So crazy, it might work

Itʼs hard to watch this monthʼs news coverage on the destruction of this yearʼs hurricanes (weʼre up to Otis now) and not think about man-made climate change.

For those who remain defiantly unconvinced, or those rusty on the details, hereʼs the quickest summary I can make.

  • In an ideal world, plants, trees, and some algae use the energy in sunlight to convert atmospheric CO₂ into complex molecules.
  • Us larger animals and most bacteria burn those complex molecules (either in our fireplace or our gastrointestinal tract) and convert them back to CO₂, to be reabsorbed by plants again. This is called the carbon cycle, since apart from the energy we get from the sun itʼs largely a closed system.
  • However, us humans also burn coal and oil into CO₂. Because the carbon wasnʼt part of the cycle before we took it out of the ground, weʼve added it to the system. The carbon cycle is now a carbon spiral.
  • Weʼve been very good at it: the average global CO₂ concentration has increased from 0.0280% by volume in 8.000 BCE to still 0.0280% in 1750 CE, to 0.0407% in 2017.
  • While this doesnʼt sound like much, this 40% increase in atmospheric CO₂ reduces the amount of heat our planet can radiate into space, so weʼre getting more energy from the sun than we can get rid of.
  • If you add more energy to a system than youʼre taking out, itʼll get hotter. Global average temperature increases steadily.
  • Increased temperature leads to more evaporation of sea water.
  • Hot air can carry more water. Air with more water in it is heavier, moving air thatʼs more heavy is more energetic, so moist air adds to the intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes.

The above list implies there are two things to be done if we want to reduce the number and intensity of hurricanes:

  1. We need to make the carbon cycle a cycle again (stop relying on fossil fuels).
  2. We need to find some way of removing carbon from the system.

Weʼre starting to head in the right direction on that first item: photovoltaic panels get cheaper every year, and battery technology continues to improve (so our devices will work at night as well, which is a definite plus). Our progress on item 2, however, leaves something to be desired. Hereʼs my hare-brained scheme for that one.

Charcoal.

We just make lots and lots of charcoal, and not burn it.

Sound crazy? Thatʼs because it is: Iʼm proposing we plant loads and loads of trees, wait for them to grow, cut them down, stick 'em in a furnace (preferably an electric one, powered by solar panels), and store the resulting charcoal anywhere. (Preferably somewhere away from open flames.) This charcoal is basically pure carbon thatʼs not taking part in the carbon spiral anymore. As long as we donʼt burn it, weʼve removed it from the system.

How many trees, you say? Well, letʼs set a goal for our current annual CO₂ emission, and do some napkin math.

  • The Netherlands currently emit about 163 Megatons of CO₂ per year. [1]
  • The carbon atom in a CO₂ molecule only accounts for 27% of its mass, so weʼre “only” pumping about 44 Megatons of carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Wood is about 40% carbon by mass. ( estimates vary - weʼre ballparking here )
  • A modestly sized pine tree weighs about 3 metric fucktons.
  • Therefore, accounting for some loss along the way, we can extract about 1 ton of carbon from a single tree.
  • Weʼd need to convert 44.000.000 trees every year to net zero carbon globally.
  • A tree needs about 20 years to grow to full size, so weʼd need to have 880.000.000 trees in our absorption forest (of which weʼd cut down and replant 5% each year)
  • Assuming 65536 trees per km² (a nice round number, but according to [2] itʼs not far off) this forest would be just under 13.500 km².
  • So, to prevent the sea levels from rising, weʼd need to convert about a quarter of our exclusive economic zone in the North Sea into land just to fit our Emission Absolution Forest.

Crazy expensive, but ultimately doable. Letʼs try again for global emission levels!

  • Globally, we emit about 36 Gigatons of CO₂ per year, so now weʼll need to convert 30.000.000.000 trees every year.
  • The Global Emission Absolution Forest (GEAF) would need to span 600.000.000.000 trees, which would make it just over 9 million km², or about the surface area of the United States.

So there you have it. If we converted the entire US into a giant pine forest and if every person on earth planted five trees each year and converted five mature trees into pure carbon and stored it somewhere safe, humanity could net zero emissions today.

Yeah, weʼre screwed.