weight of 44. To determine how much CO2 was removed from the atmosphere to make that carbon we divide 44 by 12 and then multiply that result by .45. So every ton of dried plant material used to manufacture something sequesters 1.65 tonnes of CO2.
The Industrial Sector produces roughly 7 billion tonnes of raw materials and products per year. If 16% or 1.12 billion tonnes were made from plant material, we would be sequestering 1.85 GT of CO2 per year (1.12 GT X 1.65).
The body of the Renew Sports Car provides an excellent example. It weighs 200 pounds. But because it is made from hemp fibers and soybean resins, it sequesters 330 pounds of CO2.
CARBON SEQUESTRATION VIA CARBON FARMING
Roughly 20% of the carbon within a plant resides in its roots. If roots are left “in situ” or in the soil after being harvested all that extra carbon which was originally pulled out of the atmosphere is sequestered. As a result, 20% of the 1.85 GT described above, or .37 GT of CO2 can additionally be sequestered.
All materials have a manufacturing carbon footprint. Fiberglass, aluminum and carbon fiber in particular require large volumes of fossil fuels during processing. Plant material by contrast typically requires far less energy to produce. Manufacturing facilities which process plant material can readily be run on 100% renewable energy thereby avoiding CO2 generation. In addition, any time plant based materials are used by manufacturers instead of highly carbon positive materials additional CO2 is avoided.
The Industrial Sector currently contributes 21% of the 40 billion tonnes of man-made CO2 per year, or 8.4 GT per year. Carbon neutral manufacturing facilities designed specifically to process plant materials and run exclusively on renewable energy could accomplish a 16% reduction in that 8.4 GT figure and account for 1.344 GT of CO2 avoided per year.
TALLYING UP THE TOTAL DRAWDOWN
Sequestering CO2 by making 16% of what we consume from plants would draw down 1.85 GT per year. Practicing Carbon Farming techniques with the roots of those plants would sequester another .37 GT. And finally, operating carbon neutral facilities that process plant materials into raw materials and finished products would draw down another 1.344 GT for a total of 3.564 GT per year or 106.92 GT over 30 years. That’s not only 10 times more draw down than EVs but 19% more than the current leading draw down measure recommended in the book Drawdown.
Some might argue that plant material might not be all that carbon negative. After all, crops need fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides. And tractors need diesel fuel to plow and harvest. Yet Henry Ford needed nearly none of the above to grow the hemp he used to make his 1941 prototype. Hemp needs little assistance in thriving, and Mr. Ford used the fermented scraps from his hemp fields to power his Fordson tractors. I will have more to share about that in future articles.
Others might argue that making what we need from plants would increase costs and that is true…at least initially. New R&D and new infrastructure would be required, yes. But herein lies the opportunity of a lifetime should we choose to embrace it. We will forever need new raw materials, new products and new facilities to produce them. So why not provide incentives for manufacturers and consumers alike? Incentives helped establish the EV and Solar Panel markets. In this market the rewards of doing so will be much higher.
RECOGNIZING THE OPPORTUNITY
Once one has seen a great solution, it’s difficult to dismiss it. This 3.564 GT per year draw down measure which I call Agricultural Carbon Capture & Utilization or “ACCU” is entirely feasible. The DOE’s Billion Ton Study has already determined that this amount of plant material can be harvested every year just in the United States alone. And that’s without effecting food supply. Given that the USA has only 22% of the world’s cultivatable land, 3.564 GT is a very conservative number indeed as ACCU could be practiced around the globe potentially tripling or even quadrupling that figure. In addition, the calculations above are based on the Industrial Sector as it exists today, not 30 years from now. And clearly the demand for manufactured raw materials and products will expand right along with the population. Hence the question must be asked: Could ACCU one day draw down 10 GT or more per year? I suspect as much, but only if we aggressively execute the opportunity.
EXECUTING THE OPPORTUNITY
Making everything we can from plants is not a revolutionary idea. Henry Ford envisioned doing this 83 years ago, long before the climate crisis became apparent. Today, ACCU might just be our best tool for addressing it.
I would appreciate your thoughts on the matter, especially if you are an expert in the climate sciences. If I have made some incorrect assumptions or calculations, please correct me.
If you already make raw materials or finished products from plants please contact me. Let’s calculate together just how much CO2 your products could be drawing down. And if you are a manufacturer and are interested in making even a small percentage of your product from plant material I would like to help you succeed.
Finally, if you are versed at writing proposed legislation let’s get together. Both the Electric Vehicle and Solar Energy industries have prospered due to governmental support and consumer tax credits. I think it’s imperative that we start working with our law makers to provide similar incentives to both consumers and manufacturers who want to help save the planet.
About the author:
Bruce Michael Dietzen is the founder of CarbonNegative.Technology and the designer and builder of the Renew Sports Car which is the first car made of hemp in the USA since 1941. He can be contacted at email@example.com