Thank god for Al Gore's new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. It has lots of people inspired to do something and is going to have a big impact on raising awareness on global warming. Even people who have been giving the same talk for some time come out inspired. I am even ready to junk my Powerpoint slides (obtained from the same scientific source as Al) and use his very polished ones.
Here in Canada, as in the States, our newspapers are full of suggestions for wonderful scientific solutions and new technologies for ridding the earth of its excess C02. There are articles suggesting (expensive) ways to remove C02 directly, storing it underground. Wouldn't that be nice. A system that would grab C02 directly from the atmosphere and bury it! Just think, we could go around merrily burning fossil fuels in our gas guzzlers and leave the lights on -- all without guilt.
Well, as it turns out, that feat has already been accomplished. An incredibly sophisticated and elegant means of removing C02 from the atmosphere, one that is solar-powered, is already on the job. It is called "photosynthesis" and it is the basis of all life on Earth. Photosynthesis removes from the air the carbon (as C02) that forms the backbone of life, and harnesses from the Sun all of the energy that powers all life on Earth -- from blue whales to humans to hummingbirds. The photosynthetic processes of healthy ecosystems remove vast tonnages of C02 from the atmosphere. A tree is a Carbon machine. It is a fact that the healthy forest ecosystems of Western Canada remove and store carbon like no place on Earth. (See "The Golden Spruce" John Gallant, 2005.)
Unfortunately, our ecosystems are falling behind. The Ecosystem Millenium
Assessment, sponsored by the U.N. and released in 2005, noted that 60% of the world's ecosystem services, which include climate regulation, are degraded. It is no coincidence that as more ecosystems are impaired and fail, atmospheric C02 levels continue to rise.
Faced with the array of technological fixes in the Globe June 3rd article, Mr. Bennett of the Sierra Club is quoted as querying whether it "wouldn't be easier to reduce our use of fossil fuel." Well, it turns out not to be so easy. In fact, since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in Rio, fossil fuel development and use, and associated emissions, has continued to rise unabated. The current ramping up of Oilsands activity in Alberta to feed our North American oil habit is not going to be stopped by either Kyoto, or any other policy instrument -- current and past governments has made this fact very clear.
Given the fact the generation of C02 from the use of fossil fuels globally is going up, not down, for the foreseeable future, there is one action that we can take with no regrets, and that is to begin restoring our degraded ecosystems, starting at home. There is no shortage of degraded ecosystems to work on, and the direct benefits will be plentiful: restored habitat & native biodiversity; invasive species management; enhanced air quality; and education and recreation for our children. And to the benefit of current and future generations, a draw down of many millions of C02 and its storage in long- lived forest ecosystems, while we search, find, and develop the holy grail of clean, emissions-free energy.
By some estimates, if we were to plant a few Amazon sized forests (a gargantuan, but not impossible task) we could reduce C02 emissions sufficiently to live the way we do and reduce carbon to acceptable levels. Naturally, we should do whatever we can to cut down on fossil fuel use and move to more sustainable energy sources. I am an optimist and believe human ingenuity will be able to get there. But as we gear up science to tackle clean energy generation, shouldn't we move towards doing things we know work, require no new technology, and have only massive benefits?
Let's get out there and plant forests on a massive scale, one that has never been seen before, in the best and fastest growing areas and our cities first. How about reforestation targets for the major polluting nations? Also, that's why offsetting and carbon trading make sense. They provide the economic engine to get business to support reforestation, which could be the quickest way to reverse global warming.
(Jointly with Robert Falls, CEO, Ecosystem Restoration Associates, Vancouver)